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Tour of Cali by the Number Six: Six Places to Watch

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Amgen Tour of California Podium Cafe How do we love America's Top Stage Race (until August at least)? Let's count the ways. In honor of its Sixth anniversary, let's run through the race's high points and key guys in groups of six. In this post, your six choicest spots to take in the action. This year's Amgen Tour of California features the first major mountaintop finish in the race's history, and if our own Jimbo's reconnoitering is any guide, virtually everyone will be eliminated from competition before the race is complete.

Lurves you some ATOC? Watch the pre-race press conference LIVE via CN! 2pm Pacific today! In about an hour or so!

Ranking:

1. Mount Baldy, Saturday 5/21

Long live the queen stage! At last, the ATOC has a bona fide signature route. Being California, there have always been solid climbs on the route, but only with the move of the race to May can the planners hope for an upper elevation finish. Of course, they have two of those... for now. This is the one that will stick though.

The official site's stage data is a garbled mess (anyone else having problems?), but check out Jimbo's post. Or for the short version, here's a profile:

Baldy_medium

The red bits are in excess of 10%, so you might think it gets harder as it goes on. However, a lot of the yellow parts are just barely under 10%, not enough to really notice. A fairer explanation is that the first 8km are manageable, and the next 12, apart from a few small breaks, are gonna hurt.

Action: This is, in short, the biggest single day of racing cycling has seen in North America since the last Brasstown Bald stage. And the race will be decided here.

Watchability: Plan ahead for the inevitable traffic nightmare. But on the mountain itself, the open grass-scapes will make for fantastic race views.

2. Sierra Road, Wednesday 5/18

Another uphill stage finish (though not high elevation), Sierra Road has featured in the last several ATOC's either very early or reasonably late in the stage. But for the first time, this 9% climb of over 5km is the stage-ender.

Action: Everyone from the usual suspects (Hincapie, Leipheimer, Horner, etc.) knows this road and will hit it hard.

Watchability: Time gaps may not be huge, but the crowds and the energy will be. They always are. Access should be better than Tahoe or Baldy.

3. Solvang, Friday 5/20

Time trials are good fun for the fans, since the action lasts several hours and the race most definitely matters. In past years the Solvang ITT was the Tour of Cali itself, as Levi Leipheimer racked up one forgettable win after another. Now the ITT, all 24km, is more of a hearty appetizer than the main course, but along with Sierra Road this stage will help arrange the deck chairs for the next day's Titanic stage. Oh, and the women run their elite TT that day too. Double your pleasure, Solvang!

Action: standard crono-ness. Guys and gals going by a lot. If the interval is less than one minute, then you've got news!

Watchability: fantastic. Ballard Canyon is the place to be, and not just because there are a pair of owls nesting in the big tree at the bottom of the initial climb. But the finish in Solvang will be throbbing with faux-Danish excitement. And personally I recommend downtown Los Olivos for another hot spot. Good coffee.

4. Sacramento, Monday 5/16

The best place to watch a sprint will be in the old Capital, a pretty urban setting for another traditional ATOC stage. Between the comfy relationship the town has with the race (helps when everyone knows the route), the fact that it's the first sprint, and the multiple circuits through town, this shapes up as the surest bet for a ripping finale. Later stages in Modesto and Thousand Oaks will perhaps be just as fun, but at least in Modesto the chance of a successful break is worth considering. Even more so for the long, undulating Paso Robles stage. Sacto is your best bet.

Action: high speed thrills!

Watchability: Urban setting cures all woes. Well, except parking.

5. Northstar at Tahoe, Sunday 5/15

If this stage happens, it should be bizarre. Snow is predicted on Sunday and nobody knows what the organizers have in mind right now. Historically lousy weather has often favored the bravest souls, sometimes dramatically so. Also, assuming you can get there, if you can't find a comfy place to sit and sip hot cocoa at a major ski resort, you aren't trying very hard.

Action: hard to predict, things could be seriously subdued by the weather. Bring the boards so the day isn't a total loss.

Watchability: Ski access road should be easy to deal with. Getting up to the resort... I dunno, my gut says plan ahead.

6. Mount Hamilton, Wednesday 5/18

Stage four's finish will garner more attention, so this is a distant sixth for the purposes of this exercise. Still, this climb is 6km at over 8%, 40km from finish. The fans should be out in force even if the race doesn't hit full flame here. Attacks will happen though, possibly one that sticks. Not being a Californian, I could be persuaded to change this spot to somewhere on Carmel Valley Road in stage 5, though that sounds more like a dreamy place to ride rather than watching others do it.

Action: climby goodness.

Watchability: underrated. Everyone will be at Sierra Road. Call this the Molenberg of Stage 4.