Amgen Tour of California: the Afterglow

The recently concluded 2010 edition of the Amgen Tour of California was easily the most exciting edition of the race, thanks in part to two of the hardest courses the race has ever undertaken, a field arriving with a great deal more fitness than could be expected in February and a host of real contenders who rode as if the race were the only goal of their season.

Surprisingly, I’ve heard some criticisms of the race coming from varied quarters. The criticisms are free-range: the race takes in too much of a large state; the organizers caved to team pressure and moved a stage start from an historic, crowd friendly and scenic location (Pasadena) to a wasteland (Palmdale); the time trial was made a mockery by the presence of Floyd Landis and pre-runs of the course by corporate big wigs and triathletes; the course was either too damn hard or the judges too unforgiving, which resulted in 37 riders being ruled hors delai between stages six and eight.

At least one thing is true beyond a doubt. After the DNFs and HDs, only 37 riders finished the Amgen Tour of California. I can’t recall a race that started 128 riders and finished less than a third of them. What’s unfortunate about this is how perception can be shaded as subtly as the chiaroscuro on the faces of the subjects of the Dutch masters. The difficulty of next year’s race course may turn on whether people (racers, directors, sponsors, fans) come to the conclusion that the race was harder than granite and cool, or harder than Rubik’s cube and unreasonable.

Which conclusion people draw may rest on the officials’ actions. Hors delai is a rule around which officials can exercise some discretion. Of the 80 riders that did not finish the race, 68 of them saw their race end on either stage six or stage eight. Of those, 37 didn’t finish because they were outside the time limit.

As many riders finished outside the time limit as finished the race.

While I haven’t checked just how deep prize money went, presumably money was left on the table due to the small number of finishers.

The DNFs were attributable to fatigue, crashes or other maladies, such as leg cramps, and claimed another 41 riders over the course of the race. Still, had 79 riders finished, more than six teams would have been listed in the final team GC. Only Garmin, Radio Shack, HTC-Columbia, United Healthcare, Team Type 1 and Bissell finished enough riders—three—to be counted on the teams classification.

The question for AEG is: How similar are ‘wow, really hard race’ and ‘whoa, that’s just stupid’? My guess is you can quantify the difference. I’d say it’s about 37.

By almost any standard, the Amgen Tour of California presented race fans with an extraordinary week of racing. Despite the HDs and DNFs, we saw a more competitive field with a higher overall level of fitness than in previous years.

I feel like I learned a few things about the teams present, such as: Danielson’s DNF means that once and for all, we won’t see him at the Big Show and if he’s released from Garmin, his next stop will be with some Continental team that needs a affordable former sorta star. Hesjedal’s stage win indicates the guy is getting stronger with each passing lunar cycle. Liquigas has some serious depth given that they, like Garmin, are managing to be competitive at two races at once. Team Jelly Belly is composed of cycling’s equivalent to suicide bombers. They didn’t win a single stage, but they figured in almost every significant break. They give new meaning to “die trying.” HTC-Columbia and BMC both must hope that their teams recover well after the Giro and Tour of California, otherwise they won’t have the depth necessary to support their GC men at the Tour de France. Oh, and watch out for Saxo Bank at the Tour; Andy Schleck generally looked like he was out on training rides.

I’ve seen a lot of racing over the years and I can say the final stage Amgen Tour of California was some of the most thrilling racing I’ve seen in person. While it didn’t carry the weight of a Grand Tour or Monument, it really was the next best thing. I’d hate to see it get watered down.

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25 comments

  1. Plod

    The Tour of California has for me, until this year, been something you read about on cyclingnews, and only then if nothing else took your interest. After watching much of the 2010 edition on local free to air (by the way, well done SBS) my opinion has changed.

    Padraig, this edition was definitely harder than granite and cool. I don’t know if it’s the fourth Grand Tour though…

    Stage 8 is what procycling should be about; fantastic scenery; massive attacks and masterly defending. Pity Hincapie didn’t take the victory.

    How much money was thrown around to lure the “A” teams away from the Giro?

  2. Brendan

    I’m all for a hard race, and I think this year was, more than in the past. But I didn’t think it was all that reasonable for time cuts to be made on the last stage. They made it that far. Let em finish.

  3. Lachlan

    I don’t think it has the history or epic performances to be the “4th grand tour” Needs to become more storied and established for that to happen.

