For the first time since its debut in 2006, America's biggest cycling event is expected to climax in the Bay Area.
In years past, Silicon Valley and the East Bay have served as early stages in a race whose decisive moments often took place days later in Southern California. But this year, the Amgen Tour of California is going south to north for the first time and the drama will be right here, with a challenging individual time trial Friday in South San Jose and a grueling climb to the top of 3,849-foot Mount Diablo the next day.
"If you get to watch a guy bunt or hit a home run, it is more exciting to see the home run," USA Cycling coach Jim Miller said of watching the end of the tour.
Barring surprises, the Bay Area stages should determine this year's winner among some of the world's elite cyclists, including 2010 Tour de France champion Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and rising American star Tejay van Garderen, who won the best young rider award in France last year. The 750-mile race begins Sunday in Escondido and ends eight days later in downtown Santa Rosa.
Race director Jim Birrell said the event doesn't plan to rotate directions annually like the Tour de France, which travels clockwise one year, counterclockwise the next. In whatever configuration, the time trial and mountain finish are the tour's highlights because they are among the only stages where contenders have a shot to win the race outright.
"If you're going for the overall win you have to give absolutely everything" on these stages, said Colorado's Timmy Duggan, a 2012 Olympian and U.S. champion.
A time trial -- an all-out race against the clock instead of against other cyclists -- is called the "moment of truth." Cyclists cannot rely on teammates to help pace them along the course; rather, only the strongest legs will succeed.
The 19.8-mile stage in San Jose could shake up the standings because it's the toughest time-trial course tour organizers have designed. The midday stage ends with a heart-pumping 1.1-mile climb to Motorcycle Park that includes an elevation gain of 1,000 feet and a couple of spots with a 10 percent grade or more.
As a result, San Jose has a chance to play a key role in the tour for the third time. Floyd Landis won in 2006 after taking the time trial in San Jose. Chris Horner broke from the field on steep Sierra Road and held the lead for four days to win in 2011.
San Jose officials practically did cartwheels when awarded this year's stage, which is expected to draw thousands of spectators. Cities hosting a time trial have the cycling world's attention for a full day. It's pretty much in-and-out interest for the other communities.
But Livermore officials aren't complaining about their city's role in May 18's 91.4-mile stage that starts downtown and ends atop Mount Diablo.
Because of space limitations on the mountain, Livermore will serve as "a virtual finish," said Dave Rashe, who heads his city's organizing committee. Officials expect as many as 20,000 fans to congregate downtown where they can watch on big screens as competitors make last-gasp efforts to change the outcome of the race.
The final scenic stage from San Francisco to Santa Rosa is expected to be more of a coronation for the winner than a challenge to his throne.
The tour route changes regularly because officials want to introduce new areas of the Golden State each year. Kristin Bachochin, senior vice president of tour owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), said they are considering ways to stretch the route farther south and farther north but declined to address specifics.
"To do it in a state as large as California, it is really challenging," said Birrell, whose company has produced almost every major cycling road race in the U.S.
So far, 46 cities have played host to tour stages, counting this year's edition. San Jose is the only city to participate in all eight tours.
Despite the increased visibility with this year's stages, San Jose and Livermore representatives have no plans to lobby tour owners to rotate directions more often. But Santa Rosa officials weren't shy in pushing for a south-north route this year.
"I'm sure we weren't the only ones asking about it," said Raissa de la Rosa, a Santa Rosa official who coordinates tour activities for the city. "I've always been curious what their long-term strategy is."
The answer is simple, according to AEG's Bachochin: "We're looking at the Amgen Tour of California as an international postcard."
After that it's up to race organizers to decide which direction they want to go.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him at Twitter.com/elliottalmond.