Some of the best riders in the world are about to gather at Lake Tahoe for the sixth edition of the Amgen Tour of California.
This year’s race route includes two mountain-top finishes on Sierra Rd. and Mount Baldy, plus the return of the challenging individual time trial in Solvang. Defending champion Michael Rogers (Sky) will not be in the eight-day stage race, however, the tough route is well-suited to last year’s other podium finishers: Dave Zabriskie and former three-time overall winner Levi Leipheimer.
Cyclingnews looks at the riders who may contend for overall honours in this year's race.
There’s no denying Levi Leipheimer’s qualifications as a contender for victory at the Amgen Tour of California and he heads into the event targeting his fourth overall title. The Santa Rosa, California resident won the overall classification for three consecutive years from 2007 to 2009.
“I think this race gets harder and harder every year,” Levi Leipheimer said. “It’s not only the course, but also the field and the strength of the peloton and I don’t think this year is any different. I know Garmin has a really strong team and every year all the teams put more energy and emphasis on this race.”
This year’s event marks the return of the iconic stage six 24km time trial held in the quaint town of Solvang. Leipheimer, 38, won the individual event in each of his three overall victories, making him the odds-on favourite to win the stage again. Furthermore, the stage race has become better-suited to Leipheimer with the addition of two mountain-top finishes: the first climb on Sierra Rd. during stage four, and the second and more decisive climb on Mount Baldy at the end of stage seven.
Leipheimer recently placed third overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia and was eighth overall at Paris-Nice in March.
“I feel good,” Leipheimer said. “Last month has been very good for me, which I needed so I am really happy about that. Physically I feel good and I am ready. I know we have a really strong team coming and Chris [Horner] is more than just a strong teammate, he is a potential winner and one of the favourites of the race. Tactically we can use both of us as threats to win, to our advantage.”
Leipheimer will have the support of seven teammates that includes the team’s second GC card Chris Horner. Horner, 40, is a proven all-rounder who, last year, won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, placed fourth overall at California and went on to a tenth place overall finish at the Tour de France.
"Three-time winner Levi Leipheimer will of course be our leader," said RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel. "This race suits him very well and this year even more than the previous ones. The race route became harder; we now have two mountaintop finishes, and there is the time trial in Solvang. Levi has never lost there. Chris Horner will be our perfect alternative. Thanks to his performances earlier this year in Catalunya and the Basque Country he deserves the co-leadership. Chris never disappoints us. Age doesn't seem to have an impact on him. Quite the contrary."
There is no doubt that both riders would welcome the chance to win the Amgen Tour of California this year. The tougher terrain plays into this duo’s strengths. The Garmin-Cervelo team will also have strong cards to play with youngster Andrew Talansky and Ryder Hesjedal.
Zabriskie, 32, has twice placed second overall. In 2009 he placed third in the opening prologue and went on to place second in the stage six time trial. Last year he out-paced Rogers and Leipheimer in a stage three sprint and he took the overall race lead. He lost it to Rogers on stage five and finished the eight-day race second overall, for the second consecutive year.
Although plagued by crashes during the last two seasons, Vande Velde, 35, is a proven top ten contender having stood on the podium in third place in the 2008 race. He also placed ninth in the 2006 edition and sixth place overall in 2007. Vande Velde’s tough-to-beat palmares also includes top ten overall finishes at the Tour de France and he wore the leader’s jersey for the first two stage of the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
Steve Morabito (BMC Racing)
Steve Morabito, 28, has been assigned the role of BMC Racing’s team leader at this year’s race. The Swiss native is a sixth year pro with a palmares that includes a top-five overall finish at the Tour de Suisse along with top ten overall finishes at the Circuit Cycliste de la Sarthe and top ten stage finishes at Tour of Romandie, Settimana Coppi e Bartali and the Giro d’Italia.
"This year's Amgen Tour of California is really hard, with two mountain-top finishes and the second half of the race is really going to be a test,” said assistant directeur sportif Michael Sayers. “That really suits Steve's strengths. He's a good climber and strong in time trials, plus his performance the last couple of weeks have shown that his form is right up there with the other contenders. He has done the Grand Tours but really, the week or 10-day stage races are what really play to his strength. The Tour of California is really a good race for him from top to bottom."
Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad)
Michael Rogers' move to Team Sky has opened the door for Tejay Van Garderen to be HTC-Highroad team leader at the Amgen Tour of California. The 22-year-old Washington native is one of the most accomplished racers amongst his younger generation. His palmares includes ten junior national titles in road racing, time trial, cyclo-cross and criterium. In 2009 he won the Tour du Haut Anjou and the Curcuito Montanes in France, took second place at the Tour des Pays de Savoie and placed second at the Tour de l’Avenir.