    But I love it and welcome the ToC in a same way I love the newer pro teams like Garmin and Cervelo…. they bring a real freshness and new aspects of quality to the pro calendar. They’re different. In short, making it more interesting and professional. Bringing in more people, while allowing more fans to get up close to great riders really going for it.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    I wish no one would throw around the term “4th Grand Tour”; words have meaning, and some of them just need to be earned The ToC is growing into a nice race, but it is just a 1 week stage race, and not even close to a grand tour on many levels.

    It serves as an important race for some, and a pre- Le Tour training race for others. With some history, maybe it will deserve to be considered like the Dauphine, the Tour de Suisse, and what was the Midi Libere, but to refer to it as the 4th Grand Tour is total BS.

    Let’s appreciate it for what it is; a tough 1 week stage race that offers the North American Continental teams an opportunity to race against some Pro Tour and Pro Continental squads on home soil.

    As far as being too hard,it is up to AEG to figure out what they want, and how best to attract the proper mix of talent to achieve their goals. HDs are part of the game; if you want to end with a parade stage, that is fine, but if it is designed to be a decisive stage, and for the race to be considered a premier event, one shouldn’t expect quarter under normal circumstances.

  5. Souleur

    I agree w/Touriste-Routier: well said.

    I do find the May edition of the ToC to be a dichotomy of sorts, on one hand more fit competition, speeds were jacked up, interest was high. But, it competes w/the Giro and misses out on completely fulfilling a potential that this race can be. Its the sweet and sour taste that is left in ones mouth.

    I agree that we, Americans, must admit and accept that we will not in our lives experience a Tour de France, a Giro or a Vuelta here, but we can have great Continental racinga and given time and growth into a tradition/heritage, we could develop truly significant impacts in the pro calender.

    The Tour DuPont was a good one, the Tour of Georgia was a good one, the Tour of Missouri is/was a good one. I would love to see a revival of the Coors classic/tour of colorado, perhaps there is room for more yet.

    Lastly, I appreciate the observations you make Padraig. I agree the Schleck brothers are going to be a venerable force come July at the big dance!

    Sounds like you had a great time on the road.
    Did you ride any of the routing?

  6. Champs

    It’s true that hors delai is legitimate, even for the Big Bear stragglers, but for all the matches burned on stage 8, as I understand (haven’t finished watching), the riders willing to finish it out should be rewarded. The race officials should have been more straightforward about points (not) awarded on the TT course as well.

    I agree that Saxo Bank is the team to look out for. It bears repeating that if there’s going to be a year when the Schleck brothers have a chance of winning the TdF, this is it. Contador doesn’t have the ’07 team, or the more favorable route of ’09. I can’t take anything away from the second win, but the first was somewhat by default. If CSC could push Sastre, a rider with no killer instinct, to win in the Contador vacuum of 2008, my only question about the winner is “Frank or Andy?”

  7. Janet D.

    Putting the business end aside, as a fan, the Tour of CA is a great event. Being able to see top Euro teams and stars in my own backyard is a treat! A goal of the race, aside from dollars, is to promote interest in cycling, and I would say “mission accomplishing”. Seeing so many kids watching the race while straddling their humble Walmart bikes is a hopeful sign.

    So, in the most CA of ways, viva la tour, dude.

  8. JZ

    I enjoyed the TOC this year. I like the date change. However, although I appreciate it that it was a darn hard race, I would love to see a little more opportunity for a gutsy attack on a climb to put in or make up some serious time on rivals. There was just too much opportunity for things to come back together after the climbs, which kind of discouraged such efforts in my view.

  9. jza

    Boooooorrriiing!

    A single week long race is always going to be a vacation/training race for the big guns. It’s just too hard to get across the globe and be firing on all cylinders for a week long race. And 6 weeks before the TdF is not the time to be burning matches.

    Anybody who enjoys watching Paris-Nice would be put to sleep by Cali. You can tell when the big guys are racing all out and want to win. When the race was settled on Bonny Doon, there was no chase, no nothing. In a real race that move would have been pulled back before the descent ended.

    American highways just don’t make for good racing. That “Epic climb to Big Bear”? More like “Boring Drag to Snoozeville”. But this plagues most American racing. Our roads are designed for mack trucks, not narrow winding goat trails like in Europe.

