Preview: Tour Of California 2016

The Amgen Tour of California enters its second decade in 2016, this being the 11th edition of the race. Usually it’s a sprint fest with a key G.C. stage or two plus a time trial, but this year the course is much more suited to the puncheurs of the peloton, with fewer chances for the pure fast men. It is the premier stage race in the US, followed by the USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah – so it’s no surprise that the US world tour teams and major US riders are all present. Since 2010 it has been held in May (originally it was in February), so it has to compete with the Giro to attract the big names; however that hasn’t hindered the racing, and last year’s edition was one of our favourite stage races of 2015. Awkwardly, the title sponsor Amgen produces the drug Erythropoietin, also known as EPO! Presumably they don’t throw free samples out of the caravan ahead of the race.

General Classification Contenders

Rohan Dennis and Samuel Sánchez will be joint leaders for BMC this year. The Australian hasn’t had the successful spring that he did in 2015 having suffered from illness and only making his return at the Tour de Yorkshire. He will be favourite for the stage 6 time trial (with his main goal this year the Olympics), but he may fade on the climbs of the stage preceding this – his G.C. ambitions may be over before the race against the clock. Sammy Sánchez on the other hand has been in great form; fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and sixth at La Flèche Wallonne, plus sixth in G.C. at País Vasco. Team leadership will be decided on the climbs, but the Spaniard is in pole postion at the moment. They also have a very strong team with Taylor Phinney, Greg Van Avermaet, and Brent Brookwalter

Cannondale come with Lawson Craddock as the home nation’s favourite; he went well in País Vasco and Critérium International, with multiple top ten stage finishes against the best climbers, and finishing in the top 10 on G.C. in both those races. He’ll have support from Patrick Beven, who was tenth on G.C. at the Tour Down Under, as well as Tom Skujiņš, who won a stage here last year. Andrew Talansky is also here, but you have to feel sorry for him really; he seems to be the Matty Goss of G.C. riders, with his best days rapidly slipping behind him as he quietly slips down into a domestique role.

Arguably, Julian Alaphilippe lost last year’s Tour of California because Mark Cavendish was on his team; if Etixx-Quickstep hadn’t worked for the Manx man in the sprints then Alaphilippe would have had the support to take those last couple of seconds. The Frenchman surprised everyone on the climbs and lost out to Peter Sagan (who surprised everyone even more!). This year the team is solely focused on Alaphilippe for the G.C. After a tough winter suffering from mononucleosis, and recovering from that in the early part of the season, he came back strong with a second place at Flèche Wallonne. He should, therefore, be peaking at the right time for this race. If he can repeat his performances on the climbs like last year and limit his losses in the time trial, he will be hard to beat. A strong team of Petr Vakoç, Zdeněk Štybar, and Tom Boonen will be there to support.

Sky are an interesting prospect. A pretty B-string team, Gianni Moscon and Peter Kennaugh are the team leaders. Moscon has shown good form of late; seventh on G.C. at the Tour de Yorkshire, and third at Coppi e Bartali, after some strong support riding during the cobbled classics. The early climbs will show us if he has what it takes to compete with the best. Kennaugh won’t be able to, we don’t think, as he has more of a punchy finish than a pure climber’s build. Since his second on G.C. at the Herald Sun Tour and win at the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean Road Race back in February, he hasn’t really shown much good form.

Trek have a solid team, with last year’s sixth placed rider Haimar Zubeldia. Zubeldia always tends to do pretty well on the climbs here, though he suffers from a lack of consistency, and he’s no time trial specialist. He’ll have excellent support (or else a rival for the leader) from Julian Arredondo.

Outsiders include Laurens Ten DamGeorge BennettJurgen Van den Broeck, and Jacques van Rensburg.

US Teams

As this is the big US race, the main riders on the domestic teams will want to show that they can compete with the World Tour riders (and try and secure a few 2017 contracts with them!). Here are the main men to look out for:

Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly): He just won the recent Tour of the Gila, which is the big test for form before the world tour boys join for the Tour of California. A win on either stage 3 or 5 will be his aim though, as his TT will lose him time on GC. He’ll be keen to get back into the world tour, after being let go by Garmin last year.

Tao Geoghegan Hart (Aexon): He’s currently a stagiaire with Sky, so will be going up against his (hopefully) future team mates. He is one of the most exciting young British prospects, having been third at the Paris Roubaix junior race and winning the Trofeo Piva in Italy this year. Sixth at the Tour of the Gila, a top 10 G.C. placing here would be his aim.

Rob Britton (Rally): Third at the Tour of the Gila and someone who can climb, however like Morton his TT will let him down and so a top 10 on GC and stage win are his aims.

Daniel Alexander Jaramillo (United Health Care): Another young Colombian prospect! Won the mountains category at the Tour of the Gila and was fifth overall. Stage 3 will be his target here.

Sprinters

While there are fewer opportunities for the sprinters in this year’s edition, we’ll provide a run down of the fast men who will nonetheless feature:

Mark Cavendish looks to be enjoying life at Dimension Data with a stage win and the overall at the Tour of Qatar and a stage win at the Tour of Croatia. With the in form Germans Greipel and Kittel at the Giro, he’ll look to continue his success at the race.

