February 6 - Weekly Rap PreviewTHE WEEKLY RAP PREVIEW: THE 2007 AMGEN TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
February 18-25, 2007
By Rick Scott
California has always been known for its spirit of hope and adventure. The world of professional cycling didn’t really know what to expect when plans were initially announced for the first Tour of California, an eight-day stage race from Northern California to Southern California. When leading sports & entertainment conglomerate AEG, owners of the race, pacted with Amgen as title sponsor, people began to take note. The management behind the burgeoning Tour of Georgia, Medalist Sports, came aboard to plan the race with aplomb.
Eight UCI ProTour teams – Discovery Channel, Team CSC, Davitamon-Lotto, T-Mobile, Credit Agricole, Saunier Duval-Prodir, Gerolsteiner and Phonak – leapt at the chance for an early season stage race in the California. Most of these teams spend the winter and the early part of the season riding in harsh European weather so why not come to California for some sunshine? Seven domestic pro teams – HealthNet, Toyota-United, Navigators Insurance, TIAA-Cref, Jelly Belly, Colavita/Sutter Homes and Kodak Gallery-Sierra Nevada, – and the Mexican National Team hitched up their wagons and headed west to mine California gold.
Days before the opening Prologue in San Francisco, the mid-February skies were gray, the air was cool, rain fell and race organizers were nervous. Amazingly the weather held on race day while fans lined the Embarcadero and the climb up to Coit Tower to watch the Amgen Tour of California premiere. Fittingly a California resident won the 1.9-mile prologue time trial. Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer put on the first golden leader’s jersey, which was handed to him by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. As if written by a Hollywood screenwriter, Leipheimer earned the honor of wearing the jersey for Stage 1, which would finish in Santa Rosa, the place he calls home.
It was President’s Day and hundreds of thousands of fans came out to welcome the Tour and their hometown hero as the peloton sped into town. The air was electric. Here was arguably the best professional cycling talent ever assembled in the U.S. and throngs of gleeful spectators were everywhere. It was the kind of scene as witnessed at the biggest bike races in Europe yet it was happening in Santa Rosa, California. A little known 25-year-old speedster from Argentina, Juan Jose Haedo, racing for the nascent Toyota-United team, won the stage, upstaging some of the fastest men from Europe.
The next day one of the most beloved American cyclists, George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), captured the stage win and he’d win another a few days later. So would Haedo, who left the Euros to shake their heads in frustration. German sprinter Olaf Pollack collected back-to-back stage wins in the final two stages of the race for his T-Mobile squad.
But it was the Americans who capitalized on the rare opportunity to race at this level in their own backyard. They ruled the General Classification by sweeping the top four places on the final podium. Hincapie, who teamed with Amgen as spokesman for their Breakaway From Cancer initiative, claimed 4th. CSC won the Team Competition in part due to the 2nd and 3rd place finishes by David Zabriskie and Bobby Julich. As often is the case in “short” stage races, the winner of the time trial often goes on to overall victory, which held true in this case. Floyd Landis debuted a radical new “praying mantis” time trial position and literally flew past the competition to win Stage 3. Landis held on to claim the GC win for his Phonak team.
Was the race a success? You betcha. The Amgen Tour of California was the most attended sporting event in the state since the 1984 Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles. The weather was postcard perfect throughout the entire week. A nightly national television broadcast delivered the California dream in all its splendid glory to the country as the biggest pro cycling event ever held in the U.S. helped propel the sport to a new level in the crucial year after the retirement of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. Cycling was not merely surviving in the post-Lance era; it was thriving.
It’s now 2007 and plans have been underway for the second Amgen Tour of California ever since the first one finished. The bar was set high and race organizers are motivated to set it even higher. Bigger teams, mega cycling stars, longer stages and harder climbs: this year’s edition promises to eclipse the inaugural race.
Again the race will move from north to south, starting with the same opening Prologue on President’s Weekend. Leipheimer, who ended up winning the King of the Mountains title last year, will be making his debut as team leader of Discovery Channel and no doubt Hincapie will be by his side. Can Leipheimer make lightning strike twice by winning the opener so he can again race into his hometown the next day in the leader’s jersey?
