By Kirsten Robbins in Solvang, California
Columbia-Highroad teammates George Hincapie and Michael Rogers set the bar high for the Tour of California, February 14 to 22. The pair arrived at the team's Solvang, California, training camp in tiptop condition, just prior to their first objective of the season.
"I've never been this fit in January," said Hincapie. "This race has become very important for all of us. Especially for the American riders and teams."
Riders use events like the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California as tools to condition themselves for their spring objectives. However, the races are also a focus of many teams. The Tour of California rates high because of the growth of American companies investing in ProTour level teams and sponsoring International Cycling Union level events.
"It's a great event and easier to get motivated when you're racing in your own country. We don't get to race here that often so this event is becoming more and more important to me and my American sponsors. I'm motivated and I'd like to at least win a stage and help the team win a stage."
Rogers proved he was in top-notch shape in January when he won the Australian national time trial championships. He broke Nathan O'Neil's course record by more than forty seconds.
"Cycling has changed a lot in terms of how many months the riders need to be in shape," said Rogers, who would like to see the racing season end in August. "Our season is much more international and most of these additional events are in the winter months.
"I'd really like to see the season end after the true summer months are over. I think it's just too much for everyone to race twelve months of the year."
Rogers tailored his training to peak in California. He will follow the event with some down time during March.
"I'll take a month of no racing after this and build my fitness back up again for the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France," Rogers said. He has not raced a major tour since his crash in the 2007 Tour de France.
"I think it's a tall order for me to say that I want to win the Tour. I think a top five position would be a great ride for me. I decided to race the Giro this year because I think I need a big race like that under my belt before July."