Peter Sagan surprised everyone with his performances on Mount Baldy and in the TT at last year’s race to win the GC. He was never outside the top 10 on a stage and was only outside the top 5 once. After taking Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem in the spring he’ll be looking to build for the Tour here so expect another consistent performance from the world champion.

Alexander Kristoff had another dominant February in the desert, but since then he hasn’t had it his own way and didn’t get another win until De Panne. Recently he looks to be getting back into form so a mouth watering sprint battle is in prospect here!

Brian Coquard recently dominated the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, never finishing lower than second whilst taking the overall. He also has had a pretty decent classics campaign with top 5 placing at Amstel Gold, De Brabantse Pijl, and Dwars door Vlaanderen. We wouldn’t be surprised if he won a stage here.

Niccolo Bonifazio and Jasper Stuyven of Trek Segafredo are also a couple of riders who could spring a surprise on the expected Sagan/Cavendish/Kristoff battle. Stuyven hasn’t raced since the cobbled classics, where he took a fine solo win at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and was fifth at E3. His Italian team mate Bonifazio has been very consistent in 2016 with stage podiums in the Herald Sun Tour, Paris-Nice and Romandie and a fifth at Scheldeprijs — a win is not far away!

Wouter Wippert may have to fend for himself in the sprints, as Cannondale will be focused on the GC. He’s been close to a win on a few occasions now, at Tour Down Under and Volta Algarve but that was back in February. It will be tough to get on the podium here for him we think but still fancy his chances for top ten stage finishes.

Greg Van Avermaet will be returning from his broken collarbone sustained at the Tour of Flanders so it’s hard to expect much from him other than getting his form back in time for the summer races. But the he may be saving himself for the later stages, which suit his style.

John Degenkolb this is only his second race back after that terrible accident in January, so we can’t expect him to compete for wins, more to just be here to try and build up the racing kms in his legs before the Tour. Great to see him back though!

 

Stage 1

Although this is a stage for the sprinters, they will have to tackle the category 1 climb of Honey Springs Road (9.5km, 5.5%). Coming at the halfway point, 88kms, it’s too far out to ensure a break makes it to the finish but it will sap a lot of energy out of the legs of the riders.

Expect a bunch sprint between all the key names with it being hard to look past Sagan, Kristoff and Cavendish (if the climbs haven’t sapped his strength). Stuyven, Bonifazio and Coquard will be eager to challenge them and the Frenchman could be a surprise winner on the opening day.

 

Stage 2

Stage two brings another flat finish, but after four categorised climbs. Compared with the previous day the climbing is constant throughout the stage and the final categorised climb is 40km from the finish, with a few sharp ramps up still after that.

The fact that it’s also a short stage means that the pace will be fierce, so we could see riders being spat out the back early on as they ascend the category 1 climb of Angelest Crest Highway (14.1km, 5.1%) and then the category 2 Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road (7.9km, 4.5%), all in the first 50kms. After some respite on the long descent back down to the plains the riders turn off en route to the finish with around 40km still to go in order for them to tackle the category 2 climbs on Little Tujunga Canyon Road (5km, 6.9% and 2.3km, 7.6%). After these it’s downhill for a lumpy 24.5km to the finish in Santa Clarita.

The amount of climbing will shake off the pure sprinters like Cavendish so we expect this to be between Sagan, Kristoff and possibly Stuyven and Coquard. The profile also makes it look like a possible break away day or late attack, so look out for the likes of Stybar, Haas and Søren Andersen.

 

Stage 3

It’s only stage 3 and we’re already at the Queen stage of this year’s race, unlike last year when it was on stage 7. Those not strong in the stage 6 time trial will need to force gaps here as well as the domestic team’s key climbers wanting to steal the glory on top of Gibraltar Road.

Raced along the coast for the majority (so there is great potential for peloton-splitting crosswinds), there are two early climbs, both category 3, up Potero Road (1.4km, 6.9%) and Westlake Boulevard (3.2km, 7.8%), so those riders targeting the KOM jersey will be off from the gun and will likely stay away until after the category 3 climb up Casitas Pass Road (3km, 5.7%) at 121km mark. After that the focus will be on Gibraltar Road (12km, 8%)

It’s the only summit finish of the race, so expect the likes of Morton, Britton, Hart and Jaramillo to be fighting it out with Craddock, Sánchez and Alaphilippe.

 

Stage 4

The first of two 200km+ days for the riders and also the penultimate chance for the non-TT GC contenders to gain time before stage 6, but this looks like one for the puncheurs rather than climbers.

The riders will roll along the scenic but undulating Highway One for most of the stage, so crosswinds again could be a factor. There are three category 3 climbs: 72km (2.8km, 4.3%), 77km (3km, 4.7%) and 142km (2.2km, 5.4%). After this any remaining break away will start to get reeled in and the race should all be back together after the intermediate sprint at 190km. They turn inland just before the city of Monterey as they head to climb the category 2 climb of Laureles Grade (5.5km, 5.7%) 8km from the finish and then, after a short descent, the category 3 Mazda Raceway climb (1.1km, 10.3%). From there its a 2.5km flat dash to the finish. 

