By Gary Boulanger, Bikeradar.com
As the 2009 Amgen Tour of California approaches, two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer is wrapping up final preparations with his Astana team in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California. With the return of Lance Armstrong, it's inevitable to wonder where the team allegiance will lie in pursuing overall victory when the race finishes in Escondido on February 22: with Leipheimer or the seven-time Tour de France champion?
The entire Astana squad - minus team director Johan Bruyneel - has called Santa Rosa home this past week, sharing precious saddle time with each other at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa before going their separate ways.
Astana mechanics have been dialing in the Trek Madone team bikes with SRAM liaison Alex Wassmann, while directors Alain Gallopin, Dirk Demol, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Sean Yates sort out the logistics for the season ahead. Leipheimer has led the team on his favourite local routes throughout the week, and on Wednesday took the Tour of California squad - Armstrong, Chris Horner, Janez Brajkovic, Yaroslav Popvych, Jose Luis Rubiera, Steve Morabito, and Michael Shar - on a brisk six-hour, 107-mile ride over Sonoma County's King's Ridge and back under somewhat cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s.
According to Horner, Astana doesn't feel the pressure to lead the Tour of California start to finish, because as he said, what matters is who wins at the end. He helped Leipheimer win in 2008, and was cagey during a post-ride interview about a designated team leader going into the 2009 event.
"We're going to work hard to win it," said Horner. "We have guys on the team who can win it, who have won it, and are going to win it!" he adds with a laugh.
Stay tuned for the full Cyclingnews feature on Team Astana's California preparations.