Many of the host cities for 2013 are familiar - only three locations for stage starts or finishes are new this year. But with seemingly small changes the route organizers have turned the race on its head and delivered some nice surprises while keeping the general theme of close to the coast, pretty views, and plenty of climbing. California has been building itself over the past several years, undergoing a transformation from an early season training race to a legitimate target for international riders. Covering approximately 750 miles (1,215km) over eight stages with two testing summit finishes and a time trial that should favor all rounders or climbers over the pure chronomen, this year's race is already shaping up to be a feather any self respecting climber would want in his cap.
Gone are the summit finishes at Big Bear Resort and atop Mount Baldy. Instead of long, uphill drags, these have been replaced with shorter, punchier climbs in Greater Palm Springs and to the top of Mount Diablo. The time trial is no longer a flattish or rolling affair either with a stout climb to the finish of the time trial. Stage 2 traverses 126.1 miles (204.3km) from Murrieta to Greater Palm Springs with a substantial climb midway through the stage, though this only serves as an appetizer for the final 3.8 mile (6.1km) climb to the finish in the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway parking lot. Those final six kilometers kick upwards at an average gradient of 9.3%, favoring the more lithe among the climbers. Stage 7 is another for the climbers with the also new finish atop Mount Diablo, a 4.5 mile (7.4km) climb which repeatedly kicks over 15% in the final two kilometers. Paging Robert Gesink?
These two stages, along with the 19.6 mile (31.7km) time trial on Stage 6, should prove all the action the general classification riders should want. The time trial starts with a climb, followed quickly by a flattish loop through the land of lakes and golf courses. The fun, however, is all reserved for the final three kilometers of the stage, which average near 10% and kick into the double digit gradients several times. One wonders if riders will want their time trial bikes for this stage or a modified aero road frame. I wish we would be treated to a number of cyclocross style bike changes at the foot of the last climb as Lars Boom used to devastating effect to win the time trial stage at the Tour of the Mediterranean, but I doubt many riders will be so bold.
With three stages set aside for the climber types, the remaining five are largely peace offerings to the sprinters for sending them up such devilish climbs in the other stages. But, in true California fashion, there is always enough climbing to make things interesting and keep us guessing as to whether a breakaway will win or whether the sprinters will latch back on to the peleton on the plunge from the final climb and be able to win the day. Uphill shenanigans begin on Stage 1 with a climb over Palomar Mountain on on a 104 mile (169km) loop starting and finishing in Escondito. The climb summits over 5,200 feet, a substantial 4,000 feet above its surroundings. 1,200 meters is a long way to climb, though at least 40km is also a long way to the finish so we won't see any GC fireworks here.
Stage 3 from Palmdale to Santa Clarita (111.8 miles / 181.1km) follows the same script with a long, though not as daunting, climb summiting some 30 kilometers from the stage finish. Both stages have much potential for excitement, even if it is merely waiting on the edge of our couches to see what victory salute Peter Sagan will use next. Stage hunters will certainly want to prevent this though and these are the two days where breakaways stand the biggest chances of succeeding.
The remaining three stages - 4, 5, and 8 - should all end in bunch sprints with all big names present and accounted for. Stage 4 from Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara (84.7 miles / 137.2km) has climbing early on in but runs along the beach in the second half of the stage. If you look closely, you may find our erstwhile editor Gavia (aka. Jen See) surfing or sipping an espresso in a cafe near the stage finish. Stage 5 runs north from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach, which should be 116.4 miles (188.6km) of block headwind and flat but terribly scenic roads. If that doesn't spell S-P-R-I-N-T, I don't know what does. The final stage (86.2 miles / 139.7km) showcases the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco early before finishing on a circuit in Santa Rosa. Everybody involved - particularly the promoters - will be hoping the weather is better than the fog shrouded 2011 crossing of the famous landmark.
Scenery wise, it is hard to go wrong with hosting a race in California - wineries, winding coastal highways, and conifer shrouded climbs make for a compelling combination of scenes. Nailing the balance within the race has been harder, though. The slog to the top of the Big Bear climb, as iconic as it is in California, did little to create drama beyond wondering how many people would miss the time cut. This year, the GC stages are punchier, but not so steep nor long as to kill suspense. Time gaps at the end of each stage will be real, but not insurmountable in the days to come. And with real racing for the overall stretching from the beginning to the end of the race, the scene is set for captivating fans early on and keeping them interested. There is no doubt the race would play into the hands of the men who ran it last year, the Dutch climber Robert Gesink and Slovakian sprinting / strongman sensation Peter Sagan, but why should it not? The racing was thrilling last year and this year's course changes should only make things better. Gesink will be racing the Giro d'Italia instead this May, but expect another climber - perhaps Tejay van Garderen or even Fabio Duarte - to come and plunder the GC chest this year.