Tour of California Feature, February 13, 2009
A day-and-a-half before the first rider is scheduled to set off in the Tour of California prologue, the official Tour of California pre-race press conference was a site of some non-racing drama. The panel of riders was a cross-section of what is hyped to be the greatest assemblage of cycling talent in North America since the days of the Coors Classic. And the culmination of that was Lance Armstrong, making his return to professional racing in the United States.
The amount of people on the stage, eighteen, was only rivaled by the amount of press (and those merely watching) squeezing into the hotel ballroom in downtown Sacramento. More than twenty television cameras and at least 200 people wanted to catch a glimpse of the pre-race happenings.
Most of the race-specific questions were directed at defending champion Levi Leipheimer, who has an all-star roster riding for him on the Astana team.
"How do I put it? It's a fantastic team!" he said. "A Seven-time Tour de France winner. [Yaroslav] Popovych, Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner, the legendary [José Luis Rubiera] 'Chechu'... We are really motivated for the race and it deserves our best effort."
Leipheimer said that being a California native makes this race special for him, and as such he targets his training for it – particularly his off-season training.
"Every time I got on my time trial bike I thought of the time trial in Solvang. I am going to start on Saturday knowing I have done everything like in the past two years and I can win again.
"I've always had that philosophy and I train extremely hard for the race every year."
But even Levi admits this year is special, with the depth of the start list. "You see, little by little, all of the other teams and riders are putting more effort into it. You would be hard pressed to find a better field before July than right here."
When asked who he sees as his biggest challenge, Leipheimer needed only turn his head to see Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde.
"This guy on my left... and I would say Floyd [Landis], obviously. He won it before and he is motivated."
Vande Velde admitted that the press has given his team less hype.
"It's pretty easy to be under the radar with the likes of the people at the table here. We are doing our own thing and doing the best we can. Last year we had the best team classification and second and third overall, so I would be happy with that again."
Unfortunately, Floyd Landis of Team OUCH-Maxxis was unable to make the press conference as he had a minor crash while training earlier in the day. However, his team announced that he was fine and would start the race on Saturday.
One rider who did make it was current US champion Tyler Hamilton of Team Rock Racing_. Hamilton and two others from his team were denied a start in 2008 with the organiser citing their alleged involvement in Operación Puerto as the reason.
"I'm not looking back to last year. I'm just excited to be in the race this year. We are looking forward to making a statement. I've been watching from the sidelines and I would like to say congrats to [organisers] medalist and AEG for putting on the race. This is one of the fourth or fifth largest races in the world and hopefully it will one day be a grand tour."
While happy to be racing, Hamilton admitted he is not on top form as he has been dealing with family issues back home on the east coast. "I've been back in Boston and the weather hasn't been nice. So I will take myself out of that list of [contending] riders. Hopefully a [Oscar] Sevilla, [Francisco] Mancebo or [Chris] Baldwin can fill that void."
The Armstrong show
Of course, much of the attention was paid to Armstrong – from his verbal sparring with Paul Kimmage to his parting ways with Don Catlin.
"I've been at this a long time and it's been an interesting 17 years," Armstrong said. "As far as the science of older athletes goes, it will support that performance doesn't necessarily drop off in the late thirties. What does drop off is the mind. It says to the body, I've been doing this for 20 years... can we stop now?"
Armstrong also said he was happy with his first race of the season, the Tour Down Under, and looks forward to continue his progress in California.
But a lot of the questions involved non-race specific issues, such as the change in his anti-doping programme from Don Catlin to Rasmus Damsgaard. Armstrong said that decision boiled down to practicality and feasibility, with the Catlin programme just too complex to be realistic.
"I have the upmost respect for Don," Armstrong said. "He is one of the best, if not the best and a legend in the field. My impression of him hasn't changed, and I don't think his impression of me has changed."
He explained the practicalities of running the programme were a problem. Armstrong's travels, he said, made it difficult for the testers to coordinate.
"By shifting things from Dr. Catlin to Dr. Damsgaard, in conjunction with WADA, USADA, UCI... I still maintain it is the most comprehensive testing programme in the business."
Armstrong will not be tested every three days, as was originally planned. He believes it is not needed given the International Cycling Union's (UCI) biological passport and all of the different testing agencies.
Riders comment on the race
With so many talented riders in the race, the press conference itself was a who's who of cycling – from Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) to former Tour de France stage winners – George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad, Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) – to possible future stage winners, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) and Scott Nydam (BMC).
Carlos Sastre (Cervélo): "The field here is like the Tour de France. I think, from what I can see, that there is a group, an organisation that is growing. It is much bigger since last year.
"Some say that I am not in the best condition and some people say that I am not ready for this race. This is not the case. I am very motivated for this race and coming here to compete makes me very happy."
Oscar Freire (Rabobank): "For me this is the second time [racing here]. Last year, I felt it was different to race here because it is another country and the people are new to this sport.
"For Rabobank it is important as they are also a sponsor of the race. I want to win because the riders here are really good, the level is the high."
George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad): "We've brought an amazing team, basically our Tour de France team. Our team is based in California, and as an American rider I would love to win a stage here. We have a lot of options to play in the this race, obviously Cavendish in the sprints."
Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank): "We have been working well with the team, same as last year. So hopefully we can get some results.
"It is even harder than some races in Europe right now. When I won my first stage here, it was my ticket to Europe."
Scott Nydam (BMC), 2007 mountains classification winner: "The Tour of California is, for me, the biggest race of the season. A rider like myself is indebted to a race like this, for someone looking to move up the ranks we need opportunities to get along side the best riders in the world."
"The tone has shifted on the team, we are looking to be more present in the second half of the stages. We just got a wild card bid so we need to get results."
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