As the Amgen Tour of California gets ready to rumble on Sunday, the event's big names assembled in downtown Sacramento, including Levi Leipheimer, RadioShack teammate Lance Armstrong, Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara and Andy Schleck, Dave Zabriskie, Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie.
There were the usual jokes, the playing-down of chances and an air of excitement surrounding the race's fifth edition. Arguably the best field in the event's brief history, there will be a star for every occasion during the next week. Cyclingnews brings you reaction from the opening press conference.
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack): There's a lot new about this year's Tour of California. It is in May as opposed to February and the whole feeling of it is different. It's summer time outside, although they are calling for showers on Monday, Santa Rosa just loves the rain but hopefully it's not too bad. The weather is different and the riders in the peloton is much more fit.
Personally, I've done races in Europe already and haven't done that for three of four years now because of the Tour of California. We are going up higher in the mountains at Big Bear and I'm looking forward to seeing exactly what happens that day. It's definitely going to make for some tired legs the next day so we will see.
For me the highlight is the start in Nevada City because Lance and I and Chris Horner were there for the Nevada City Classic last year, the second oldest race in America with a lot of history. It was a great race, tough and a really cool little town, an old mining town.
I think with the atmosphere there, starting off the race is going to be really cool. I think Mark will be looking forward to the second part of that stage because I think it's going to be a field sprint.
I've always said that riding into Santa Rosa with the world's best riders in my hometown is really special and not something that a lot of cyclists get to experience. Having worn the yellow jersey a couple of times into my hometown, especially the first year, was overwhelming when we came into Santa Rosa it was packed and crazy. I'll never forget those moments. It's been really special the last four years.
It makes a difference that the time trial comes very late in the race so it favours the stage racer a little bit more. The day before is not a true mountaintop finish that you see in the big tours but it is going to be a very hard day regardless. There are going to be some tired legs and it will affect a lot of riders the next day.
Lance Armstrong (RadioShack): I think most people recognise the team, structure of the team and the management of the team. We tried to keep as many things similar as what we had in the past. Obviously Johan [Bruyneel] is the leader of this team on many levels. We took all of the guys from last year's Tour squad, minus one.
Speaking of California, this is a big race for us. Having RadioShack involved and with them having so many retail outlets in the United States especially in California it is no secret that this is a priority for us. I might even take it a step further and say that it is second only to the Tour de France.
We came with Levi who is focused on winning again and we have the guys to support him. That's why we contest the event, it's eight days and a lot of things can happen and anyone can win, there are a lot of good guys. We are excited and motivated, I know RadioShack is. For me personally, it is good to be back and good to be with a good group of guys and continue this legacy that Johan started a long time ago.
Personally I have struggled a little to find the condition that I would like. There's been moments when I thought I was getting better and then I had little physical health issues that came along and complicated things. I'd like to think that we are headed in the right direction now but I said, that's why we have the event and you can truly test yourself.
The main priority is to support Levi although I do think that we all know it's a team sport and we bring a deep squad here between Levi, myself, Chris Horner, who is riding fantastic right now, Janez Brajkovic, [Yaroslav] Popovych and Chechu [Jose Luis Rubiera], a lot of guys that can factor into the race if we need them to.
This is a good race for the team and it's Levi's race - he's Mr. California. That is our intention initially, however, the road dictates things a little different but we certainly go in focused on that.
Andy tried to blame some jet lag and we don't believe that. Fabian said he took two weeks off the bike and we don't believe that. I guarantee you that Levi will kick Cavendish's ass on all the climbs, so we are not worried about that. Zabriskie rode the TT on Mothers Day, a plug for the moms... that's good.
I think it comes down to the time trial. If I was looking at it as an analyst I would say that Levi, Dave and Michael Rogers are the big three. I'm not sure that the climbs are selective enough I still think the TT decides the overall.
Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank): For me it will be the first race after my break. I'm happy to come back to this race and go back to racing. How good I am, I don't know because for sure I was not doing the best preparation for coming here but the most important thing is that I rested after the Classics.
Now I am getting back and looking forward to this beautiful race. I am hoping that the weather stays as good as it is now because in the last few years in February the weather was bad. That is the life as a bike rider.
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank): We arrived a few days ago and I arrived on May 9 to hopefully get over the jet lag before the race. To be honest, I heard about the climb but I have never done it. I heard it is a really hard climb.
I know the climbs on the other stages, we had training camps there so the last stages will be really hard. Before that it will be Big Bear Lake which will be really hard but I've never done it.
We have a good team here with Fabian who hasn't trained for two and half weeks. We have the whole team here, basically the Tour team here; only Frank, my brother, isn't here. I am pretty motivated for this race and I think we take it after the first stages to see who is leader.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia): I went for the bunch sprint in Sacramento two years ago and it didn't work out there so I'm here to kind of make amends and see if I can get the jersey.
George Hincapie (BMC Racing): The new team has been great so far. We started off with the year with some slight going pains with a new team being at a new level. With the riders that we had with Cadel [Evans] winning La Fleche Wallonne and starting off the Giro with second and third place in the prologue, the team is really gaining some momentum right now. I hope to be able to continue that through the Tour of California.
As far as racing in the stars and stripes jersey, it's a huge honour and my third time doing it. All of us Americans have a big pride racing in it especially over in Europe and being able to wear it here in our home race is important as well.
Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions): I'm looking forward to it [the stage seven time trial] regardless if I was a resident [of Los Angeles] or not. Being a new resident it has a special place in my heart. I went down and took a look at the course on Mothers Day, you have to go down very early in the morning because of the traffic.
It's not that far away from my house. Without traffic it only took 10 minutes and usually it takes an hour but without traffic it's not that far. I went down and took a look and it was great. I'm looking forward to it.