They’ll be heading for the big hill on Monday, May 14, when the Amgen Tour of California (ATOC) brings a flock of top professional cyclists to Santa Barbara for the ninth time. Stage 2, a 96-mile race that starts in Ventura, will end with a torturous seven-mile, 3,100-foot climb up Gibraltar Road.
Five more stages will follow before the 13th annual ATOC, comprising some 650 miles, winds up in Sacramento on May 19. But Monday’s stage could prove to be the most consequential in determining the overall winner. Such was the case in 2016, when Gibraltar Road, then the finish of Stage 3, shattered the usually tight pack of riders. Julian Alaphilippe of France was la crème that rose to the top, and the stage victory vaulted him into the overall lead, which he never relinquished.
Such classy sprinters as world champion Peter Sagan, who had won the 2015 ATOC, trailed the leaders up the mountain by more than 20 minutes. Several gutsy riders, including California’s Peter Stetina, took turns leading the way up the steep road, but Alaphilippe put them away with a late surge, beating Stetina by 15 seconds.
It broke a streak of seven American victories in ATOC stages that have finished in Santa Barbara County, including four time trials in Solvang. Last year’s fourth stage started here and ended in Santa Clarita with America’s Evan Huffman scoring a surprising victory. The overall champion was New Zealand’s George Bennett.
The charismatic Sagan will return to the starting line Sunday. He takes a record 16 ATOC stage wins into the opening circuit race on the streets of Long Beach. The Slovakian rides for Bora-Hansgrohe, one of the top teams on the World Tour. Other stars include Britain’s Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), who has sprinted to 10 stage wins in California, and Germany’s Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).
Sagan’s teammate Rafał Majka, who holds two King of the Mountain titles in the Tour de France, could be one to power up Gibraltar Road, as well as the veteran Stetina and Neilson Powless, a young American who made a strong bid here two years ago.
Whoever claims the overall lead in Santa Barbara will just be trying to finish in the pack of Tuesday’s stage, which starts in King City and is expected to come down to a mass sprint on the Laguna Seca raceway. The next opportunity to make a move in the general classification (overall standings) will be Wednesday’s 21.6-mile time trial in Morgan Hill.
The race to Gibraltar Road presented a new challenge to the tour organizers. Because of damages to Highway 192 caused by the Thomas Fire and subsequent flooding, an alternate route zigzagging through Carpinteria, Summerland, and Montecito had to be formulated. The course will now leave Foothill Road/192 at Cravens Lane and will turn onto nine different streets, including Coast Village Road, before joining Sycamore Canyon/192 at the intersection with Hot Springs Road.
Live coverage of Monday’s race will be televised by the NBC Sports Network from 1-4 p.m.
By Paul Wellman