What have we learned about the Amgen Tour of California over the years? That it will be a fun race, sure. That it will help us determine who among the North Americans is on good form? Kinda. [It did in the early years, but we don't really want to go there.] That Peter Sagan will eat everyone's lunch? Definitely yes.
Which is why this year's crowd might make for a truly riveting week of action... when the road flattens out. Which it may never do again. Come, let's take a look at the Ninth Amgen Tour of California.
Every year the ATOC rolls out an entirely new course, so it'd be far quicker to say what is old. As to that., let's see... the north-to-south orientation returns. The Sacto stage has some familiar elements, as does the other bookend in Thousand Oaks. And in between, along with the obligatory postcard Highway 1 stage, Mount Diablo will once again have a lot to say about who wins the race overall.
Now, though, the time trial happens on stage 2, in Folsom, rather than allowing the suspense to develop before handing the GC over to the cronomen. And while the formula for number of MTFs is the same (two major ones), there seem to be an awful lot of hills along the way. The Santa Barbara stage includes a hump over San Marcos Pass (coming back to the coast from ol Solvang). The coastal stage is an up-and-down affair all day. The Angeles Crest/Pasadena stage is back, not counted on the MTF tally.
In all, this is a very selective route, and Peter Sagan will not be in contention for the overall after Day 2. I won't roll out stage details here; we'll have a stage post each day for that. But you can scroll through them here.
Hm, I'd say that it's a nicely balanced course which will invite lots of stage hunting along with a pretty decisive GC battle. You could see one rider lead all the way to Thousand Oaks from stage 2. Even better chance we see a single leader all the way from stage 3. The weather will be hot, apparently, though the first few days at least, meaning riders coming from Europe will have to shift into summer riding at the highest level right away to have a shot at the win.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
I'll say Mount Diablo, at the end of stage 3. It's not incredibly steep, but it comes at the end of a harder stage, on a steeper climb than the other major MTF, the Mountain High finish of stage 6. It also comes the day after the time trial, where the GC will be drastically shaken, so plenty of riders will be thinking of consolidating their lead or making up for lost time. Should be a great stage with real attacking happening. Also, I'm almost sure Peter Sagan won't win.
Whom Do I Need to Know?
Actually it'll be interesting to see if Sagan can dominate the stages as he has in the past. Today he faces a stage where the sprinters should be in the hunt, not one of those days where there's an autobus and he doesn't have the good grace to get in it. Mark Cavendish is there (with Tom Boonen for leadout), as is John Degenkolb, Matt Goss, Danny Van Poppel, and what the hell, Thor Hushovd. Actually Hushovd is interesting insofar as we might see more Sagan Stages, bunch finishes after significant climbs, but even there Sagan could have company from Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, and perhaps others.
As for GC, all eyes will be on Bradley Wiggins, the crono ace and former Tour winner. This course suits his strengths pretty well, and it's hardly the deepest field of climbers, butting up against the Giro d'Italia and missing all past winners, including 2013's Tejay Van Garderen. Peter Stetina is the designated leader for BMC, but he's hardly in Wiggins' class against the watch. Tom Danielson of Garmin could give Wiggo a fair fight. Laurens Ten Dam for Belkin? Seriously, who else has a chance?
Pick to Win
Wiggins. Too easy.