Riders to Watch at the 2009 Amgen Tour of CaliforniaBy Rick Scott
'Twas the night before the Prologue and all through the Golden State not a creature was stirring other than hundreds of volunteers preparing the race course. Santa was busy loading his sleigh with perhaps the finest collection of cyclists ever to race on American soil. Riders with new kits so bright, are ready to guide Santa's sleigh through the night. On Levi! On George! On Ivan! On Carlos! On Mark! On Christian! On Fabian! On Floyd! On Tom! On Oscar! On Thor! On Andy! And who shall pilot the sleigh? None other than Lance himself!
If you're a fan planning to watch the 4th Amgen Tour of California, the excitement and giddiness you are experiencing probably does feel quite a bit like Christmas. The fastest sprinters, the best climbers, Grand Tour champions, Olympic champions and World Champions will do battle from the opening Prologue in Sacramento on February 14th through to the Stage 8 conclusion in Escondido on February 22nd some 750 miles later.
Seventeen top international and domestic professional squads will dispense eight-man units into battle. The 136 cyclists will be timed each day and the rider with the lowest aggregate time after the eighth stage will be crowned the overall winner. The general classification leader will wear the distinctive race leader's yellow jersey. Each day, there will be a stage winner. Sprint points are up for grabs at the finish of each stage as part of the Herbalife Sprint jersey competition. Each stage will include mid-race sprints in which points are available, but larger quantities of points are awarded to the top finishers of the stage. Climbers will fight for points at the top of mountains and hills in the King of the Mountains jersey competition sponsored by the California Board of Tourism. The best placed rider age 23 or younger will vie for the Rabobank Young Rider jersey. Lastly, the media will honor a standout performance during the day's stage with the Most Aggressive Rider jersey.
For the past two years, Santa Rosa, California resident Levi Leipheimer has won the Amgen Tour of California. Last year, Leipheimer won bronze at the Olympic Time Trial and finished 2nd overall at the Vuelta a Espana. In 2007, Leipheimer won a stage at the Tour de France en route to a 3rd place finish. He trained hard over the winter and will be striving for a California three-peat. At his side serving as a loyal lieutenant will be seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who returned to professional cycling this year after retiring in 2005. If for any reason Leipheimer struggles, Armstrong, who came back to cycling for sporting reasons and to spread the message about the global battle against cancer through his LIVESTRONG foundation, could win the race. Their Team Astana will have to be vigilant throughout the race as there are a handful of others who could pull off the win, including several Americans.
Winner of the inaugural Amgen Tour of California in 2006, Temecula, California resident Floyd Landis returns with a new team, Ouch-Maxxis, and he's motivated and has something to prove. Garmin-Slipstream has a pair of Americans - Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie - who have finished on the podium in past Amgen Tours of California. Vande Velde was the best-placed American finisher in last year's Tour de France, a career best 4th place. His breakthrough season last year included winning the Tour of Missouri and spending a day in the leader's jersey at the Giro d'Italia. Zabriskie is a four-time U.S. National Time Trial Champion and is the only American to win a stage in all three Grand Tours (Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana).
Other overall threats include 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso (Liquigas), who finished 2nd in the Tour de France when Armstrong last won the race in 2005; Michael Rogers (Team Columbia-High Road), a three-time World Time Trial Champion, who recently won the Australian Time Trial Championship; and Rogers' teammate Kim Kirchen, the three-time Champion of Luxembourg who had a breakthrough season last year by winning Pais Vasco in Spain and the Belgian classic Fleche-Wallone. Kirchen led the Tour de France for four days before finishing in the Top 10 for the second consecutive year.
