Tour of California Feature, February 11, 2009
The state of California is preparing for legions of cycling fans to descend upon its road sides for the fourth edition of the Amgen Tour. Cyclingnews' Les Clarke takes a look at if and why this year's race will be the biggest cycling show ever to hit US shores.
I'm going out on a limb here, but Tour of California organiser AEG Sports has assembled what is arguably the highest quality field for a cycling race ever seen in the United States. Don't believe me? AEG itself stated this apparent hyperbole in it's press release last month. But is it an exaggeration?
There is a plethora of reasons why this it's not.
Sure, in days of yore Tour and World champions have graced the roads of the Tour DuPont, the Coors Classic and more recently the Tours de Georgia and California. But not since the Atlanta Olympic Games have so many champions come together in one race in this country.
The return of stars and fallen heroes, the initiation of new squads in the cauldron of prime competition, the appearance of last year's Tour de France champion and the likelihood that every stage of this year's race is going to be a battle of the best the world has to offer – in every department.
Big names, bigger expectations
Not least of the highlights for the expected one million-plus fans is the appearance of Lance Armstrong. It's undeniable the pulling power this man has on the public; the resulting interest in Armstrong's comeback could be seen in Australia during January's Tour Down Under. The increase in fans watching the race was notable – that will only be exacerbated by a crowd desperate to see its 'star of the decade' perform on home soil.
The seven-time Tour de France champion will be riding for, and possibly against, dual Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer. Much has been made of the potential conflict within the Astana squad as a result of having so many big names in its lineup.
Not to be forgotten in the Astana All Stars are the likes of Janez Brajkovic and Chris Horner, who could be counted amongst the favourites with their climbing prowess, and in the case of the latter, local knowledge. Horner finished seventh overall in last year's tough edition, and if his form is good, he should be able to go higher on GC in 2009.
The Kazakh squad will be matched for star appeal by Team Columbia-Highroad and Saxo Bank; both teams are bringing their A-game Stateside. The former has all its bases covered, with Mark Cavendish keen to get amongst the money in the sprints, while Michael Rogers and Kim Kirchen can make their mark in the general classification.
Rogers told Cyclingnews during the Tour Down Under that he's happy with his current form. He'll have arguably the best support squadron with Hincapie (himself a Tour of California stage winner), Lövkvist, Barry, Renshaw, and Hansen the drivers of Allan Peiper's yellow-clad arsenal.
Saxo Bank, meanwhile, has a fantastic blend of horsepower and finesse in its Tour of California squad. Fabian Cancellara, Juan José Haedo, Stuart O'Grady and the Schleck brothers are all capable of taking a stage, and their backup guns of Jens Voigt, Jason McCartney and Gustav Erik Larsson have proved time and again that they're up to the task of taking the peloton apart when it's required.
Throw in Tour de France performers such as Quick Step's Tom Boonen and Carlos Barredo, Rabobank's Oscar Freire and Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie into the mix, and once the touch paper's lit, the explosions are ensured over the 1,258 kilometres from Sacramento to Escondido.
New mates, old mates
There are two new teams making their way to California, although there are some old friends turning out for them. Cérvelo TestTeam and Fly V Australia make their American debuts, with the former boasting a superb lineup that, like the big squads mentioned above, covers all the available options to perfection.
Last year's Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre and stage winner Thor Hushovd will lead the new team in their departments respectively, while Tour of California stage victor Dominique Rollin will return, albeit clad in black. An exciting support cast includes Olympic gold medallist Brett Lancaster, Kiwi crusader Hayden Roulston and Spanish experienced campaigner Iñigo Cuesta
An Austral-American merger of two domestic squads, Fly V Australia will be managed by a favourite son in both the US and Australia, Henk Vogels, and he'll be bringing current Australian national criterium champion Bernard Sulzberger, former Highroad rider Scott Davis and Ben Day to California.
Lance Armstrong isn't the only notable rider returning to American roads for this year's California bonanza. Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso will be receiving plenty of attention; the Italian has proven to be in solid condition following his suspension and subsequent return to racing late last year, although inaugural Tour of California champion Landis is somewhat of an unknown. He'll partner with Australia's Rory Sutherland in the newly-named OUCH presented by Maxxis squad. This team has a good record in this event.
Unlike last year's edition, current US Pro Champion Tyler Hamilton will be competing, the former darling of the US cycling public is another familiar face riding in what promises to be one hell of a reunion for many of professional cycling's elite. His new teammate José Enrique "The Buffalo" Gutierrez, Francisco "Paco" Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla (all alumni of the Operación Puerto investigation which kept Hamilton and Sevilla out of last year's event) will be out for revenge on the streets of California.
Let's not forget the route
There's got to be a venue for this party, and the 780 miles of challenging terrain that begins with the prologue around Sacramento's Capitol Park on February 14 makes the perfect setting.
Every day barring the race opener and individual time trial throws the riders some climbing, with the steep pitches of Sierra Road, the stage from Merced to Clovis, and the lung-busting ascents of Millcreek Summit and Palomar Mountain some obvious highlights where the race could be broken apart.
Look out for George Hincapie to deliver a repeat performance on stage five, the tour's longest day into Paso Robles. He told Cyclingnews during the recent Tour Down Under that he's excited about racing in California, and with his form ahead of where he expected it to be, he'll be one of the most motivated riders in the bunch on February 19.
The wild cards
On paper, the race looks like another edition suited to Levi Leipheimer, but the big names of the Tour of California could well get some surprises from lesser known riders, especially with the very short prologue offering little opportunity to open up time gaps and the major climbs coming either early or mid-way through the harder stages. In all likelihood, the race will be decided at the time trial in Solvang as it has been for three years.
But if the giants of cycling start playing games and neutralize each other, a little bit of luck, a mistimed chase of a breakaway or an unexpected stand-out time trial could well give someone like Garmin-Slipstream's Svein Tuft, the silver medallist at the 2008 World Championship time trial, or maybe his teammate, US time trial champ David Zabriskie, a margin of victory.
Other dark horse candidates include Rabobank's Robert Gesink, who was the only one able to follow Levi Leipheimer on the Sierra Road climb of last year's stage three. Gesink will "be the man" for the team's GC hopes, but according to spokesman Luuc Eisenga, "his season will include the Tour this year, so it remains to be seen if he can put the hammer down like last year."
Most of the attention for the Liquigas team will be centered around Basso, but his young teammate Vincenzo Nibali wore the young rider's jersey in two Grand Tours and has proven his abilities both on the hills and against the clock.
Let's not forget about riders like Bissell's Ben Jacques-Maynes, who factored in the 2007 edition, or his teammate Tom Zirbel who is just coming into his own on the road and who took second place to Zabriskie in the US Pro Time Trial Championships last year.
We also cannot count out the ever aggressive BMC team who was on the attack daily last year. Any one of its riders could sneak into a breakaway and gain enough time to hold off the favorites.
The teams without strong time trialists will be looking for breakaways and hoping for a stand-off between the Astanas and Saxo Banks. Riders like AG2R's Cyril Dessel, Team Type 1's Valeriy Kobzarenko, Colavita's Davide Frattini and Jelly Belly's Brad Huff are the kind of men who can vanish up the road and gain an unbeatable lead should there be any lack of cooperation in the bunch.
With the strongest, most power-packed peloton in the history of US racing, look out for this edition of the race to capture the imagination of the world's cycling fans for a brilliant week in February.