Several of the main contenders of the Amgen Tour of California joined representatives from the local committee, the race organiser AEG and technical directors Medalist for the opening press conference in Santa Rosa today: veterans Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), defending champion Chris Horner (Radioshack-Nissan) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) were flanked by Classics superstar Tom Boonen and younger contenders Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) to talk about the race.
Leipheimer was a central figure in bringing the race's grand depart to Santa Rosa, and unlike the race's last visit here when the race was held in February under winter storms, the town shone under a brilliant California sun, the verdant rolling hills a pleasing backdrop but a reminder of the challenge that lies ahead for the riders in the hardest edition of the race in its seven year history.
This year's eight day itinerary includes four opening stages, each with a significant amount of climbing that can shatter the peloton leaving only the strongest sprinters, followed by the Bakersfield time trial and two high mountain stages before the denoument in Los Angeles. The popularity of the race has only risen with the increased challenge over the past seven years.
"I remember that day we had the press conference in San Francisco in the fall of 2005, to announce there would be an Tour of California," Leipheimer said of the race's origins. "I remember dreaming about the roads we'd be racing on and the peloton that would assemble, and the history in US cycling that we were going to make. Seven years later, to see it all come here to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County and start the whole thing, it has been phenomenal to watch. I'm proud to be a part of it in a lot of ways. I've seen the effect the race has had in our community, the state as a whole and in US cycling - it's made some careers, some stars, and inspired the next generation. I'm proud of the race and our community that's worked very hard to make this moment possible."
Leipheimer admitted that his broken leg, sustained five weeks ago when he was hit by a car in Spain, will prevent him from contesting the overall victory and that duty may fall to Peter Velits. His teammate Boonen indicated that there may be other stages besides the short, flat final stage in Los Angeles which he can contest for a stage win, even though it is his first race back after a post-Classics break.
"It's the perfect race to get started again. There are three or four stages that will suit me, not just two. I am looking forward to getting a big result," Boonen said.
Without Leipheimer at top form, Horner is looking to repeat the victory that was a defining moment for him in the 2011 season. "It was a great win, maybe one of the best of my career. The exposure we got even in Europe, it's been fantastic for me. It was a great experience as a whole, with the team and the camaraderie of wearing the leader's jersey for so long."
Horner propelled himself to the lead in the Sierra Road mountain top finish last year, and together with Leipheimer rode away on the Mt. Baldy stage to cement his overall win. This year, with only one summit finish, again on Mt. Baldy, he said the race doesn't necessarily suit him as well. "The course is a little less ideal, but it's also the hardest course that we've ever experienced, so maybe that will help me in the long run. We came here with a strong team, and I'm looking forward to Baldy."
His 2011 success in California was followed by a horrific crash in the Tour de France, one that left him dazed with a concussion and later in a serious health risk from a blood clot in his lung. Over the winter, Horner worked diligently to get back to top form and began his season in Tirreno-Adriatico with the intention of proving himself immediately.
"It was fabulous to come back there. I made it a goal as soon as I crashed out of the Tour to be 100 per cent in whatever race I was at the right at the start of the season just to get any bad thoughts out of the way."
Horner rode himself into the race lead in Tirreno-Adriatico, thanks in part to a strong team time trial effort by Radioshack-Nissan and a tenacious ride in stage 4, but Nibali chipped away at his lead with an uphill attack the next day, and then finally wrested it from Horner on the final time trial.
Horner praised Nibali, recalling seeing him as a young rider at the 2005 Tour de Suisse and then watching the Italian confirm his promise, even though it was to his own demise, with admiration.
"He's a fabulous rider, I was incredibly excited to podium there, and he was a better time trialist than me, although I was dealing with a little injury. Coming off eight months from the crash at the Tour, I was quite excited to finish second. It was a win-win, one more step would have been good for the team, but all my personal goals were met."
Will the fans see a Horner-Nibali rematch come Bakersfield and Mt. Baldy?
"It's a different time of the year, and hopefully Vincenzo's not on the exact same form, but I'm sure he will be," Horner said. "When I look at the podium up here, I see everyone up here is a better time trialist than me. It's going to be damage control in the time trial for me, and then on Baldy, whatever guy is sitting second, third, fourth or fifth will have to attack first, and I'll probably be sitting fifth or sixth on GC at that time. Then I'm just going to have to make a selection at the finish, and I'll know if the legs are good or not good, so it would be easy to decide. I fully expect Vincenzo to be there at the finish and be fighting him for the win."
Nibali, speaking through a translator, said his Tirreno-Adriatico victory, while not as prestigious as a Giro d'Italia win, was an important race in Italy and a great victory against strong competition from Horner.
As an Italian, Nibali said it is difficult not to be racing the Giro d'Italia, "but the Tour of California is an important race and I am going to do my best to get a great result."
Nibali's last visit to California in 2009 resulted in a sixth place overall, but he missed out on a stage victory in Escondido to a late attack from Frank Schleck. "It may not be easy but I hope to give my best to better that result."