Until very recently the Tour of California has mainly been the preserve of US based racers and US teams. Taking time out to fly the States for a week-long race in May has not often been high on the priority list for European racers and the list of previous winners reflects the US-centricness of the event. Only 7 of the 24 available podium places have been taken by foreigners since the inaugural race in 2006. The first four editions of the race were held in early February before a move to May in 2010 then brought the race into direct competition with the Giro d’Italia.
It was assumed that this would lead to a further decrease in the number of European pros making the Trans-Atlantic trip but as of 2012 the race seems to be growing in popularity with teams seeing the benefit in the race as a both a useful training block in the lead-up to the Tour de France and as a marketing tool.
California is the worlds 7th largest economy and, like France, is blessed with stunning scenery of hugely varying terrain. Both these facts contribute to make the race a more attractive prospect and this year we may be seeing a tipping point with high-profile riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish heading for the Golden State to compete alongside the top US riders.
Sky have targeted the race as a big priority for former Tour de France champion Wiggins this year. Although British by registration and perception, the team are bankrolled by 21st Century Fox, the media arm of the split-apart News Corp, which owns Sky Broadcasting. The teams media appearances on Fox TV’s morning shows and at the company’s film studios have been widely shared in what appears to be a targeted media strategy to raise the profile of the team in the New World. With both Dave Brailsford and Fran Millar in the U.S. for the race, their determination to launch the TeamSky brand into a huge, largely vacant, market should not be underestimated.
Cavendish won the points jersey at the Giro last year meaning he has won that particular competition in all three Grand Tours. With the triple accomplished he too is looking for new goals and a better lead-up to Le Tour where he will be aiming to wrestle back the sprint crown from German man of the moment Marcel Kittel. With Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra on board as well as favoured lead-out man Mark Renshaw, Cav will be looking to continue the improved form he showed in the recent Tour of Turkey
Wiggins has spoken of wanting to “Break America”- a statement that sounds as if it has been crafted by his new agent Simon Fuller, who more famously represents Victoria Beckham and the Spice Girls. Wiggins will be as focused on winning here as he was in France in 2012 and in the Tour of Britain last year. We all know what he can achieve when he puts his mind to it and the course is well suited to him. The two mountain finishes are not viciously steep and the short race includes a 12.1mile time trial.
Other strong teams are BMC in their home race, Sagan and Orica-Greenedge. BMC bring local hopes Taylor Phinney and Peter Stetina along with greg Van Avermaet and Thor Hushovd. Sagan – who appears in a ridiculous poster for Cannondale’s Tour of California team with an eye-watering crotch bulge of Spinal Tap-like vegetable-based explicitness – loves racing in the States. He won Stages 1 and 3 here last year and four stages in the US Pro Challenge which is run in August. After a relatively underwhelming Spring Classics campaign he will be looking to get back to winning ways. Orica bring young Brit Adam Yates – hot from his win in Turkey – along with more experienced heads such as Matt Hayman and Matthew Goss and will be looking to carry on the great work being done in the early stage soy the Giro by the team.
A couple of other British names to look out for are Tao Geoghegan-Hart, who is riding in his first year as a pro in the Bissell Development team, and Scott Thwaites, who is riding for NetApp-Endura.
There is no Baldy again this year (neither the famous mountain of the same name or Chris Horner feature) but lest we forget him in his final year of racing, someone who is racing is Jen Voigt. It was in this race last year that Voigt, when asked why he was still getting in breakaways at his age, replied “Because I’m mother-fucking Jens Voigt”. There still is a Wild West out there and it feels like Jens and the boys are gonna have some fun finding it.
The Tour of California runs from Sunday May 11th until Sunday May 18th. The Tour have a really comprehensive app available for iOS and Android that is worth a download if you want to get into the heart of the action.