The seventh annual Amgen Tour of California began on Sunday, drawing 16 top teams to the Golden State to duke it out on 800 miles of California’s most scenic and challenging roads. The course includes some stretches of Highway 1, parts of which have been recognized as one of the best roads to drive in the world. The very thought of having that road closed to cars for a bike race is enough to make some riders' legs quiver. After taking in some of the best sights from the picturesque Bay Area down to Santa Cruz, the race jumps inland for a 130-mile stage in the mountains skirting Yosemite National Park. After that, it heads to the Los Angeles area for a crucial Stage Six climb to Big Bear Lake, and a Stage Seven summit of Mt. Baldy.
Today the race kicks off its second of eight stages—a 116-mile leg that starts in San Francisco and ends up in Santa Cruz. Stage One (see here for video highlights, or view the route on Strave) saw an eight-man breakaway that opened up what at its peak grew to a ten-minute gap, and nearly held on to the finish before a 30-mann chase-group reeled them in.
Stage Two promises to be one of the most scenic of the race, starting in San Francisco’s Marina District and tracing down the Bay with the Golden Gate bridge in the background before heading south along Highway 1.
We can’t talk about the Tour of California without talking about Levi Leipheimer—the winningest rider in the short history of the race with six stage wins and three overall titles under his belt since the race debuted in 2006.
Leipheimer (light blue jersey on left) and Horner (red cap brim) lead out from the Tour of California start line in Santa Rosa.
Leipheimer is a sort of hometown favorite who lives in the race’s starting city of Santa Rosa, but a serious collision with a car while out on a training ride in early April left him with a broken fibula and threw his status as a competitor in this year’s race into question.
The ruddy 38-year-old bounced back fast, though, and word is that even though he still walks with a pronounced limp, he’s riding strong.
Last year’s race winner Chris Horner made waves in the media by calling out Leipheimer for “playing possum” after his injury. Last year’s Tour of California sparked a rivalry between former teammates Horner and Leipheimer, who were then both riding for Team RadioShack. Horner was supposed to be riding as supporting cast, helping teammate Leipheimer gun for his fourth overall win. But Horner was riding so strong he ended up separating from his team captain and taking the 2011 GC title himself.
This year, the two veteran riders face off from different teams—Horner on RadioShack-Nissan; Leipheimer on Omega Pharma-Quick Step—and it’s already clear from the first day of racing that the 2012 running of the AToC will be a bruiser.
“Just an hour into the opening stage of the race it was clear that this would be a week where the overall will be won, or lost, through a battle of both force and will,” writes Neal Rogers of VeloNews.
Peter Sagan of team Liquigas-Cannondale took the first stage, and he showcased some impressive bike-racing skills on the120-mile day by wining the uphill sprint finish into Santa Rosa after working his way back from a flat tire just five miles from the line.
See the video below for a course preview, and tune into NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) for live racing action.