The Amgen Tour of California is set to get underway in Santa Rosa for its seventh edition on Sunday, May 13, but it is still uncertain as to whether the Grand Depart's adopted son, Levi Leipheimer, will be either on the start line or able to contend for a fourth overall title.
Leipheimer was hit by a car last month and suffered a broken fibula, and while he has been able to train, his progress was slower than he imagined. The Omega Pharma-Quickstep rider and his team will make a final decision on Friday. If Leipheimer is not up to his top form, the team will look to Peter Velits, winner of the Tour of Oman this year, and 3rd in the 2010 Vuelta a España overall, as its GC contender.
This leaves last year's champion Chris Horner as the prime American contender for the overall victory, and RadioShack-Nissan is sending a strong group of loyal domestiques to assist in the hardest edition of the race to date. Yet even Horner's preparation for the race has not been perfect: he began the season in Tirreno-Adriatico, his first race back after a devastating crash in the 2011 Tour de France which left him with a concussion and a blood clot in his lungs. While he wore the leader's jersey in Tirreno, he lost it on the final time trial to Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale). He then was forced to skip the Volta a Catalunya due to tendinitis in his knee. However, strong performances in the Ardennes Classics in support of Fränk Schleck showed that Horner is well on his way to being full speed.
A rider looking to regain his former glory in California is Robert Gesink. The Rabobank rider won a stage in San Jose in 2008 and wore the best young rider's jersey, but hasn't been back since the event moved to May. After suffering a broken femur last fall, Gesink showed progress in his rehabilitation with a top 10 finish in the Vuelta a la Region de Murcia, but he is still unproven in the high mountains. Rabobank has a very good backup plan in Laurens Ten Dam. Third on Mt. Baldy last year, Ten Dam finished 6th overall and has the potential to improve upon that result in this year's edition.
Tirreno-Adriatico winner Vincenzo Nibali comes to California for the first time since a sixth overall in 2009, and he does so after an early season of particularly impressive performances. He won the Green Mountain stage in the Tour of Oman, was so consistent in Tirreno that he won the points jersey in addition to the overall, and then claimed podium spots in both Milan-San Remo (3rd) and Liège - Bastogne - Liège (2nd). He clearly has the qualities of a rider who can win the overall here, and together with Peter Sagan, several stage wins may be in Liquigas-Cannondale's future.
Garmin-Barracuda is still seeking its first Amgen Tour of California overall victory after landing on the podium every year. In addition to Tom Danielson who was third last year, the team is also bringing youngster Andrew Talansky, who is fresh off a second place overall in the Tour de Romandie and will be an important arrow in the team's tactical quiver.
After finishing last year's race as the best young rider, BMC's Tejay Van Garderen will be looking to finally replace that white jersey with a yellow one. After finishing fifth overall in Paris-Nice, Van Garderen was on track for another outstanding result in the Tour de Romandie until high winds knocked a tree branch into his face and he had to withdraw. A few stitches and some bruises later, Van Garderen is still on fine form and will be primed for the GC battle.
Other riders who can complicate the race for the big names are Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R-La Mondiale - 4th Tirreno-Adriatico), UnitedHealthcare's Rory Sutherland, who last week won the overall at the SRAM Tour of the Gila, 2011 Tour Down Under champion Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge), Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) and any number of riders on the Colombia-Coldeportes team, including 4 Jours de Dunkerque mountains classification winner Carlos Quintero and former U23 world champion Fabio Duarte.
Look for the domestic teams to be launching riders up the road in hopes of getting the special recognition of the points, mountains or most courageous jerseys. Riders like last year's mountains classification winner Pat McCarty (Spidertech), Jesse Anthony (Optum Pro Cycling), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell), Lawson Craddock (Bontrager-Livestrong) and Matt Cooke (Exergy) are frequent attackers who can put the pedal to the metal and keep it there.
There aren't too many stages that are designed for the sprinters outside of the final stage in Los Angeles, but should the sprinters' teams succeed in bringing the race back together at the end of the hilly stages in Santa Rosa, Livermore or Clovis there are plenty of fast men of quality who will be going head-to-head.
Sagan will get a challenge from Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), who already has five wins this season including two stages in Oman and the Scheldeprijs. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) is still coming back from a break, but will have his teammate Gerald Ciolek to stand in if need be. Robbie McEwen has announced he will retire after the race, but Orica-GreenEdge will certainly be keen to send him off on a high note.
Other sprinters of note: Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEdge), Michael Matthews (Rabobank), Carlos Alzate and Fred Rodriguez (Exergy), Alex Candelario and Ken Hanson (Optum) and Patrick "Paddy" Bevin (Bissell).