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Amgen Tour of California favourites: Can Leipheimer make it four?

For all that has changed at the Amgen Tour of California in 2010, the contenders for the race’s overall title remain largely the same heading into its fifth edition. Despite moving from February to May and creating a direct clash with the Giro d’Italia, California has still managed to attract some big general classification names.

Holding the race later in the year should change the weather conditions in which the event is held, with the lack of snow enabling the route to include bigger, better climbs and more favourable conditions.

Perhaps the most important impact the date change has is its alignment with riders' form; being just over five weeks away from the Tour de France, many will be in much better shape than during California's previous February slot.

One rider who would have been in our top 10, having finishing sixth at last year’s race, is Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali. Instead the Liquigas-Doimo rider was drafted into the squad’s Giro roster after Franco Pellizotti was withdrawn, leaving the Italian team with a sprint-focused roster in America.

1 - Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack)

While Arnold Schwarzenegger may be 'The Governator' Levi Leipheimer could be described as the 'King of California'. The American’s record at the West Coast event speaks for itself: a victory at next week’s race will give Leipheimer his fourth consecutive California crown.

Having won all but one edition of the event, after finishing sixth to Floyd Landis at the inaugural edition in 2006, Leipheimer naturally enters this year's edition with favourite status. While all too many riders know past performance doesn’t equal future success, Leipheimer appears to have the required form to win.

Leipheimer used the Tour of Gila to prepare for last year’s Giro d’Italia, winning the American race before going on to finish sixth at the Giro. He’s already repeated the Gila victory, leading from start to finish, and will be keen to show his readiness for this year’s Tour de France with another strong showing in California.

Leipheimer will need to summon every ounce of his experience if he’s to continue his winning streak in California. While local knowledge and history play into his favour, it could be timing that hurts his title defense hopes. Despite his own form being on track, the move from February to May means some of his general classification rivals are in a better position than years gone by.

You can expect Leipheimer to start making his general classification move on the second stage, motivated by a potential stage victory in his hometown of  Santa Rosa. Leipheimer will likely be supported by his strong RadioShack team – which includes Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Janez Brajkovic and Yaroslav Popovych – in splitting up the overall contenders on the stage’s two climbs to nearly 2,000 ft.

2 - Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia)

After a few rough years Michael Rogers has enjoyed a successful start to his 2010 season. Crashing out of the Tour de France followed by a rare double bout of Epstein-Barr virus had left the Australian largely in the background during a period he could have been significantly more prominent in, if it weren’t for injury and health issues.

With the woes behind him Rogers showed he means business by winning Spain’s Ruta del Sol in February, his first general classification victory since he won Route du Sud in 2003. The Canberra rider backed up that result with sixth at Tirreno – Adriatico, second at Critérium International and had led the Tour de Romandie until an ill-timed flat tyre over the final four kilometres of the last stage cost him dearly.

While HTC-Columbia will also have star sprinter Mark Cavendish to look after, it’s fielding a strong and diverse roster that can ensure that both stage and overall ambitions are well catered for. The American squad will have Bernhard Eisel and Tony Martin to help Rogers at the event, which is sure to be an important race for its Taiwanese and American sponsors – for which North America is a big market.

Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) kicked off 2010 with a win in the Ruta del Sol. Photo: Bosco Martin.

3 - Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions)

Dave Zabriskie will be looking to keep Leipheimer honest again in California, after finishing 36 seconds behind in second place last year. His Garmin-Transitions boss Jonathan Vaughters believes this year’s time trial, a 33.6km effort in Los Angeles on stage seven, will suit Zabriskie better than the Solvang time trial it replaces.

While Leipheimer’s Team RadioShack squad benefits from not contesting the Giro, therefore not having to split its big riders across two important races, Zabriskie’s squad isn’t weakened much by contesting both events. He will have a workhorse in Australia’s Matthew Wilson to aid his title bid, while Garmin-Transitions will also field Steven Cozza, Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal.

Zabriskie played a key role on Gila’s opening stage in breaking the race apart. Leipheimer’s form proved too good for 'DZ' on that course; however, there wasn’t exactly daylight between the pair, showing that Zabriskie is prepared for the challenge ahead.

David Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) won the 2009 Tour of Missouri. Photo: Jonathan Devich

4 - Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck wears a different pair of shoes to Rogers (while that’s intended metaphorically, it could be literal as well, as Schleck wears Specialized and Rogers uses Bont). Recent years have seen the youngster rise to prominence, but it’s the start of 2010 that has brought him trouble.

Schleck has been battling knee issues for much of the season to date, caused by a collision with a car while training in December. That his results got better as the Spring Classics season progressed is an encouraging sign, yet his sixth place at Liège - Bastogne – Liège fell short of the winning expectations placed upon his shoulders.

With a week of light training under his belt leading up to his California departure, Schleck’s admission to not being in top form is unsurprising. Yet while the 24-year-old says he’s simply aiming for a single stage victory in California, we won’t be surprised to see him riding inside the top 10 overall.

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) had a rough start to the season because of a knee injury. Photo: Bert Geerts.

5 - Philip Deignan (Cervelo TestTeam)

Cervélo TestTeam has earmarked Ireland’s Philip Deignan as its man for California’s overall title. The race will be an interesting test for Deignan, who like Schleck has battled through a difficult start to his season.

Deignan showed his stage race potential at the Vuelta a Espana late last year, where he finished in ninth place. Since the 2010 season commenced however, the 26-year-old has struggled firstly with the flu, before being hit by fatigue.

Tests conducted leading up to Liège demonstrated the extent of Deignan’s fatigue and the rider returned to his home in Donegal to rest for a week before building up for California. The rough start to Deignan’s season will mean California is an important event to develop his fitness ahead of the Tour de France, where he will likely ride for Carlos Sastre.

The interrupted schedule, combined with the lack of course knowledge that comes with being a California debutant will make it difficult for Deignan to challenge the likes of Rogers, Leipheimer and Zabriskie.

6 - Janez Brajkovic (Team Radioshack)

It’s a close call between Chris Horner and Slovenian rider Janez Brajkovic as to which ‘other’ RadioShack rider we’re expecting to be strong in California. Brajkovic is flying already this year, with top general classification results at the Giro di Sardegna, Paris-Nice, Vuelta Castilla y Leon and Tour de Romandie already under his belt.

Brajkovic and Horner will both provide strong support for Leipheimer, and will likely both walk away with strong overall finishes in the process. Should something unfortunate happen to the team’s leader during his title defense Brajkovic could be well placed to take over the bid, and as a former Tour de Georgia winner is no stranger to success in the US of A.

7 - Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions)

Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal has enjoyed perhaps the strongest start to any season in his career this year. His outings at the classics in particular show how far the 29-year-old has come, finishing fifth at Strade Bianche, second at Amstel Gold Race and top 13 finishes at both Fléche Wallonne and Liège.

His stage race outings have been equally as fruitful, with a sixth overall at Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. Hesjedal also finished 12th at Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco and could be Garmin-Transitions' second rider amongst the top 10 in California.

8 - Stef Clement (Rabobank)

Rabobank is one of the teams RadioShack director Johan Bruyneel has listed as having a strong roster for California, with Stef Clement leading its general classification charge. Clement finished Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia in sixth place ahead of Bruyneel’s rider Lance Armstrong.

The current Dutch time trial champion has previously shown he can win stages in races like Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré, but it remains to be seen if he will only aim for the top 10 or can contend with the likes of an in-form Leipheimer for overall honours.

9 - Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank)

Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang is more likely to focus on bringing Saxo Bank a stage victory than the overall classification, but we’re expecting him to do well with both objectives. The former mountain biker was prominent at the Vuelta late last year, with three stage podium finishes and Garmin-Transitions’ Vaughters expects him to be strong on the 213.7km stage six from Pasadena to Big Bear Lake.

Fuglsang is yet another rider hit by injury early in the season but with his contract up for renewal and his Tour de France debut slated for July, the 25-year-old will be looking to put results on the board in California. He is another of the European riders making his US debut next week, so will need to manage the jetlag issues.

10 - Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia)

America’s Phil Zajicek is expected to be one of the strongest competitors from the teams that compete domestically in the US. His climbing and time trialing abilities are both well documented, having won stages in both disciplines at the Cascade Cycling Classic and SRAM Tour of the Gila.

The 31-year-old wasn’t able to repeat his Gila podium from last year at the start of the month, but Zajicek still showed he’s in great form on his way to fourth place – behind three ProTour riders who are all listed above.

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