    The biggest problem though is how it’s marketed. They portray it in the same way as the NBA. Portraying guys like Armstrong and Leipheimer as unbeatable stars. But your chances of winning a bike race are a hell of a lot lower than winning a basketball game. Guys like Lancaster or Mick Rogers are awesome riders who specialize in week long stage races. The average American fan doesn’t understand why Leipheimer can’t beat them every time, like Kobe beating up on the Clippers.

    Marketing the race as a 4th Grand Tour, doesn’t help the average American observer understand that, or appreciate the guys who win this type of race.

    Every year the Giro delivers the most amazing racing I’ve ever seen. It’s a bummer the ToC sees a need to compete with it.

  10. SinglespeedJarv

    I actually paid more attention to the race when it was on in February. I think AEG made a massive mistake in going up against the Giro, it barely registered on my radar this year – if it hadn’t been for the sweepstake here I might have ignored it completely.

    It could, one day, evolve into a Grand Tour, but I don’t think it needs to compete with others, there is room in the calendar. It needs to grow into a two-week tour first and I can imagine a change in dates for next year. As someone more intelligent said a couple of days ago, “if Tennis can organise it’s calendar to avoid clashes, why can’t cycling?”

    Is there any issue with putting the race on in August? Nothing much happens in August at present, so an obvious place.

    As for the racing, the gimmicks and the stages…can’t comment too much. But as Bottle didn’t win it must be an improvement.

  11. Robot

    I like the ToC later in the year, and I think it was a GREAT race this time out. I don’t mind that so many didn’t finish. That just tells me it was a race worth racing, rather than a tune up.

    Having said that, it bothered me that it coincided with the Giro, forcing some teams to choose between the two. Further, as a fan, I don’t really have time to follow two races at once. I have a life, unfortunately. I can’t give ALL my time to cycling.

    I’d like to see the ToC stuck between Grand Tours to attract all the teams. It could be a replacement for the Midi Libre. But it needs to be a good hard race.

  12. jza

    But the online Tracker was excellent. I totally wouldn’t have made an effort to watch, but….just dialed it up at work, it’s chill. Looked great. More races should follow suit.

    Though I would NOT pay for it, for any money making charge to watch races guys reading! The free scratchy Eurosport feeds would be just fine.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      The Fourth Grand Tour … um … no. I’m beginning to think Phil and Paul have been purchased lock, stock and smoking barrel. There’s a big difference between eight days and 23 days. I’d love to see the race expanded to 10 or 14 days. I think that would cut down on some of the transfers.

      There’s also some genuine concern for whether the race should go ProTour or remain an event that American Continental teams can contest. The answer is easy: If it’s going to get longer, it needs to be ProTour, but for American Continental teams, it really can’t get much (any) harder.

      I love this race, and I probably love it twice as much since its move. Anyone who saw it as a way to roll on more training miles, didn’t see the race I saw.

      I didn’t ride any of the route day-of, but I was on the Rock Store climb up Mulholland Highway just the week before. I know the roads used on Stages 7 and 8 very well (included a downtown ride in my guide book a few years back that took in many of the same roads) and have ridden the climbs on stage 6 a few times. While the road to Big Bear is fairly large, it’s by no means an easy climb.

  13. tjh

    I too have ridden Rock Store too many times to count having lived in TO for a few years, but I couldn’t help thinking I was watching minor league ball compared to the world series of Giro. Granted, the teams were much stronger this year at the ATOC, but those Giro stages! Come on. They are so crazy hard as to be comical. I was sure Red Bull had a hand in the course selection. I’ve been entertained nearly everyday which can’t be said for the ATOC.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      TJH: I’m with you in your love for this year’s Giro. I don’t think anyone (me, contributors or readers) has or would try to make the assertion that the ToC is on a par with the Giro. However, to say it was minor league is truly insulting to Rogers, Leipheimer and Zabriskie, not to mention many of the other riders there.

      JZA: The way that climb is measured baffled me. Ride it and you’ll know that the real climb is pretty consistently 6%. It’s a serious climb. As to the marketing, we all see through that and because this is America, we shouldn’t be surprised by the hype, though it’s no reason to actually underestimate the difficulty of the race.

  14. jza

    It’s not an easy road to climb on your bike, by any means.

    But it is not a decisive/entertaining climb in a professional bike race. 4000 ft gain over 50 miles? Is that even a 3% average?

    Not exactly a classic climb for a pro bike race.

