By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor in Kansas City, Missouri
Six riders contesting the Tour of Missouri were on hand to answer questions from the assembled press corps, half of which were from the Discovery Channel team, potentially illustrating the organiser's belief in a power imbalance in the peloton. Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, new US champion Levi Leipheimer and former US champion George Hincapie were also joined by team director Johan Bruyneel for the start in what is turning into a farewell Discovery Channel tour. Also present were Nathan O'Neill (Health Net-Maxxis), Ivan Dominguez (Toyota-United) and Danny Pate (Slipstream-Chipotle).
Lieutenant governor Peter Kinder, who was the impetus behind bringing the event to the state and the largest source of funding, welcomed the riders and press.
One of the themes among the riders is that people are underestimating the difficulty of the parcours. Australia's O'Neill is likely the most knowledgeable of this, having come out here to recon the stages weeks in advance of the race. "I saw how few and far between flat roads are here," he said, putting to rest thoughts that this race might be only for the sprinters. "Friday's stage will be fairly solid and the Time Trial will be certainly decisive. Thursday's stage really surprised me based on the profile and the elevation."
"After hearing Nathan talking I think they sent the wrong book to my house, they told me it was going to be flat!" joked Dominguez.
Pate leads a strong Slipstream-Chipotle team and is still motivated to race in September. "I'm excited to do the race, I was a little disappointed to second in the time trial," said Pate. "I'm not over that yet."
Much of the focus was spent on Discovery - both in the fact that they are the clear superpower of the race and that it is its last race on US soil. "I thought it was our obligation to bring the biggest names because it is our last race on American ground," revealed Bruyneel. "It is a farewell week this week. We are super motivated of course, we usually do well like in the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia."
When Tour champion Contador was asked why he chose to race here, he replied saying that this is his first real race since winning in light of all the post-Tour criteriums. "I didn't compete in any real races after the Tour so I am hungry to race," he stated. "I also think our sponsor deserves us being here. I know this race doesn't suit me, I am a climber more. I think I can help George and Levi because I think they are candidates to win this race. I am happy that I can finally race here in the US."
Recently crowned US champion Leipheimer noted that he has been training for this season since last October and racing full-time since the Tour of California, so his fitness and motivation is not peaking. "That is one of the reason we brought such as strong team - we don't have to rely on just one person," noted Leipheimer. "The peloton will have a tough time deciding who to key off of. I'm not at my best but I am still going strong, which you saw last Sunday."
That was about the extent of Leipheimer's divulgence of the team tactics. "A tactic that looks obvious for us to do might not be what we are trying to do," he said.
But based upon what both Contador and Leipheimer said, a likely candidate for the overall is George Hincapie. "This year I missed the Classics and I have had the world championships on my mind - and a race that is not far from home is a great way to prepare," said Hincapie. "I felt strong last weekend and I hope I have good form here. It's harder to control a race with no major climbs so you have to pay attention. It seems like it is windy here so you won't be able to relax much."
Of course, everyone wanted to know what Contador and Bruyneel were going to do next year with both keeping to a vague response. "There have been some opportunities presented to me but I have not made my mind up yet," said Bruyneel. "One of my main reasons to step away was to spend more time at home with my family. So right now I am trying to decide what to do. But I can confirm there is an offer on the table."
If driving fans to cycling events in the US was not hard enough, the finish in St. Louis will have to compete with an American football game, hotly contested baseball game, preseason hockey game and another festival. But the lieutenant governor said he is remaining optimistic. "I've been talking it up for months," he said. "Not only are the Cubs in town which is always interesting, but the Rams have a game. I was reminded that the Blues also have their first home exhibition.. so it's going to be an unbelievable weekend in St. Louis. But I believe there is a certainly large enough fan base to cover all the teams and the tour. There actually is a web site attacking us for creating a traffic jam that weekend but I prefer to look at it optimistically!"