Friday, February 23, 2007

Tour of California Stage 4 - Cricket and TT Preview

Stage 4: Reigning World Champion Paolo Bettini edges Ciolek and Haedo in San Luis Obispo. Overall GC remains unchanged.

How’s that for a concise recap? Unfortunately it is going to have to do because I just flew into Santa Barbara and boy are my arms tired. Sorry. Beautiful sunset flight west though and Santa Barbara is very pretty from the air at night.

Considering Stage 4 ended in a group finish and the overall was unchanged, I would like to take this time to announce that Friday’s Time Trial in Solvang is going to be very, very interesting. I have just returned from driving the course and I can tell you it will be even more decisive than originally anticipated.

The route begins with a quick run out of Solvang and onto a long, fairly straight false flat section heading north to Los Olivos. The road surface is very good here but there could be some unpredictable crosswinds to contend with.

A sharp right hand turn then takes the riders onto a series of steep rollers. It will be interesting to see who can power through this section in a seated, aero position as these are pretty severe bumps and momentum over the tops is going to be key to a fast time here.

With a sharp left the course continues north and the it starts to get pretty sketchy. In between this point and Los Olivos there are no less than three flooded sections of road with a lot of water and gravel. I’m sure the gravel will be cleaned up a bit but the road surface leaves something to be desired here.

A quick little run by Fess Parker’s place and then the riders face Ballard Canyon which I predict will be the deciding factor in not only this Time Trial but the entire Tour of California. There are so many variables on this strecth of road that it is bound to wreak havoc on individual times.

Thankfully the lower portion of Ballard Canyon has been repaved as the road rises steeply up the most severe climb on the course but the rest of the route back toward Solvang is pretty rough. The climb winds up a bit past the halfway point and marks the primary turn around back south to the finish.

But here’s where it will get interesting. Most of the remaining course is twisty and undulating with some short, steep rises and a number of very high speed technical sections. A slight miscalculation here could be disastrous, resulting in a huge loss of momentum at best or a pretty nasty crash at worst. The many haybales strategically placed in front of trees along this stretch are an ominous indicator of the possibilities.

A final steep climb and descent through a residential area with better road quality brings the riders back into Solvang for the finish. I am certain the little Danish enclave will be brimming with spectators and loads of tasty Scandanavian pastries although the locals are probably pretty accustomed to having bike racers in their town at this point.

It rained a bit on Thursday but the forecast is fairly clear for Friday. It is going to be madness if this course is wet but regardless, the winner of this Time Trial (and likely the race) will have to ride a very aggressive, gutsy race. There will have to be a few risks taken on Ballard Canyon and I just hope everyone makes it through without incident. A flat tire or any kind of miscue on this route could end someone’s chances for good.

Should be fun. Lets just hope it stays dry.

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