2011 Tour could be race's true fresh start

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
4:01
PM ET

The Tour of California's much-anticipated shift from February to May in 2010 made for better weather, but the overall climate of the race didn't prove to be ideal for a couple of other reasons. First, offseason wildfires and flooding damaged roads and forced organizers to change the start city and route for the queen stage up to Big Bear. Then, the narrative of the race was overtaken by Floyd Landis' confession and allegations against former teammate Lance Armstrong and others. HTC-Columbia's Michael Rogers of Australia won by a scant 9 seconds, breaking the American stranglehold on the title.

In a sense, the 2011 edition could be the true fresh start organizers craved. After years of wistful talk, the race will finally visit the high-altitude resort area of Lake Tahoe. There are some familiar way stations along the eight-day route, and the Solvang time trial is back after a one-year absence. Andrew Messick, president of race presenter AEG Sports, said decisive climbs will be placed closer to the finish of stages, answering the traditional criticism from riders and fans. And the zigzag road up to Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel mountains north of the Los Angeles metropolis should provide the most challenging finish in the six-year history of the race.

Once again, the race will conflict with the Giro d'Italia, but it will be an appealing part of Tour de France lead-up for some top contenders and will form part of a more sensible calendar for American teams and riders. The U.S. national road championships will take place just a week after the Tour of California ends, and some domestic teams will go on to Philadelphia the week after the racing in South Carolina.

Here are the stage starts and finishes and some preliminary analysis. The final route won't be announced until December or January:

Stage 1, Sunday May 15: South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe (Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort)
A picturesque circuit around the lake with a short uphill finish. Might not be suited to pure sprinters.

Stage 2, Monday, May 16: North Lake Tahoe (Squaw Valley) to Sacramento
Sprint finish is dictated here. Here's hoping it won't result in the demolition derby that ensued this year.

Stage 3, Tuesday, May 17: Auburn to Modesto
Another day for the sprinters.

Stage 4, Wednesday, May 18: Livermore to San Jose
Expect lots of climbing in this stage and a possible finish in the foothills on the outskirts of San Jose as opposed to downtown. Could separate the overall contenders from the pack.

Stage 5, Thursday, May 19: Seaside to Paso Robles
Should include a significant stretch down spectacular -- and windy -- Highway 1, but without route details, it's hard to speculate on how tough this day will be. The only certainty is that it will be long.

Stage 6, Friday, May 20: Solvang individual time trial
The Solvang time trial that was a key factor in Levi Leipheimer's three wins (2007-09) has returned, and the rolling route through "Sideways" wine country will be extended by an as-yet-unannounced distance. The little faux-Scandinavian hamlet has always done a great job of making the day a party experience for fans, and that should be doubly true in its 100th anniversary year.

Stage 7, Saturday, May 21: Claremont to Mount Baldy
If the race goes all the way to the top, the last 4.5 miles will feature 18 switchbacks and an average gradient of 10 percent. Organizers think this road won't be as vulnerable to the fall/winter elements as the way to Big Bear. Looks as if the race finally has itself a difference-maker. Amateurs will be able to ride the route several weeks before in an event similar to "L'Etape du Tour," a Tour de France tradition.

Stage 8, Sunday, May 22: Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks
Will retrace the peloton's path over some of the tough terrain of this year's circuits in the canyons above Malibu, but the finish appears to be headed to the flatter roads near title sponsor Amgen's headquarters.

One footnote: If you click on the Tour of California website, it's hard not to notice that Armstrong's image still dominates the top of the page, but AEG Sports spokesman Michael Roth said nothing should be read into that -- "It's left over from last year," he said. "We haven't got our new key art yet."

Armstrong, 39, has not formally retired, but he has not raced professionally since the Tour de France in July and is one of the subjects of a wide-ranging federal investigation into doping and fraud in cycling. He remains under contract to RadioShack for next year, but has given no indication of whether he will compete in road races or other endurance events.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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