Amgen Tour of California 2007 Recap & 2008 PreviewBy Rick Scott
Perhaps the most famous line uttered by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during his acting career was “I’ll be back.” The Amgen Tour of California came back with a vengeance last February for its second 600+-mile, eight-day bicycle race from Northern to Southern California. After setting the bar high with a marvelously successful inaugural edition, expectations were understandably lofty. And what an incredible stage race almost 1.6 million spectators were treated to as arguably the best field of professional road cyclists ever assembled on American soil engaged in a thrilling two-wheeled war.
As in 2006, California resident Levi Leipheimer, the last rider to start the short, violent 1.9-mile opening prologue, mined gold when he covered the course fastest to garner the leader’s jersey to wear when the race roared into Santa Rosa, the town he calls home, the following day at the conclusion of stage 1. However, disaster ensued during the second finishing circuit in Santa Rosa when a massive pile-up took down a large portion of the pack, including Leipheimer. The enormous President’s Day crowd there to cheer their local star breathed a collective sigh of relief when officials gave all the riders in the bunch the same finishing time as stage winner Graeme Brown of Australia, thus saving the day – and possibly the entire race - for Leipheimer.
After narrowly averting tragedy, Leipheimer’s Tour de France-winning Discovery Channel team rallied around their leader to protect him and his overall lead. The governor was on hand in the state capital of Sacramento to present the golden leader’s jersey to Leipheimer at the conclusion of stage 2, won by sprinter Juan Jose Haedo, who would win again four days later, giving him more Amgen Tour of California stage wins (four) than anyone else. His CSC teammate, Jens Voigt, proved strongest the following day when the peloton was shattered on the tough Sierra Road climb. Leipheimer and California native Chris Horner arrived in San Jose in the same time as Voigt. A group of about 35 riders were four seconds back of the trio while other groups lost as much as 17+ minutes.
History was made in San Luis Obispo when reigning World & Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini won stage 4 in a photo finish in an electrifying sprint duel. It was the first time the current World & Olympic Champion had ever won a bike race in the U.S. The critical individual time trial in Solvang was a nail-biting battle, with Leipheimer riding a sensational 14.5-mile race against the clock, flying 18 seconds faster than 2nd place finisher Voigt to pad his overall lead over the German. Stage 6 was a thriller from start to finish. With CSC not about to let rival Discovery Channel walk away with the top prize without a fight, Voigt’s teammates were on the warpath almost from the gun, sending Australian Stuart O’Grady to lead the major break of the day. Only three miles into the stage, a moment of inattention caused a touch of wheels that sent Disco’s George Hincapie down hard to the pavement with a couple teammates. Knowing CSC was already on the attack, Hincapie swiftly remounted. At one point, O’Grady was the virtual race leader on the road so Hincapie put himself at the front, hammered tempo, drove the pack over the fan-amassed Balcom Canyon climb and led the 65-mile chase back to the leaders. The catch happened during the finishing circuits in Santa Clarita with slightly more than two miles remaining. In a monumental display of teamwork, Discovery Channel was able to preserve the general classification lead for Leipheimer. Unfortunately after the race, x-rays revealed that Hincapie’s heroic performance occurred with a broken wrist that put him out of the concluding stage. CSC had to settle for Haedo’s stage win knowing they threw everything they had at the Disco boys.
Another boisterous crowd experienced the final day’s circuit race on many of the same streets the Long Beach Grand Prix car race uses. Toyota-United became the only domestic team to win a stage in both editions of the Amgen Tour of California when Southern California-based Ivan Dominguez outgunned top European sprinters to snatch the prestigious closing stage win. Leipheimer finished the day safely in the field to earn his coveted general classification victory after holding the leader’s jersey the entire race. But it wasn’t easy as Voigt’s CSC, winners of the best team honors for the second time, made each stage hard, displaying how they won the ProTour’s best team title in three consecutive years.
Race organizers promised bigger and better last year and they delivered. The second Amgen Tour of California eclipsed the first year’s record crowds to become the most-attended cycling race in the U.S. California’s majestic mountain passes, rollicking rolling roads, opulent ocean overlooks, and vibrantly-hued vineyards and pastures provided difficult terrain for the riders and exquisite scenery for the sports fans that watched the drama unfold on television, online via the Amgen Tour of California website or in the pages of newspapers and cycling magazines throughout the world. The field included two current World Champions – road champion Bettini and time trial champion Fabian Cancellara – both of whom defended their thrones and are set to return to California this February in their rainbow World Champion’s jerseys. Leipheimer rode the best season of his career, the highlights of which included an edge-of-your seat final time trial stage victory and a 3rd place general classification placing at the Tour de France. He’ll be back to defend his California title with his new team, Astana. Former World Champion and 2007 Tour de France points competition winner Tom Boonen said in interviews that he’ll be joining his teammate Bettini for his first Amgen Tour of California appearance, which he’ll use to sharpen his sprint for the spring classics that he’s known for dominating. Many riders launch their season at the Amgen Tour of California; hence they’ll be looking to get off to a strong start.
The look of the peloton has changed considerably during the off-season as many athletes transferred to new squads and some of the sport’s long-time sponsors have been replaced or dismantled their teams. Eight ProTour teams – CSC, Astana, Quick Step-Innergetic, High Road Sports, Rabobank, Gerolsteiner, Credit Agricole and Bouygues Telecom – will comprise half the field. The domestic squads will consist of the dramatically bolstered Team Slipstream along with Toyota-United, HealthNet, BMC, Rock Racing, Bissell, Kelly Benefits Strategies and Jelly Belly.
While the opening prologue has switched from a summit assault in favor of a fast flat course in Palo Alto-Stanford University, what the riders will notice most in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California is that more climbs have been added. Stage 3 has been revamped significantly. After leaving Modesto, the peloton will be put under serious duress during a 26-mile section of climbs and descents traversing technical twisty roads that rise to the top of Mt. Hamilton, one of the highest peaks ever encountered in the Amgen Tour of California. To add insult to injury, the riders will then have to face the epic ascent of Sierra Road before a long run-in to San Jose. The final stage will be a point-to-point excursion from Santa Clarita to Pasadena that includes an ascent of the highest climb in the entire week of racing. The peloton will eventually whip around the famed Rose Bowl a few times before dashing to the finish line. With the San Gabriel Mountains enveloping the bowl, it should be a spectacular setting for the crowning of a new race champion. Or if Leipheimer has his way, we’ll witness the first repeat winner. In college football, the Rose Bowl game is known as “the granddaddy” of all bowl games. Perhaps one day, the Amgen Tour of California will be just as important in the international cycling world. It’s already well on its way.
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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.