The 2012 Amgen Tour of California - It's not too early to start guessing
With six months until the 2012 Amgen Tour of California it's time to weigh in on who will win.
Love was in the air this past week in the cycling world. Brent Bookwalter of Team BMC Racing exchanged wedding vows Saturday. Also walking down the aisle was Team Saxo Bank's Alberto Contador marrying his long-time novia Macarena Pescador. This was followed by a brief honeymoon in Rome. However, if the upcoming CAS ruling doesn't go his way he might have a two-year extension on that romantic get away.
In interviews Contador claims to be calm about the upcoming season and seems to have learned from his mistake of tackling the Giro d' Italia and the Tour de France in the same season. The Giro is a tough mistress and riders won't have the energy to cheat on her with the Tour de France. Contador and other riders are realizing that they need to make a commitment between these two Grand Tours. And if one of these Grand Tours goes badly, there's always the Vuelta a Espana waiting in the wings, willing to take you back no matter how many times you've cheated on her with other national tours. If riders are deciding to stay loyal to the Tour where will they race during May?
Just released this week was the start and end cities of the 2012 Amgen Tour of California. While the exact route hasn't been finalized it has been theorized that this edition could be the toughest. Kicking off May 13th this eight-stage race will start in Santa Rosa and finish in Los Angeles in undoubtedly a circuit type of stage in the downtown area. In between those two stages the racers will face 750 miles of racing with a few changes to the plot. Wisely, Lake Tahoe was taken off the route as we all know what happened last year - or to be more exact - what didn't happen. A snow storm came in causing the stage to be canceled and the following day's start was moved out of town. A bold experiment, but one that wasn't fully investigated as those types of storms are not uncommon. But like the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
While the time trial still looks to be a pivotal stage in the race, it has been moved out of the sleepy town of Solvang to Bakersfield - most notably known for being the hometown of country singer Buck Owens and the Dwight Yoakam song, "Streets of Bakersfield." I feel confident enough to state that the race against the clock will feature the climb out of the bluff near the Bakersfield college campus - the same one the riders faced in 2010 when the stage ended in this desert city. While not a hard ascent, it will cause significant time gaps in the field. Another factor in Bakersfield is the possible atmospheric conditions. During the month of May the average temperature in Fahrenheit is 83 degrees (28.8 Celsius) - not exceedingly hot, but the only shade riders will find in this desert city is from one of the many oil pumping machines that dot the landscape.
After the race of truth on the streets of Bakersfield, the peloton shifts into smaller gears for the San Gabriel Mountains. Stage 6 finishes in Big Bear and there's no reason to believe that the route will change too much from when the race first tackled that region in 2010. That year the race summited the mountain followed by a rolling ten miles across its spine to finish in the parking lot of the Big Bear ski station. Not a true mountain top finish, but enough to further widen time gaps.
Once again the Queen stage has to be Mount Baldy. I'm originally from near that area and the climb is a slice of hell. The gradient varies from steep to "oh my God this is terrible" steep. In 2011 Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer made it look like a RadioShack training ride and dropped Andy Schleck. As we saw just months later Schleck was able to return the favor in the Tour, but that's a whole different story left for another time ... There's not a whole lot of options to end the stage if Baldy is on the menu so don't expect any major tweaks from the 2011 version.
I like the decision to end the Amgen Tour of California in the City of Angels. The local media from all the major networks will be out in full force, which is what race organizers AEG really want. Sure it's important that the cycling media is there, but we don't hit all the important demographics the advertisers want. L.A. is a major television market with millions of potential eyeballs tuning in to watch. Let's hope it gets better ratings than it did this year. With Lance Armstrong retired compounded by the ongoing doping investigation, cycling's Golden Boy might have left a damper on the sport which could take years to overcome.
So who will show up in the Golden State next May? If Contador escapes from his possible ban (and I expect that he will) look for the Spaniard to be there with his Saxo Bank boys. They ride Specialized bikes whose HQ is also located there. Another Specialized bike team is the Quick Step squad which will be led by three-time Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer. Second place this year means he's motivated to move up one step. With the RadioShack team split this will cause an interesting dynamic. That said, Horner might be playing second fiddle to his new teammate Andy Schleck. But if history shows us anything, the Schlecks are here to build their form so they can ride into Paris in second place. Again. Also motivated is third place finisher Tom Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo. His ninth place in the Tour de France has got him thinking of bigger and better things. Let me put a possible scenario into your head - Tommy D rides well again in California and then makes the move in France finishing top five. Crazy? I don't think so. All it takes is that one break through year and 2011 was his. One person who I think is a spoiler for the overall is Liquigas-Cannondale's Peter Sagan. I feel that 2012 is his year to shine. His overall finish doesn't reflect his capabilities.
I asked Rory Sutherland who he liked for the overall in Amgen Tour of California, "It's November Neil! It's six months away!" Very true, but give me a break Rory - it's the off-season and I have to write about something, otherwise I'm left to troll Twitter for information about Tejay Van Garderen's Las Vegas bachelor party. What goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas ...