May is a great month for cycling – not just because the weather has finally warmed up and dried out in most of the country, but because some of the biggest, most prestigious bike races (outside of the Tour de France) take place in This Sunday, May 13th, the 7th edition of the AMGEN Tour of California kicks off in Santa Rosa, CA. Over the next 8 days, the racers will ride over 800 miles, and climb to elevations higher than 7000 feet, before the race finishes up next Sunday, May 20th, in downtown L.A. The Tour of California is the only hors categorie (highest level of UCI categorization) race held in the U.S., and a major focus for many Americans (and American teams – including BMC and Garmin) on the UCI pro circuit.

What Makes the Tour of California Different

From Santa Rosa to L.A.

Besides the fact that the Tour of California is the biggest stage race in the U.S., this year’s tour at least, is unusually hilly. Many longer stage races (e.g. the Tour de France) feature a combination of hilly stages (suited to the climbers) and flat stages (suited to the sprinters). In a flatter stage, more racers will still be in contention at the end, which gives sprinters an opportunity to break from the field in the final 500 meters or so. But in hillier stages, it’s more common to see a breakaway of a small group of riders battling at the finish. Considering that this year, the only 2 of the 8 stages are relatively flat – stage 5 (the individual time trial) and the final stage (a 40-mile circuit around downtown L.A.) – the Tour of California really gives the climbers an opportunity to shine.

The Tour of California is also involved to the charity, Breakaway from Cancer, which aims to increase awareness of resources, from prevention to treatment to financial assistance, for people at risk for and currently suffering from cancer. In recognition of this, after each stage, along with the yellow leader’s jersey, green sprint jersey, and red climber’s (King of the Mountains) jersey, Tour of California awards a white Most Courageous Rider jersey to “a cyclist who best exemplifies the character of those engaged in the fight against cancer – courage, sacrifice, inspiration, determination and perseverance.”

In addition, the Tour of California also sponsors a lifestyle festival throughout the week of the Tour designed to educate people about cancer prevention and research, healthy lifestyle choices and to promote physical activity. The festival is at the finishing area of each stage, and promises to offer something for cycling fans (and non-fans) of all ages.

Where Are All the Italians?

From Denmark to Italy with the Giro

If you look at the list of riders participating in the Tour of California this year, you might notice a dearth of Italians. That’s because the Tour of California is held at the same time as one of the grand tours on the UCI calendar – the Giro d’Italia. Held over 23 days in May, the Giro is a 21-stage race that takes place throughout Italy (and this year, the first 3 stages were held in Denmark, to help promote the sport of cycling in that country). Italian riders see the Giro as their home race (much as Americans see the Tour of California as their home race) and prefer to ride it instead of the Tour of California.

For riders who don’t have a home-road preference, some feel that with the Tour de France coming up in early July, the Tour of California is better preparation for it, since riding two grand tours in such a short time can be overly taxing. Riders who want to focus on the Tour de France will sometimes skip the Giro for the shorter Tour of California.

What Would You Ride?

Given the choice, would you ride the Tour of California or the Giro? Have you ever been to either of these races in person? Attended the Tour of California Lifestyle Festival? Have you ridden the route or partial route of any of the California stages? Ridden in Italy?