He joined HTC-Columbia in 2010 where he placed second overall at the Presidential Tour of Turkey, third overall at the Criterium Dauphine, fourth overall at the Tour de l’Ain and was on the winning team time trial squad at the Vuelta a Espana. This year, he has once again proven his stage race ability by placing second overall at the Volta ao Algarve, behind his teammate Tony Martin. Most recently, he was spotted training in the high altitude deserts of Silver City, New Mexico.
“Tejay is probably our main CG guy but we also have Peter Velits,” said HTC-Highroad Press Officer Kristy Scrymgeour. “Matt Goss will be a key player for us for sprints.”
Grand Tour contender Andy Schleck is recovering from his spring Classics campaign and using the Amgen Tour of California as key build-up for the Tour de France in July. His teammate, Linus Gerdemann will fill the role of team captain for the Leopard Trek squad during the eight-day race.
The 28-year-old from Germany began his career as a promising Under 23 rider, winning his country’s road race championship in 2005. After a series of top ten overall stage race performances, his big break came when he won stage seven of the Tour de France in 2007.
Since then, he has won overall titles at the Tour de l’Ain, Deutschland Rundfahrt and the Bayern-Rundfahrt. Some of his best results include a top 25 overall ride at the Tour de France, seventh overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and fifth at Montepaschi Strade Bianche-Eroica, all in 2009. Last year, his accomplishments continued with a stage victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta a Mallorca along with a 16th place overall at the Giro d’Italia.
This year, Gerdemann has proven his form with strong overall performances at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie, where he placed tenth in the stage four time trial and eleventh overall.
“Linus will indeed be our main card to play for the GC,” said Leopard Trek Press Officer, Tim Vanderjeugd.
“Andy is starting with the second part of his season now: the build-up phase to the Tour after the Classics."
Liquigas- Cannondale has selected Damiano Caruso as its overall contender for the Amgen Tour of California. Caruso, 24, is a former Under 23 Italian road champion who turned professional in 2009. He is known to be a strong climber but comes into the race as an underdog.
The team will also include Peter Sagan, who rode an extraordinary race during last year’s event. The young Slovakian arrived as one of the rookies of the tour but ended up with two victories on stage five and the queen stage six, along with the green sprinter’s jersey, the best young rider jersey and an eighth place in the overall classification.
“We'll also have Ted King and Tim Duggan as our two American riders, plus Daniel Oss and Peter Sagan for stages,” said Liquigas-Cannondale’s Rory Mason. “For overall or mountains, I'd say our bet will be on Damiano Caruso.”
Aleksander Efimkin (Team Type 1)
Professional Continental Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis will be targetting success at the Tour of California with Aleksander Efimkin. The 28-year-old Russian is an established climber with a palmares that includes top ten finishes at stages of the Giro d’Italia, Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. In previous years, he has raced with Barloworld, Quick Step and Ag2r-La Mondiale. This year, he has won the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, citing the overall victory as the biggest in his career.
"The Tour of California is a major race on the global cycling calendar for lots of teams,” said General Manager Vassili Davidenko. “For us, as an American squad, it's our biggest race of the year so far. With Aleksandr Efimkin at the top of his form and with a very strong team headed by Rubens Bertogliati and Laszlo Bodrogi behind him, he is as prepared as he can be. We sat down with him at the beginning of the year and plotted out a race calendar that would bring him up to peak fitness for May and June, and we think the victory at the Tour of Turkey validates this plan.
"Against the best in the world Efimkin is among the best in the world,” Davidenko added. “He was a top-20 finisher in the Giro d'Italia last year, despite losing more than 45 minutes on one stage. He is deeply experienced in the European peloton, he has lots of friends and family right in Sacramento, and we think there's every reason to count on a very good finish for him at the end of the Tour of California.”
Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling)
The UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team has made no secrets about its desire to win the Amgen Tour of California with all-rounder Rory Sutherland. The 29 year-old Australian floated between fifth and eighth place in the overall classification during the race last year. He rode into a strong second place performance on stage six and so finished the stage race in seventh place overall.
The team prepared for America’s marquee event by participating in highly ranked international races where Sutherland placed 22nd overall at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, 14th overall at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, sixth overall at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in Italy, where he placed sixth in stage three and third in stage four. The team also competed in the Clasica de Almeria, Vuelta Ciclista a la Region de Murcia, Giro del Trentino and Sutherland recently placed 32nd overall at the Vuelta Asturias Julio Alvarez Mendo, where he secured a third place in the stage 2b individual time trial and second place in stage four.