The third Tour of Missouri will kick off in "The Gateway City", St. Louis, with a festival befitting the race's increased stature. Set for the US Labor Day holiday on September 7, the high-quality professional field will be the main attraction for the first stage as six ProTour, two Professional Continental and seven domestic teams take on the fast and flat circuit through downtown St. Louis.
Fans will flock to the pre-race activities which include amateur races, a weekend of professional women's racing, appearances by the pro men as well as a host of other bike-related events.
Starring in the show will be American George Hincapie, who will sport his new stars and stripes jersey he earned by winning the US Professional championships last weekend. Big George will likely be working to bring his teammate and prolific sprint winner Mark Cavendish to the line for the first stage win of the 2009 Tour.
Also appearing will be Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, who returns after rehabilitating a broken wrist sustained in the Tour de France. He'll be backed by a solid Astana line-up, which will include Yaroslav Popovych and Jani Brajkovic.
The Garmin-Slipstream team will field a strong squad designed to defend Christian Vande Velde's title from last year. They'll bring David Zabriskie, who is fresh from his fourth US Time Trial championship in a row.
Other top names on the roster are Cervelo TestTeam's big Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd and classics star Heinrich Haussler, Liquigas' Franco Pellizotti, Saxo Bank's Jens Voigt and Gustav Larsson and BMC's Jeff Louder.
Expect the best of the domestic peloton to be in attendance as well, with Colavita/Sutter Home squad, Kelly Benefit Strategies, Jelly Belly, Bissell, Team Type 1, OUCH Pro Cycling and the Canadian team Planet Energy all packed with enough talent to give the ProTour teams a challenge.
The organisers made a clever switch to the route this year, flipping it from the previous west-east direction and heading out in the opposite direction.
The change puts the hillier terrain early in the race, but also makes the time trial a bit easier - switching out the former difficult course in Branson for a much flatter parcours in Sedalia. Still, the 30.5km test should be the decisive stage of the Tour.
"The biggest change for the outcome of the race is the time trial change," said Garmin-Slipstream manager Jonathan Vaughters. "I think a rider like Zabriskie and Zirbel would do well.
"As for stage wins, Cavendish is the overwhelming favourite for the majority of the stages. I think the time trial being later and flatter maybe gives more opportunity for a break or a significant split to happened especially if the weather turns nasty or windy. I expect more aggression than in the past years."
Zirbel, who will compete for the Bissell squad but move across to the Garmin team for 2010, is hoping to be in contention for the overall win.
"I am hoping to not lose time the first few days, it's going to be hard. I foresee another break of attrition going on the second or third day, which are difficult. Hopefully we will be able to put a time trialer in the lead group and be as fresh as possible."
After the time trial, the riders face two stages on relatively flat ground, but the penultimate stage from Chillicothe to St. Joseph heads due west for the first part of the stage, then drops south for the final 50km, cutting straight across the prevailing winds. Heavy crosswinds could split the peloton and a mountain sprint with 11km to go will make chasing back on harder.
"The entire direction of the tour changed: Typically the wind blows west to east, we are going from what used to be a tailwind race to a headwind in general, in a rough general way. It hasn't typically been that windy but you never know this could be the first," said Vaughters.
Since the demise of this year's Tour de Georgia and the loss of several other UCI-ranked events in the USA, the Tour of Missouri is all the more important to the domestic peloton this year. The race nearly suffered a similar fate to Tour de Georgia when the state government threatened to withhold funding for the race, but fortunately the political powers that be saw the value in this popular race and allowed it to continue.
Expect the battle for stage wins to be fierce and the overall classification decided by seconds.