The finish of last year's San Jose-to-Modesto stage in the Amgen Tour of California could not have been better for local bike racing fans.
The people who braved the elements on that wet and chilly February afternoon were treated to a flash parade of riders screaming along the downtown streets, with the entire field finishing almost as one.
But what was spectacular for the spectators meant little in the big picture of the eight-stage race, since mass finishes equal little or no movement in the tour standings.
Such is the tradeoff for having any finish line in Modesto. The Valley location virtually guarantees any race ending in proximity of the Downtown Arch will feature a final 30 miles of either flat or descending grade -- giving all the elite riders in the stage ample time to rejoin the pack following any early climbs in the race.
The most difficult climb in Wednesday's Stage 4 occurs within the opening five miles of the 121.5-mile race -- a thigh-burning ascent up Sierra Road., which takes riders from near sea level in downtown San Jose to 1,930 feet.
"They have to go over Sierra Grade and whether that's at the start of the race or at the end (where it fell in 2008) that climb will create havoc," said Mike Sayers, a former pro rider from Sacramento who is an an assistant director for BMC Racing Team.
"Remember, it's not like this is the first day of the race. The legs aren't as fresh. You're going to have mass carnage there. The chances of everybody finishing the stage with the same time still will be pretty good. But you could see some rider drop off who can't make it back to the pack."
This year's path from San Jose to Modesto is longer and more difficult than the 2009 trail, adding a second significant climb up Mines Road, southeast of Livermore. Still, it will end with the 16 teams, up to 128 riders, streaming hub-to-hub twice around the downtown loop.
According to cycling expert and writer Bruce Hildenbrand, there is a method behind the placement of a less-technical ride at this point of the tour.
The move from February to May means the Tour of California now is the final Tour de France tuneup for many riders in the field. As such, event organizers more than ever have attempted to emulate much of the same feel as their French counterpart.
That includes the event pacing, and since the relatively easy downhill Stage 1 is followed by two difficult and technical stages, the fourth day is the right spot for a longer but less-stressful ride.
"This day will figure in most riders' minds as a day in which Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer will stay back a bit and let the sprinters take over," Hildenbrand said. "The last three days are really hard. The new (Stage 6) Big Bear stage is going to be difficult, and the last day is a tricky course with a sharp climb and a decent.
"San Jose to Modesto and (Stage 5) Visalia to Bakersfield are the stages when the overall leaders will try to rest as much as possible."
The need for such a stage in the middle of an eight-day tour, plus the Valley location bodes well for Modesto's future participation in the tour, Hildenbrand said.
"I think Modesto plays well as a middle stage," Hildenbrand said. "The Tour of California wants to get into the Sierra, and Modesto's a Sierra gateway.
"They want to develop courses that provide both difficulty and length. I could see a stage that includes Old Priest Grade, which is one of the most difficult climbs in California. You have Wards Ferry Road out there and a lot of possibilities."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.