With three overall victories and two other podium places, Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma - Quick Step) is undoubtedly the king of the Amgen Tour of California. Each season the Californian stage race has been one of his primary objectives and with strong time trialling and climbing he has delivered the goods.
This year, with the race starting in his adopted hometown of Santa Rosa, the motivation meter should be pegged. Leipheimer's highly successful King's Ridge Gran Fondo is also headquartered in Santa Rosa and provided inspiration for the race's opening stage.
"I know stage 1 is going to be pretty awesome. Carlos [Perez] and I came up with a course which takes in most of the [King's Ridge] Gran Fondo. It goes through the redwoods and out Highway 1 and by the Pacific Ocean and the vineyards, so I think it is really a great postcard for Sonoma County," Leipheimer told Cyclingnews.
The stage start is a bit of a novelty, heading out of Santa Rosa for a short circuit through the local vineyards before returning downtown for an intermediate sprint. After that, the riders will head out towards Occidental, then Guerneville and the tiny hamlet of Cazadero, before tackling several steep climbs on Fort Ross Road.
The race intersects the route of the King's Ridge Gran Fondo at the start of Meyers Grade Road. "The top of that climb is really where you are going to get the best pictures of the whole week. You are over 1500 feet above the ocean and looking south along the coast. It is an amazing view from there. I think it is going to be a great way to open up the race. It will get people excited. That part will be on live television. It is going to be important for Sonoma County," said Leipheimer.
From there, the stage heads down Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean before turning inland at Coleman Valley Road, a steep 1-mile climb that has been used twice before in the Amgen Tour of California and has produced a few fireworks before a general regrouping on the way to Occidental and back into Santa Rosa. The stage adds up to a total distance of 115.88 miles.
Will the first stage be decisive? If history repeats itself probably not, but that doesn't mean it will be a parade to the finish. "It is not a really hard stage, but it certainly is not easy, especially with Coleman Valley," adds Leipheimer.
A new time trial in Bakersfield
The first decisive stage of the race will probably be the time trial in Bakersfield on stage 5. The course will start and finish at Bakersfield College, the site of the finish of stage 5 of the 2010 edition of the event.
Situated on top of a mesa, right out of the start the riders will drop down a steep 250-foot descent before heading onto Alfred Harrell Highway. About eight miles out riders will U-turn and head back to the finish, confronting the same, short steep climb in the uphill direction for a total distance of 18.44 miles.
"To me it looks like a very non-technical time trial, straight, fast. It could be windy out there. There is some elevation gain, but I wouldn't call it a super-hilly time trial. There is the climb back up to the finish.
"It is really good for me because it is a course where I can stay in my [time trial] position a lot and not have to break my rhythm or get out of the position to stand up. I can use that to my advantage," said Leipheimer.
How does Leipheimer think the eight-stage race will play out? "Unfortunately, since the GC battle comes towards the end of the race, it is going to clamp down on any breakaways before then. Nobody is going to want to let stuff get away. So, I think we are going to see a lot of field sprints or sprints out of large groups. Stage 1 and stage 2 could be half the peloton. Maybe stage 2 is less than that, but still a large group at the finish. I don't see any separation happening before the time trial."
The race will most likely come down to the summit finish on Mount Baldy. During the early years of the event, Leipheimer lobbied the race organizers for just such a mountain top finish. "When you are talking about [Amgen Tour of] California or the USA Pro Cycling Challenge these are the two biggest races in the US and when it comes to big stage races a mountain top finish is a key part of that. You've got the time trial, you've got the flat stages, sometimes you have a prologue, but a mountain top finish, especially in places like California and Colorado, it just makes sense."
"It is exciting for the fans. It is a place in the venue where they can go and see the race live and see the race come by at a slower speed and really take it all in. That's why you always see the big crowds on the climbs," said Leipheimer.
Last year, Leipheimer took second overall to his teammate Chris Horner, but this year the two are on separate teams and will go head-to-head. "I think it is going to be more clear cut this year than last year because last year I was coming off of sickness and the team [Radio Shack] had built it such that both Chris and myself were both going for the overall. That gets complicated when you have two guys on the same team, but when you look back on it, it went pretty well because we got first and second.
"This year we are sending a really strong team. A lot of the Tour de France team. I think everyone knows what the goal is. It should be pretty clear cut," said Leipheimer.
But, does a European team like Leipheimer's Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad see racing in America as important? "It is important for the team as a whole especially when you consider that we have Specialized, Zipp, SRAM, Quark. All our equipment sponsors are American. Quick Step and Omega Pharma realize the benefit in it as well.
"They are really looking forward to California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as the two biggest races over here. They have built a good team to come over and help me win them and they are taking it seriously. They have designed camps which start about a week before both races so that everybody is acclimated to the time change and ready to go," said Leipheimer.
Can Leipheimer win his fourth Amgen Tour of California title? He was arguably the class of the field at the recently concluded Tour de San Luis and has both the motivation and the team support necessary for victory. He is one of the pre-race favorites and with the race starting in Santa Rosa he will certainly have an emotional boost unlike any other racer.