By Kirsten Robbins in California, USA
A stellar panel of riders convened for a press conference on the eve of the Tour of California start. Event director Jim Birrell commented how this year's edition has attracted nine ProTour teams and eight domestic teams to participate over eight days of racing.
"Last year when I sat in font of you I made a comment that I felt that with the course in 2007 we should see a change in yellow jersey on a regular basis, well I'm not going to make that same comment today," said Birrell regarding last year's race winner Levi Leipheimer maintaining the leader's jersey over the entire eight-day event.
"Levi proved me wrong; however, we listened to our critics in choosing the 2008 courses and while we still haven't been able to achieve that mountain top finish, the courses that we have brought to the 2008 tour should increase our chances to see a very dynamic race unfolding."
Several changes were made to the event starting with the flat 2.1-mile prologue in Palo Alto. Stage three's Modesto to San Jose offers four mountain classifications with the debut of the Mt Hamilton climb before heading over to Sierra Rd – a traditionally decisive climb en route to the finish. The Tour will end on stage seven's Pasadena circuit, a non-traditional way to end the tour, which includes a mountain classification before a long circuit around Rose Bowl.
When last year's race winner was asked what he thought of the new prologue, Leipheimer stated with a laugh, "damn it, I like the old prologue much better. I think that the additional climbs are a great new addition to the race, and I look forward to those. I have the advantage in the prologue because the next day goes into my hometown, and last few years has been an overwhelming experience for me to come into my home town of Santa Rosa with the tour.
"The first year was very emotional because when I came into town I didn't know what to expect. I figured my friends would be there and a few people, but it was unbelievable. It was like the Champs Élysées; it was packed with people and I was a loss for words when I got on the stage, and I'll never forget that. I have a lot of great memories."
George Hincapie: The team is great and I really believe we have the best youngest talents in the world and a great group of guys who have a lot of fun. I'm also excited about the team being an American team because now I can say that I've ridden for an American team my whole cycling career. We all have a lot of friends in this race. We are all professionals, I know Levi is probably in good shape right now but we are going to be trying to win as best we can. Sure there will be a big battle but in the end we're still friends.
David Millar (Slipstream Chipotle - H30): "This is the same sort of prologue competition at the Tour de France. We've got George, Cancellara, Zabriskie, Wiggins – the best in the world. We wouldn't get a prologue as technical as this anywhere in the world, so it's probably a good gage. I'm the only non-American on the team here and it's an honour to be leading the American team in its first big act in its new incarnation. Honestly, along with High Road we are a new wave of professional cycling."
Rory Sutherland (Health Net): "I kind of wished it stayed as the old prologue to be honest. I don't really like the flat. I haven't seen the full course because there was traffic down there, but if it's anything to go by based on the organisation from last year it's going to be a spectacular day."
Oscar Freire (Rabobank): "My decision to race in the Tour of California this year was easy because all the others felt very good about this race. We are at the beginning of the season and the weather is good so I think it's a good race to start with. Maybe I won't have my best moments now but I'll do the best I can. I think we have a good team of young riders ... so it is important for our sponsors. It's very nice here."
Jens Voigt (CSC): "Every year we put our best on the start line; we are really trying to go for it. We've had a second and a third place so far and we want to take that one more step up to reach the highest point on the podium. For me personally, I was in good shape until a little crash I had in training the other day. But I have enough other colleagues who can take over so they don't really need me to win here; there is more than one capable. It's always a great way to start the season with big wide roads, which I always like."
Bobby Julich (CSC): "Hopefully I'll be going up on the podium and not down. We just got finished with a great training camp and I think the team is ready. I feel good; obviously I'm getting a little older when you start to question your motivation in the winter a couple of times. All in all, it was good training at altitude up in Nevada. I swear to God the last time I checked I was twenty-seven and now I'm thirty-seven.
"The thing I love about the Tour of California is that they do not forget the little guys, those American teams that are lining up are going through the same feelings that George [Hincapie] and I had lining up against guys like Gianni Bugno at the Tour DuPont. It's good to see how things turn, and here we are on the eve of the biggest race in America and I'm excited to get things started."
Fred Rodriguez (Rock Racing): "I've always enjoyed racing in the US, especially in California and where I grew up in Los Angeles. Now I live down in Emoryville, Berkley, and this race will cross my zone, so I'm really excited. The more competition the better for me because the race really opens up when everyone is watching each other. Rock's a great team and I think we have some tough sprinters on our team that are going to really do their best."
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