By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor in Sacramento, California
Leading up to the start of the Tour of California prologue, the official Tour of California pre-race press conference was a site of some non-racing drama. The panel of riders was a cross-section of what is hyped to be the greatest assemblage of cycling talent in North America since the days of the Coors Classic. And the culmination of that was Lance Armstrong, making his return to professional racing in the United States.
The amount of people on the stage, eighteen, was only rivaled by the amount of press (and those merely watching) squeezing into the hotel ballroom in downtown Sacramento. More than twenty television cameras and at least 200 people wanted to catch a glimpse of the pre-race happenings.
Most of the race-specific questions were directed at defending champion Levi Leipheimer, who has an all-star roster riding for him on the Astana team.
"How do I put it? It's a fantastic team!" he said. "A Seven-time Tour de France winner, [Yaroslav] Popovych, Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner, the legendary [José Luis Rubiera] 'Chechu'... We are really motivated for the race and it deserves our best effort."
Leipheimer said that being a California native makes this race special for him, and as such he targets his training for it – particularly his off-season training.
"Every time I got on my time trial bike I thought of the time trial in Solvang. I am going to start on Saturday knowing I have done everything like in the past two years and I can win again.
"I've always had that philosophy and I train extremely hard for the race every year."
But even Levi admits this year is special, with the depth of the start list. "You see, little by little, all of the other teams and riders are putting more effort into it. You would be hard pressed to find a better field before July than right here."
Read the complete feature.
Liquigas riding Tour of California for training
Team Liquigas will field stars such as Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali and Chicchi at the Tour of California starting on Saturday, February 15 with a 3.8km individual time trial prologue in Sacramento, but the team is moderating its expectations about the race.
"We are riding for training," said Directeur Sportif Mario Scirea, "but we know that this race is an important step to prepare for our season's goals. We need to see how our form is."
Serving as captain of the team, Basso will be in his third race of the season, but Scirea said his Italian star is under no pressure. "He will race without thinking of results. He will be free to take the race day by day, and we'll evaluate together if he can do anything else other than just train."
"Here in California, the media pressure is high," said Basso, "but I've only one goal: to train myself for the Giro d'Italia. When I was in Donoratico, I understood that my preparation is proceeding in the best way, and I hope to return from the US feeling even better."
In fact, it is Nibali who will be the team's rider with his eye on the general classification. "He's been working hard, and we believe he can obtain good results in the final ranking," said Scirea, who also marked his other riders, Francesco Chicchi and Jacopo Guarnieri, as the squad's men to watch in the stages that end with sprint finishes. So far this season, Chicchi has one victory and Guarnieri has one second place (behind Alessandro Petacchi in the GP Costa degli Etruschi).
Basso, Nibali, Guarnieri and Chicchi will receive support from the team's other riders throughout the Tour of California: Kjell Carlström, Brian Bach Vandborg, Alessandro Vanotti and Daniel Oss.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the Tour of California.