    My problem is that it’s an average pro bike race at best, marketed as THE 2ND MOST EXCITING BIKE RACE BESIDES THE TOUR DE FRANCE. The casual sports fan is going to watch these riders slowly make their way up to Big Bear and then turn the channel and wonder why people make such a big deal about boring old bike racing.

  15. Jon

    I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s TOC. This race is becoming more difficult as it evolves.

    If I had my way I’d move it to August and include a Sierra climb or two. Whitney Portal and or Tioga pass from the east side come to mind.

    Imagine a stage starting at mammoth lakes concluding at Tioga Summit (ouch).

  16. donncha

    Could the large amount of HDs/DNFs be due to the fact that the big Euro teams are more race ready in May and therefore the pace is up and the local teams can’t cope?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jon: I like your thinking.

      Donncha: The ProTour teams were better prepared, it’s true. However, every team lost at least two riders by my count. The “local” (U.S.-based) teams all professed to bring their A-game. There are usually a couple of teams at the Tour de France that get invited based on wildcards that end up riding almost anonymously. Jelly Belly was the weakest team at the Tour of California based on GC and they figured in almost all the big breakaways. They went down, for sure, but they went down swinging.

      Ultimately, what the Continental teams lacked was ME—muscular endurance. They can no doubt ride stages of the lengths included. The issue they faced was having enough long races to have the reserves necessary to race five or six hours, and the NRC isn’t really built on European-style road races. They can’t be faulted for the lack of those races.

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  18. tjh

    Ah, Padraig, I didn’t say the players were minor league, just the ball park (it’s all relative right) ;-)

    Aired alone, the ATOC makes for entertaining racing, but airing right along side the Giro, it doesn’t pack the same punch. Tony Martin freight-training Rogers up Big Bear was impressive, but Tony Martin on Ventoux showed what he was really capable of.

  19. eatiusbirdius

    Good post padraig!

    We in the U.S. are a funny people. We always have to be the best at everything and have the best of everything. And we’re no different with this “4th Grand Tour” thing. We’ve got to stop it. The blokes across the pond are just laughing at us because it’s such a joke that we’ve elevated it to that status on our own accord. It’s kind of like Michael Jackson proclaiming himself to be the “King of Pop”…we have the self-proclaimed ATOC to the “4th Grand Tour”. We should probably hope that the race even survives 20 years (because I’m not sure any race in the U.S. has even survived that long) and then let other people tell us if it’s comparable to a Grand Tour or not. Shoot, they don’t even call Paris-Nice the 4th Grand Tour in Europe so why would have the cojones to do so. It’s a little embarrassing…

    Having said that though, I love the race! I hope it does become that good of race where it is comparable to some of the storied races in Europe. I’m stoked we even have the race and hope it continues to get better as it has over the past few years. I love seeing professional cyclists race over the roads I’ve grown up on (ahem…driving on that is). I think once it stops being an international ad campaign for California and instead they start looking it as a viable Pro Tour race, it will become that much better. A real summit finish or two would be nice. I’m with Jon. There are some GREAT summit finish possibilities in CA. The one thing I hope ATOC is doing is getting feedback from the Pro Tour riders to see how they can improve the race. I also couldn’t help but think that if Levi had just another kilometer or two of mountain to play with on that last stage, or it being a little steeper, I think the “elastic would have snapped” (haha) on Rogers.

    As jza said, this is training for some of the big guns. Schleck was perfect example in ATOC. However, I think all races before July will have people using different races as training so it’s hard to judge a race by that alone. Shoot…Wiggins (among many others) are using the Giro as “training” for the Tour. Now THAT’S some training…or torture…whatever you want to call it.

    As for the competition, I think it’s really refreshing to see the Continental teams racing against the big time. And if you saw any of their tweets throughout the week, those guys were ecstatic to be racing against the top Euro teams. It really is a two-fold bonus having the Continental teams mixed with the Pro Tour teams: our big Pro Tour teams get to see our up and coming riders (Chris Horner got major exposure on a Continental team via Tour of Georgia before going to a Pro Tour team) and it also give the Continentals some crucial experience to see what it takes to be on a top Euro team. The Tour and the Giro both have Continental teams in them so I think it’s a good thing for ATOC to do the same.

    Ok…I’ll stop blabbering now. Thanks again RKP!

  20. randomactsofcycling

    Wow, I was going to weigh in on this but I’m exhausted just from reading all the (very good) comments….I guess I missed the time cut….

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