By Rick ScottSince the stature and prestige of the Amgen Tour of California flourished over the years, making it one of the premiere bike races on the international calendar, 16 invited pro teams comprised of riders from more than 20 countries will take the start in Santa Rosa May 13th with the goal of capturing the yellow jersey. Although there are numerous legitimate general classification contenders, let's take a closer look at a pair with California connections: defending champion Chris Horner and Los Angeles resident David Zabriskie.
Forty-year-old Horner of the American Team RadioShack-Nissan-Trek grew up in San Diego and has also lived in Northern California. Although he now resides in Bend, OR, he still maintains a home in San Diego, which is where he'll train to defend his title. "I feel quite at home in California. I'm pretty familiar with many of the routes and climbs from the previous (Amgen Tour of California) races so I know what to expect. It's California; it's my home state. There's not much that you can throw at me that I haven't faced before aside from wind and the temperature," the affable rider said exuding confidence and his trademark enthusiasm. He got a late start to his 2012 campaign after requiring an 8-month absence from racing after crashing out of last year's Tour de France. Back on great form, Horner returned to the peloton strong in March at Italy's prestigious Tirreno-Adriatico stage race where he held the leader's jersey and finished 2nd overall.
Horner paved the way to victory at last year's Amgen Tour of California by decimating the field in stage 4, finishing 1:15 ahead of the closest rivals atop the Sierra Road climb near San Jose. About his triumph, Horner said, "Top of the list. I've won some big races like the Tour of the Basque Country with quality fields, but California was certainly the biggest win of my career. It's huge for an American to win the Tour of California. It's the biggest race in the U.S."
Heading into this year's race, Horner feels that his preparation is on track. "Actually I'm ahead of schedule. After the (spring) classics (in Europe), I'll train in San Diego. I'm already on top form so I'll need to lose some fitness, dial it down before bringing it back up for California."
Respected for being both a faithful and selfless teammate as well as an inspiring team leader, obviously Horner would like to duplicate his California conquest. "It's always nice to repeat. To win it again, I'll have to be the best. That means minimizing the damage in the TT (stage 5's individual time trial) and winning on Mt. Baldy (stage 7). But the objective is for a RadioShack rider to win (the Amgen Tour of California). It's possible that one of my teammates will take the jersey early on in the race and I'm comfortable with that role."
Zabriskie, 33, also splits his duties between serving as a loyal lieutenant and occasional team leader. He has won stages and finished on the final podium at the Amgen Tour of California. "It's always a goal to do well at ATOC. A win would be would be a wonderful accomplishment after coming so close so many times. It really is my home race, and I love it."
Riding for the U.S.-based Garmin-Barracuda squad, Zabriskie is the only American ever to win a stage at all three Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana). To him, overall victory at the Amgen Tour of California "would certainly be up there with those wins." He will again be one of his team's protected riders this year. "As the race progresses, the team (directors) will evaluate how things are going and who should be the leader nearer the finishing stages. I feel that my year is on track. I'm still in Europe at the moment with my last race before ATOC being the Tour of Romandie (April 24-29)."
For Zabriskie, the reigning 5-time U.S. National Time Trial champion and winner of 2011's time trial stage, the new Bakersfield time trial course warranted a closer look. "The TT will be quite challenging this year as it has a lot of elevation gain. But overall, I like the TT course and believe it suits me. I've looked at it all quite carefully. I've already ridden a lot of the (race) route, including the TT course. There isn't one easy day in the race so every day will be a battle for the overall winner."
Zabriskie, who celebrated victory earlier this season in the opening stage time trial at the Tour de Langkawi, said, "All of the American riders hope to do well in California, myself included. When an American wins the biggest race in the country, it's icing on the cake. But whomever the winner will be, they will be a deserving rider, American or not."
A native of Salt Lake City, Zabriskie splits his time living abroad in Girona, Spain and in Westwood. Locally, he enjoys riding "all of the canyons between the coast and the valleys. Or (on) the Backbone trail on my mountain bike. It's all a complete joy for me."
Reputed for his quirky, off-kilter personality, perhaps it's no surprise that he seeks refuge away from cycling in the world of cartoon characters. "I'm a huge fan of comics, superheroes, and pop culture, so on my rest days I like to hang out at the offices of Sideshow Collectibles in Thousand Oaks. Those guys make some amazing collectible figures, and if I weren't a pro cyclist, being a part of that group might be my dream job."
Admittedly, Zabriskie is not much of a sports fan outside of cycling, but along with the rest of Los Angeles, he seems enthused about the Dodgers' new ownership. "Now that Magic (Johnson) is one of the new owners of the Dodgers, I think I might have to take my boys to a baseball game."
Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, a music, entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.