CSC will be back to defend their Team Title and will most likely be lead by Zabriskie and Julich. Hunting for stage wins for CSC will be Haedo, who spun enough heads last season to earn a trip to the ProTour. Tour de France stage winner and former sprint jersey winner Thor Hushovd will likely be making things hard for Haedo as the mighty Norwegian is expected to be part of the Credit Agricole squad. The roster for Predictor-Lotto (formerly Davitamon-Lotto) will boast a couple of Americans - Fred Rodriguez and Chris Horner - who have Californian ties. If they bring Australian Cadel Evans back to California with them, then they’ve got a serious threat for the overall win. Quick Step-Innergetic is bringing reigning World Champion and 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist Paolo Bettini, who is always a race animator and often a race dominator. The revamped T-Mobile is never to be overlooked and they have a couple of North Americans – Canadian Michael Barry and American Aaron Olsen – who are likely starters in California along with Aussie Michael Rogers, a former time trial World Champion. Rabobank will be making their first trip to race in California. Fans will be hoping their roster includes former World Champion Oscar Freire, Grand Tour contender Denis Menchov or two-time Tour de France King of the Mountains winner Michael Rasmussen. Italian powerhouse Liquigas has a wealth of talent to select from including 2005 ProTour winner Danilo Di Luca and fan favorite big Magnus Backstedt as they pursue stage wins in their first Amgen Tour of California appearance.
Homebred teams are also certain to make their presence felt strongly. Three-time consecutive winners of the National Racing Calendar team competition, HealthNet is still smarting from coming away without a stage win last year so look for them, lead by 5th place finisher Nathan O’Neill (Australia), to be highly motivated to mine their claim. Navigators Insurance also has an Aussie who knows how to win bike races in Hilton Clarke, who won the U.S. National Criterium Championship last year, although he can’t wear the crown because he’s not an American. Team Slipstream, (formerly TIAA-Cref), had the winner of the Best Young Rider last year (Thomas Peterson) and will be looking to aggressively stir the pot again this year. Toyota-United will be out to prove that they don’t believe in sophomore slumps after the stellar season they had last year. They’ve added Australian sprinter Henk Vogels to a line-up that includes former U.S. Pro Champion Chris Wherry and former U.S. Time Trial Champion Chris Baldwin. BMC Racing Team will have fiery Californian Jackson Stewart along with a couple of strong Swiss teammates in Alex Moos and David Vitoria. Andrew Bajadali, one of the animators at last year’s U.S. Pro Championship Road Race, is expected to lead the colorful Jelly Belly team. New blood will be flowing through the veins of Colavita/Sutter Homes as Irish National Champion David McCann and Canadian Charles Dionne, a two-time winner of the San Francisco Grand Prix, moved to the team during the off-season. The youthful Priority Health roster has talented time trailer Tom Zirabel and Berkeley, California’s Ben Jacques-Maynes chomping at the bit for their moment in the sun. Speaking of young guns, the USA Cycling Development Team completes the line-up.
As for the race itself, after the San Francisco Prologue treat, Stage 1 moves from Sausalito to Santa Rosa, where the crowds were the largest of the 2006 race. The route includes lots of ups and downs, with some heavy climbing later in the stage before a long flat run into the finish. Racers will hit the hills early in Stage 2, including one of the steepest of the week before the road levels out along the way to the state capitol, Sacramento, where they’ll complete a few finishing circuits. Stage 3 departs Stockton and will test the climber’s legs with several challenging climbs, including the most difficult climb of the race, before arriving at San Jose City Hall. At 130 miles with three King of the Mountains climbs, the riders will not soon forget Stage 4, the longest stage of the race, which travels through picturesque Big Sur and past Hearst Castle on the trek from Seaside to San Luis Obispo. The all-important 14.5-mile time trial will take place in Solvang on Stage 5. Starting in Santa Barbara, Stage 6 bodes to be the decisive stage in this year’s affair and it’s a dandy. Over 105 miles, the riders will face two sprints and four King of Mountains climbs. The pack can again expect massive crowds lining the nasty Balcom Canyon climb, where last year 10,000 fans formed a corridor for the riders to pass just like at the Tour de France. The day’s journey wraps with a few circuits in Santa Clarita. The race concludes on Stage 7 with a fast circuit race in Long Beach, which will most likely culminate in a fierce sprinter’s duel because everyone wants to win the last stage of a major stage race.
The Amgen Tour of California is the first major race of the season for most of the racers and they’ll be fighting hard to get off to a great start. With its varied and challenging terrain, and its mix of precipitous mountains, verdant fields and opulent ocean views, the Golden State is the perfect venue for a stellar field to compete at the highest level in an international bike race. California is a state that’s always been known to make the wildest dreams of fame and fortune come true. Last year, the Amgen Tour of California introduced us to emerging stars, confirmed the greatness of superstars, and launched other riders to the biggest victories in the sport. Who will find their name in lights on the marquee at this year’s Tour? We can hardly wait to find out.
Don’t miss a single stage by following along live on www.amgentourofcalifornia.com. Watch the nightly television coverage on Versus and stay tuned to the pages of VeloNews for in-depth coverage.
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Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.