This too has the EQS duo Alaphilippe and Vakoç names written all over it, and they could employ the same tactics as they did in De Brabantse Pijl. Greg Van Avermaet will also be targeting this, and you can’t count out Sagan. The domestic teams might struggle to keep pace over this distance with the World Tour teams so it’ll be interesting to see who their highest placed riders will be.

 

Stage 5

Another 200km+ stage and another one for the puncheurs. After a flat first 50kms out of Lodi the riders will climb constantly for almost 100km along the Carson Pass Road but with no KOM at the top, cresting it will be somewhat anti-climatic. However there are two categorised climbs in the following 20km, the category 2 Kirkwoods (3.9km, 6%) and Carson Pass (4.7km, 4.6%). What then follows are more undulating roads along to South Lake Tahoe to the finish on a category 3 summit.

This looks like it could be another duke out between Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet, as both will excel on the upward sprint to the line. Due to the gradual nature of the climbs the other sprinters who remain in contact and Bonifazio, Stuyven and Coquard will also be looking to contend here.

 

Stage 6

Unlike in previous editions, where the race has been decided on a summit finish, its to be a TT that decides the GC.

This is the same course that Bradley Wiggins dominated on his way to winning the overall in 2014. It’s a 20.3km out-and-back course along the Folsom Lake and is all about power, rather than technical bike handling. The riders will ascend on their way to the time check on Green Valley road and the descend back down to the finish in Folsom.

This looks to be between Wiggins, Dennis and Phinney. Wiggins beat them both in 2014 by  44 and 52 seconds respectively, but we doubt he can do that again. Machado, Sinkeldam and Sánchez could be outsiders for this, but the fact that its longer and less technical than 2015 mean we won’t see a repeat of a Peter Sagan stage win.

 

Stage 7

The pure sprinters have had to wait for another shot at a win and yet here there are still six category climbs to get over before the contest starts proper.

The first climb of the day comes at 19.5km with the category 3 Harrison Grade Road (1.9km 6.9%). There is then around 20km of flat(ish) roads which lead the riders onto a quartet of climbs all coming one after the other over the course of 30km: Catagory 1 King Ridge Road (1.9km, 11.6), category 3 King Ridge Road (1.3km, 8.5%), category 2 Hauser Bridge Road (2.8km, 8.2%) and category 3 Seaview Road (1.8km, 7.2%).

With 52km to go the riders will reach the category 2 Coleman Valley Road (2.5km, 7.9%) after which they have few minor climbs to tackle before descending down to take on the laps of the street circuit in Santa Rosa.

Due to the lack of sprinter friendly stage in the race and given the fact that the bulk of the climbing is early on in the stage, the sprinters teams won’t want to miss this chance. With the GC all sewn up (you hope) after the TT, this could mean that teams like Cannondale and Sky could focus around their sprinters Wippert and Van Poppel. However the likes of Kristoff and Cavendish will be hard to beat. Sagan will also be there as will the Trek boys Bonifazio and Stuyven and Direct Energie’s Coquard. Could we also see John Degenkolb contest a sprint?

 

Stage 8

The sprinters finally get an easy run in on the final stage. Zero climbing means an all-out sprint will bring the curtain down on the 2016 Tour of California.

The shortest stage of the race at 138km starts and finishing in Sacramento.The riders head out of the city before turning back and returning to take on three laps of a flat 3.5km circuit.

As this is a fast street circuit I think we might see a fight between Cavendish, Coquard, and Wippert and the pace will be furious. The fairy tail end would be for John Degenkolb to make his return to the World Tour with a bang.

 

Picks

Andy: He’s backing Samuel Sánchez. BMC will want to go well in front of home crowds and Sánchez has been in fine form for most of the year.

Chris: Hasn’t a clue. He’s going with Peter Kennaugh.

James: Thinks that Julian Alaphilippe will go one better than 2015. Back to top form in the Ardennes, with his team now fully focused on him and the course more suited to his skill set – the stage is set for him to take his first big pro win

4 thoughts on “Preview: Tour Of California 2016”

  1. I really do enjoy your write ups. Suprise no mention of Tom Boonen for a surprise stage win and Cav is a far better climber than people give him credit.
    He could be something of a surprise as he himself has said he doesn’t want more bunch sprints but likes to race. His 30th in PR really went under the radar.

    1. I think Boonen sprint days are behind him, especially against this field. He peaked for Pairs Roubaix and will be riding in support of his team here, a cheeky break/late attack could be on the cards though. I certainly noticed Cav’s 30th at Roubaix, and do agree with you slightly about him on the climbs. However, like Wiggins, he has Olympic track ambitions and will carrying a bit more weight, so the climbs will be tough for him – quite happy to eat humble pie on this though!

    2. The course looks to be a corker and glad its less of a sprint fest this year. I also enjoy the mix of World Tour. Pro Continental and US domestic teams.

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