Although he'll be using the race for training purposes, the 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre will be making his Amgen Tour of California debut with the new Cervelo Test Team. Sastre has a pair of teammates to watch in the Sprint competition. Four-time Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd has won stages in all three Grand Tours and won the Sprint competition at the Tour de France. He's a Prologue specialist so he will contend for the first yellow jersey in Sacramento. The defending champion of the Sprint competition is Dominique Rollin, a seven-time Canadian champion who won Stage 4 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California. Three-time World Champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) will be returning to the California after having won the Sprint competition in last year's Tour de France. Juan Jose Haedo (Saxo Bank) has sprinted to five stage wins at the Amgen Tour of California, where he has more stage wins than anyone else. He's won at least one stage in each edition of the race, thus the Argentinean will be looking to continue the streak.
While the above mentioned sprinters could win on any given day, all eyes will be fixed upon two men whenever a pack gallop approaches the line: Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Britain's Mark Cavendish (Team Columbia-High Road). A former World Champion, Boonen won a stage at last year's Amgen Tour of California before going on to win his second Paris-Roubaix title, which is one of cycling's monuments. Winner of the Sprint competition at the 2007 Tour de France, Boonen is one of the world's best sprinters and excels in one-day events. His resume boasts two wins at the Tour of Flanders, another cycling monument. Cavendish is often hailed as the fastest sprinter in the world. The 24-year-old speedster amassed 14 wins in 2008 at major events such as two stages at the Giro d'Italia, four stages in his Tour de France debut, three consecutive stages at the Tour of Ireland, and another trifecta and the Sprint competition title at the Tour of Missouri. On the track, Cavendish is a two-time World Champion.
Defending King of the Mountains champion Scott Nydam returns with his aggressive BMC squad. Nydam lives in Santa Rosa and often trains with Leipheimer, who said in a recent interview that he expects even bigger things from Nydam this season. Two of the world's most-gifted climbers will be in attendance and both are also favorites for the Young Rider jersey. Last year's Young Rider winner, Robert Gesink (Rabobank) won the hardest stage of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California after climbing away with Leipheimer. Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck looked to be the best climber in his Tour de France debut last year, which earned him the Young Rider jersey. Schleck placed 2nd in his first Grand Tour, the 2007 Giro d'Italia, at which he nabbed the Young Rider title. Many expect the younger brother of teammate Frank Schleck to be a future Grand Tour winner.
Schleck's teammate, Fabian Cancellara, won the 2008 Amgen Tour of California Prologue and is one of the favorites to win this year's opener. Cancellara won gold at the Olympic Time Trial and surprised by winning bronze at the Olympic Road Race. The two-time World Time Trial Champion has won two of cycling's monuments: Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo. Also racing for Saxo Bank is German Jens Voigt, long-respected as one of the most aggressive "hard men" in the peloton. The two-time winner of the Tour of Germany, four-time winner of Criterium Internationale, and two-time stage winner at both the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia narrowly missed upsetting Leipheimer for the win at the 2007 Amgen Tour of California.
Reigning U.S. National Road Race Champion Tyler Hamilton will make his Amgen Tour of California debut with the colorful Rock Racing team. The 2004 Olympic Time Trial gold medalist has won stages of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia. He's also won the overall at the Tour of Romandie and the prestigious one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Five-time U.S. Olympian George Hincapie (Team Columbia-High Road) has won three stages of the Amgen Tour of California, including last year's finale. Hincapie played a pivotal role on eight Tour de France-winning squads and snatched a stage win for himself in 2005. The two-time U.S. National Road Race Champion won the inaugural Tour of Missouri. Serving as spokesman for Amgen's Breakaway From Cancer initiative since its inception, Hincapie is an American cycling icon who partners with his brother, Rich, on a stylish line of cycling apparel, Hincapie Sportswear, which produces the coveted jerseys up for grabs at the Amgen Tour of California.
Whether you fancy the fast men, the cyclists who climb like angels, or the riders who have their sights set on the grand prize, the 2009 Amgen Tour of California promises a thrilling ride from start to finish. You've obviously been very good little boys and girls this past year because Santa is bringing you the most-talented two-wheeled athletes to enjoy.
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.
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