Missing the Tour of California

PJAMM Blog Post: Missing the Tour of California

Normally at this time of year we would all be right in the middle of the Tour of California. However, in October, 2019 came the announcement that the event was cancelled for financial reasons. Even without that bit of unfortunate news, the corona virus shutdowns would have done it in for 2020. Now another year will pass without the event. Regardless of the reasons for its cancellation, its absence leaves a large hole to fill within American professional cycling. The race was a game changer for the domestic cycling scene. It was the longest running stage race in American history and a colossal influence on U.S. road racing. It also offered unparalleled exposure for domestic teams and sponsors, elevating somewhat unknowns such as Rory Sutherland and Ben Jacques-Maynes to well-known status. It was of particular benefit to women's racing, bringing the sport into the mainstream in California. Bicycle product companies certainly benefited through its unique position as one of the few top line U.S. stage races on the calendar. For all of these reasons, the event is sorely missed.

What I am going to miss most however is the showcasing of its plentiful climbs. The state has the greatest number of meaningful ascents in the U.S., by a large number, so there was a lot to choose from for race organizers. Its initial placement on the calendar was in February which limited the scope of climbing that could be included. However, Sierra Road, Coleman Valley Road and Trinity Grade quickly became well known to non-California based riders and fans. Soon bigger hills were added to its route. The addition of Palomar Mountain in 2009, likely the most difficult climb the race ever used, was a big step forward although it was only contested one other time. Many will remember Robert Gesink's dominating performance on Mount Baldy in 2012. The mountain's upper third was used several times over the years as a dramatic stage finish (it was always a disappointment that Baldy's full length was never used, a true beyond category length but I certainly understood the use of visually pleasing Glendora Ridge Road as a lead in). Mount Hamilton, Mount Diablo and Gibraltar Road also put riders to the test. But it is likely that Sierra Road was the quintessential climb for the Tour of California. Certainly not the biggest or the most difficult among those used but not an easy ascent either, it figured prominently in the race's evolution. Located just east of San Jose and 3.5 miles long, it carries a fearsome average grade of just under 10%. It became a fixture in the early years of the event, used multiple times, and provided particular drama when included as a summit finish.

One such moment came during the 2011 Tour. Sierra Road was placed within Stage 4 and as a conclusion to the day. The steep climb was expected to be critical; not just for the stage win, but for the overall title that year. A break got away early in the stage but all were caught on the climb of the 2nd to last ascent, Mount Hamilton, as Team RadioShack grabbed control of the race. On its descent, Ryder Hesjedal and one other rider got away until the base of Sierra Road when Hesjedal attacked, quickly opening a gap. The leading group included Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner who was looking for his first win of the year. These two riders quickly pulled away from the pack on the lower slopes of the hill. Horner, out of the saddle, led, seeming to pull Leipheimer up the hill, setting his team leader up for a final attack. They soon caught Hesjedal and once there Horner accelerated, Leipheimer unable to follow. At that point he did not look back and blasted the field up the steep mountain road, appearing to gain time with each pedal stroke. Soon his lead was up to 30 seconds and increasing. Passing under the one kilometer to go banner, Horner continued to power up the hill alone. By the finish line he had put more than a minute between himself and all of his chasers, taking the yellow jersey in the process. A dramatic end to a dramatic stage.

When the Tour of California was cancelled for the 2020 season the organizers stated they would like to see the race return in the future, a hiatus it was called. Among U.S. stage races, only the Tour of Utah, which was not run in 2007, returned the following year. Now another year will pass without the ToC. Let's all hope for a resumption down the road.

John Summerson is the author of "The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike in California"

PJAMM Cycling note:

I would like to personally thank John Summerson for contributing the first guest post to our blog. As many of you know by reading PJAMM Cycling's About page, and many other pages on the site, I have enormous respect and admiration for John. John Summerson got me started on traveling to climb by bike around the US and if it was not for his outstanding book series on cycling climbing in the US, there would be no PJAMM Cycling.

John Johnson | Founder & CEO | PJAMM Cycling


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