Posted by: Travis | February 13, 2009

Travis’s Tour of California Preview

In just 4 years the Tour of California has become the biggest bike race in California. This year it expands from 7 stages to 9, the route gets progressively harder, and the field is the strongest its ever been. Many people are going as far as to say that this is the strongest field ever assembled for a bike race in North America outside of a world championship race. Upping the attention even further is the return of Lance Armstrong.

As much as i’d love to go up to Sacramento on saturday for the prologue, be in Santa Rosa on Sunday for the stage 1 finish there, and then follow stage 2 on Monday as it goes over some of my favorite roads in the area, i just can’t. With Rachel’s mom in town, it just isn’t feasible to spend the limited time we have with her stalking a bunch of professional cyclists that i may or may not have man crushes on. We will be going up to the top of Tunitas on stage 2, but other than that i’ll be watching it on tv.

Speaking of which, live coverage with Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin will be on the Versus Network (formerly OLN), contact your cable service provider for any questions. So let’s get right to it.

The Route: This years course has been lengthened to 9 stages, running from this Saturday to next Sunday. Not only has the course gotten longer, but it has gotten harder. There is significantly more climbing on this route than there has been in years past. There are hardly any totally flat stages that favor sprinters. That being said, most of the difficult climbs are far enough away from the finish that the racers will have a chance to regroup on the descents and have a sprint finish.

The Favorite: Levi Leipheimer  (Astana)- Since this race is so early in the season and is the biggest race in America, the Americans are the guys that want this most and have to be the favorites to win. Most of the Euros are just here for training and not for a result. Leipheimer has won this race the last two years and is eager to defend his title, he also has one of the strongest teams in the world and some guy named Lance (who is supposed to be pretty good at this bike racing thing) riding to support him. Leipheimer now lives in Santa Rosa, so expect him to try and put in a good showing on Stage 1 that finsihed in his adopted home town. The stage should go to a sprinter, but expect Levi to put on a decent show for the home crowd.

The Duds – Guys you’d think would do well, but probably won’t be in contention

  • Lance Armstrong (Astana) – Don’t get me wrong, Lance is supposedly in great shape right now and will probably try to get into a few breaks for the sake of making a show, but the leader of Astana in Leipheimer, not Lance. I expect him to put on a decent time trial and maybe launch an attack or two on a climb just to show that he isn’t kidding around, but at the end of the day, he’s riding for Leipheimer.
  • Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) – Another guy that i like a whole lot, but i just don’t see him doing very well. He spent the whole winter in Chicago, so the training hasn’t been that great. While other cyclists have been in sunny, warm climates tackling huge hills, Vande Velde has been suffering in the cold of Chicago keeping his training rides short and doing a fair number of them on a cyclocross bike on mountain bike trails. While he’s apparently feeling pretty strong from doing lots of work in the gym, i don’t expect him to have his racing legs quite yet. He’ll be on point for the Tour de France though. His wife also just gave birth to their second child about 2 weeks ago, so his mind could be in other places, and i don’t blame him.
  • Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) – You’d think that the new national road race champion would be chomping at the bit for one of his few chances to race against the worlds best (Rock Racing is a domestic team so they don’t get to do many races in Europe), but he’s apparently not in very good shape this early in the season.

The Dark Horses – Guys that are a bit off the radar that could be a threat to the overall win.

  • Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) – Danielson had a god awful year last year. He struggled to come back from an injury and then had trouble with motivation and getting in shape. Once dubbed by Lance Armstrong as ‘The Great White Hope’ of American cycling, Danielson has struggled to live up to his lofty expectations and has been re-dubbed by cynics as the ‘Great White Dope’. Garmin-Slipstream director Johnathan Vaughters decided to personally coach Danielson this year, which has apparently gone very well. Danielson is a natural climber that has become a good time trialist. I suspect he will replace Vande Velde as the leader of the team for this race.
  • Floyd Landis (Team OUCH) – The 2006 winner of this race, this is Landis’s first race back after his controversial suspension due to doping at the Tour de France. He’s with a domestic team, so this is one of his only oportunities to race against some of the world’s best. I expect him to capitalize on that and have a great race. It also helps that there’s a rumor going around that Floyd is flying right now.
  • Fabian Cancelara (Saxo Bank) – Cancelara is known as the world’s best time trialist, but has also won a few spring classics. He’s made it quite clear recently that he doesn’t like being boxed in as only a time trialist and would like to start focussing on some of the hillier classics. Expect ‘Sparticus’ to be slimmed down from his normal 190 lb race weight in preparation for the hiilier spring classics. He’s shown in the past that he is a much better climber than people give him credit for. I suspect if he kills it in the time trial, holds steady on the climbs, and makes a smart, well timed attack, he could walk away with the over all victory.

Time Trialists – Guys to watch out for in the time trial in Solvang

  • Levi Leipheimer (Astana) – If he’s going to win the overall, he’s got to do well in the time trial.
  • Lance Armstrong (Astana) – It will be more of a personal test for him (and a bit of a statement) than an attempt to impact the GC standings, but i expect Armstrong to really push in the time trial.
  • Fabian Cancelara (Saxo Bank) – He’s te best in the world at this discipline. He may not be in the best time trial shape, but you can’t count him out.
  • Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream) – American TT champ, i think he’ll put in a good performance, but won’t win.
  • Dark Horse -Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) -If he’s in a decent place in GC, and he’s in decent shape, i could pull out a surprise win.
  • Dark HorseSvein Tuft (Garmin-Slipstream) -This guy is pretty unknown, but he can time trial with the best of them. Not sure how his form will be though.

Sprinters

  • Mark Cavendish (Columbia) – This guy set the sprinting world on fire last year. He’s one of, if not the fastest guy in the pro peloton right now. He’ll be in the mix on every sprint.
  • Tom Boonen (Quick Step) – Quick Step has lost some firepower from their leadout train in the off season, but Tornado Tom loves this race and is definitely eager to put his bust for cocaine last year behind him. Expect Belgium’s golden boy to lock horns with Cavendish for some epic sprint battles. Boonen climbs a little better than Cavendish, so he might get to the line a little bit fresher and have an advantage.
  • Oscar Friere (Rabobank) – The 3 time world road race champion is certainly secondary to Boonen and Cav, but expect him to be right there in the sprints.
  • Dark Horse – Fast Freddie Rodriguez – I’ve seen Freddie destroy fields at races in the last few weeks. The guy is very strong. He may be getting up there in age, but he is a former national road race champion and world class sprinter. He may not get any wins, but i fully expect him to be right there an a few sprints.

Domestic Teams – As i’ve mentioned before, this is one of the only times of the year that we get to see lower level domestic teams race against the big dog pro-tour teams. While i don’t expect many serious contenders from BMC, Jelly Belly, Team Type 1, OUCH, or Bissel, i expect them to try and make their mark on the race where they can: mostly in break aways. Expect to see guys from the domestic teams attacking from the start to try and get their sponsors and their teams as much camera time as possible. Unfortunately with the strength of the sprinters teams here, i don’t see many stage wins for these guys.

Wild Card – The weather. I don’t know who’s responsible for planning a race in California during its rainy season, but the timing is pretty inconvenient. While the race has had pretty good luck with the weather up until now, this year it looks like the stuff is really going to hit the fan. Rain is forecast for every single day of the race with frigid temperatures across the board. There are even 2 or 3 days up in the mountains where snow is possible. This could get ugly folks. Bad weather can take out the front runner on a descent in a split second. However, miserable conditions will also weed out the mentally weak. It could get ugly though. I certainly wouldn’t want to race in that stuff 9 days in a row. Should be an exciting race though.

Enjoy folks.

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