The Amgen Tour of California's iconic Solvang time trial has returned after a one-year hiatus. There are a handful of overall contenders heading into the stage 6 event with two main goals: to further their lead and/or to limit their losses in the general classification.
The 24km test is held in and around the quaint Danish town of Solvang, with a parcours that is predominantly uphill on the way out as the riders pass over Ballard Canyon and descend back into the finish line. It is a short but challenging route that is well-suited to one rider in particular, RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer, who won the stage and the event's overall title on three occasions. However, his teammate and current race leader Chris Horner has proven to be in top form this week and is also a contender to win the time trial.
Cyclingnews highlighted a number of participants who are capable of a top 10 performance on the day.
Chris Horner (RadioShack)
Horner expressed slight insecurity regarding the stage 6 individual time trial during the post-race press conference following his commanding victory atop Sierra Road. However, when he is in top form, he has been capable of winning world-class time trials. Last year, he won the sixth and final stage, a 22km time trial, at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco as well as the overall title. He also placed eighth during the Amgen Tour of California time trial held in Los Angeles last year, which contributed to his later fourth overall.
"I'm looking forward to it," Horner said on the eve of stage 6. "I think I have a good cushion, a good amount of time. I should be within 20 seconds of the win, but realistically there's always a time trial specialist out there that can win it, and I'm sure Levi's one of them, and probably Rory [Sutherland], who has fantastic form."
One day before, Horner had been more cautious in his assessment. "The only exception, not fear, that I have is the time trial," he said after his stage 4 win. "It is a questionable section but I think I am on my top form and when I am top form I normally win time trials. I don't think I will lose sleep over the time trial, but I certainly believe that if there is any vulnerable part in my fitness or ability it would be there. I think that is a small dent in the armor and whatever time that I should lose there, I don't think I will lose the jersey there, but if I do, I will gain it back on Mt Baldy."
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack)
RadioShack announced prior to the Amgen Tour of California that it would be supporting two team leaders, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer.
Leipheimer is a three-time overall winner of the event in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The Santa Rosa native is the odds-on favourite to win the individual time trial, having won it on the three previous occasions, during his overall victories. He placed fourth on the stage four finishing climb on Sierra Road and is currently sitting in second place, 1:15 minutes behind Horner.
The time trial was moved to Los Angeles last year, where Leipheimer placed fourth to stage winner Tony Martin, last year's overall race winner Michael Rogers and Dave Zabriskie. He refreshed his memory of the Solvang parcours by offering advice to Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion Kristin Armstrong, who will be competing in the women's event.
"I've been focused on each stage and each day prior to the time trial," Leipheimer said. "But, I have been going over it in my head the last month or so. It's kind of funny because Kristin Armstrong asked for advice on the course. I wrote her a description, which was good for me, too, because it forced me to think about it and go back to the few years that I won it. It would be nice to have time going into it and I will take all the time that I can get."
Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad)
Tejay Van Garderen is one of the youngest overall contenders in the peloton at the Amgen Tour of California. He is currently sitting in second place in the Rabobank Best Young Rider competition, behind Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Cervelo. Van Garderen came into the race with high expectations to win the overall classification, but was disappointed with his 12th place performance on the stage four finishing climb on Sierra Road. However, with the stage 6 individual time trial and one more mountaintop finish during stage seven on Mt Baldy, there is still plenty of racing to go.
"I'm confident that we reconned the course and it really suits me and I think I am ready," Van Gerderen said. "I think I can do better than a top 10."
Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Cervelo)
Garmin-Cervelo brought one of the strongest teams on paper with the likes of Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin and Rabobank Best Young Rider Andrew Talansky. This year, Zabriskie has placed well in time trials at the Tour de Romandie, where he won, along with second place in the Tirreno-Adriatico, fourth place at Criterium International and third place at Circuit de la Sarthe. Zabriskie has twice placed second overall at the Amgen Tour of California, in 2010 behind Michael Rogers and in 2009 behind Leipheimer. Last year, he placed third in the event's individual time trial held in Los Angeles.
But Zabriskie's performance during the stage four finishing climb on Sierra Road left much to the imagination and he is currently sitting in 31nd overall, 4:40 minutes behind race leader Horner. His teammate Christian Vande Velde, also a strong time trialist, put forth a strong performance on the ascent placing sixth on the day and is sitting in fourth place overall, 1:29 behind Horner.
Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare)
UnitedHealthcare made it clear from the beginning of the season that it was riding in full support of Rory Sutherland to win the overall title at the Amgen Tour of California. Sutherland placed third on stage four's finishing climb on Sierra Road, 1:15 behind stage winner and current race leader Horner and same time as Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek). Sutherland took advantage of valuable advice offered from bike sponsor and legendary time trialist Chris Boardman.
"The GC is alive and well," Sutherland said. "The podium is a little bit more insight but we still have a long way to go. I've been working very hard on my time trial bike this year. I've got some good results. We've revised my position countless times. Chris Boardman turned up this morning and we are going to go through some secret strategy with him about how to ride his bike and see whether I can get some extra pointers. I hope it works out but we still have to get through Saturday."
Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing)
BMC Racing will be relying on its USPro time trial champion Taylor Phinney to win the Amgen Tour of California stage 6 individual time trial. Phinney, who is also a world champion in the track pursuit and in the Under 23 time trial, is hoping to use the event to test his legs prior to the USA Pro Cycling Championships held in Greenville, South Carolina next weekend.
"Hopefully I can get a good result because that is my biggest goal here, it's ultimately the time trial. I will be giving it everything that is for sure," Phinney said. "The course does suit me. It has a false flat and a little kicker and then a false flat downhill on the way back into Solvang. It is a relatively good course for me, a power course."
Bert Grabsch (HTC-Highroad)
Bert Grabsch is one of the top time trialists in the event. He won the 2008 UCI Time Trial World Championships in Varese, Italy and is expected to put forth a good performance in the stage six individual time trial. This year he placed fifth in the time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico and fifth at the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This week is riding in full support of Tejay Van Garderen but hopes to have enough energy left over to place well in the event's time trial.
"Normally the time trial is my target but it is difficult to just focus on that at a stage race," Grabsch said. "I worked for Tejay this week. The days before the time trial were difficult and we work for Matt Goss in the sprint earlier so it might be difficult. I will see how my legs are. But, the course is very good for me. I saw the profile on paper and I will test the course on Friday morning. It is not too short with 24kms and it has some hills in it. It is an opportunity for me. There are a lot of time trialists here. I will just have to see how my legs are and if I feel good I will go full gas."
Svein Tuft (SpiderTech p/b C10)
Tuft is best known for his silver medal performance in the 2008 UCI World Time Trial Championships held in Varese, Italy. He had a mechanical en route and ended up placing second to Grabsch. He is also the current and former six-time Canadian national time trial champion. This year, he placed fourth in the prologue at the UCI 2.HC Driesdaage ven West-Vlaadneren. Unfortunately he fell ill and was forced to pull out of the Tour of Turkey two weeks ago.
"Everything is coming back, but the first day was horrible," Tuft said. "I feel like each day I am feeling better and getting stronger. It's hard to say how I will do in the time trial. I was sick and out for about 10 days straight and so I really have no idea how my form is. I'm just hoping for the best."
Tom Zirbel (Jamis-Sutter Home)
Zirbel is a dark horse candidate at the Amgen Tour of California individual time trial held in Solvang. He is no stranger to the top ranking having placed in the top 10 in the event in 2008 and 2009. However, this year he was a late addition to the Jamis-Sutter Home team and one of the final additions to the event roster. Zirbel came back to the peloton after serving a year and half suspension for an anti-doping infraction, of which he maintains his innocence. During that time, he competed in non-USA Cycling sanctioned events and won the Tour de Gruene time trial where he broke Lance Armstrong's record.
"I feel more confident than I probably should, given the lack of racing that I have had in the last year and half," Zirbel said. "But, that being said, I have had a few days to go to try and come in as fresh as I can on Friday. I don't know how I will feel although I've been feeling great this week. Sierra Road was a trying day and yesterday was a long stage and taxing. It will be interesting to see how I've come out of those days. But, I feel really confident and I'm hoping for the best. It will be nice to compete in my strength and my specialty again and hopefully I will gain more confidence from that."
Jeremy Vennell (Bissell)
Jeremy Vennell is a former New Zealand National Champion and one of the top domestic sprinters in the US. This year, he placed second overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race, second in the time trial at the Tour of the Gila and seventh in the prologue at Redlands Bicycle Classic. He has also had top ten performances at the Tour of Utah, Tour of Elk Grove, Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, Cascade Cycling Classic and Nature Valley Grand Prix.
"I tried to save my legs in stage 5 and a lot of the guys who are going for the time trial will do the same thing," Vennell said. "I like the course, it suits me fine. I will ride it again in the morning. I think I have a really good shot at doing well there and I've improved a lot since the last time I raced there."