First Australia, then Qatar, now the pro peloton lands in the United States this weekend as it continues its early season globe trotting at the Tour of California.

The nine-day race is the sport’s final foray before getting down to the serious business of racing in northern Europe, although after just three editions, the Tour of California is fast becoming a major goal for many teams in its own right.

Tom Boonen will sacrifice his chances in the Belgian semi-classics Het Nieuwsblad (formerly Het Volk) and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in order to compete in California, while American teams Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-High Road both know the importance of showing well in front of their US backers in the country’s biggest cycling event.

With both Astana and Saxo Bank fielding strong teams the Tour of California could be the only place to see so many Tour de France contenders together in one place before July.

Many of those contenders have come with good back-up as the eight Pro Tour teams look set to dominate ahead of the smaller domestic teams that will be happy to pick up the scraps.

>>start-list for the 2009 Tour of California

The 2009 race is also set to become the year of the comeback kids. Lance Armstrong‘s return is already in full flow and continues in the US but fans at the road side will get to see him rub shoulders with the likes of Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso.

Basso has already raced this year, but for Landis, it will be his first major race since ‘winning’ the Tour de France in 2006 ? the race he was subsequently disqualified from after testing positive for testosterone.

Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla get to race this year having been withdrawn from the 2008 edition because of their alleged involvement in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping investigation. Rock Racing’s charismatic sponsor, Michael Ball made them ride each stage behind the race last year (getting booed on some occasions). This year they will be saved the humiliation and allowed to start the event.

Other Operacion Puerto alumni, Francesco Mancebo and Jose Enrique Gutierrez, join the pair to ride for the self-styled bad boys of professional cycling.

>>Get involved with CW’s Tour of California prediction game on our forum

THE BRITISH RIDERS

The only British rider lining up in California is Mark Cavendish, as Columbia?High Road will want to show off their star rider in America’s biggest race.

Cavendish has already said that there is probably only one stage that is likely to end in a bunch sprint, so the chances are he’ll be there for the training and the meeting and greeting. After he wiped the floor with Tom Boonen when the pair went head to head in Qatar maybe Spaniard Oscar Freire can offer the Brit a little more in the way of a challenge.

Young Italian Jacopo Guarnieri (Liquigas) could become a threat to the Manxman, but that is unlikely to happen as soon as this season.

Last year Cavendish won stage six but was then penalised 20 seconds for taking too much assistance from his team car following a crash 12km from the line. The incident angered Cavendish, and showed up the race organisation after they had previously ignored race leader (and local man) Levi Leipheimer doing exactly the same thing.

ARMSTRONG: THE COMEBACK CONTINUES

The third coming of Lance Armstrong may have the race organisers AEG rubbing their hands with glee, but is the presence of America’s most famous athlete a good thing for the race?

Armstrong’s return to racing dominated proceedings at the Tour Down Under last month, but as the race itself holds little interest it was exactly the shot in the arm that the organisers wanted. The Tour of California is somewhat different though.

Its route is well thought-out and the racing can be exciting as the big American teams are set for a battle royale with each other and with Saxo Bank who are sending a strong team this year.

Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign will sit nicely with the race’s Breakaway from Cancer campaign, but if the (entirely noble) message takes precedence and the racing is ignored, it could threaten the Tour’s development.

The best thing for the race would be if Armstrong is challenging for the general classification as then the media would have little choice but to focus on the race, but with team-mate Levi Leipheimer no doubt wanting a third straight win, Armstrong is likely to play the role of faithful team-mate in return for a favour later in the year.

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA STAGES 2009

Click on the map to open a full-size version in a new window

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Saturday, February 14

PROLOGUE: Sacramento, 3.9km (individual time trial)

Prologue details

Sunday, February 15

STAGE ONE: Davis – Santa Rosa, 173.2km

Stage one details

Monday, February 16

STAGE TWO: Sausalito – Santa Cruz, 186.6km

Stage two details

Tuesday, February 17

STAGE THREE: San Jose – Modesto, 167.7km

Stage three details

Wednesday, February 18

STAGE FOUR: Merced – Clovis, 185.7km

Stage four details

Thursday February 19

STAGE FIVE: Visalia – Paso Robles, 216.1km

Stage five details

Friday, February 20

STAGE SIX: Solvang individual time trial, 24km

Stage six details

Saturday, February 21

STAGE SEVEN: Santa Clarita – Pasadena, 143km

Stage seven details

Sunday, February 22

STAGE EIGHT: Rancho Bernardo – Escondido, 155.8km

Stage eight details

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA PAST WINNERS

2006 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak

2007 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Discovery Channel

2008 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA ON TV

British Eurosport will be showing live coverage of each stage of the Tour of California.

Saturday February 14

22.00hrs – Midnight LIVE (prologue)

Sunday February 15

22.00hrs – Midnight LIVE (stage one)

Monday February 16

17.30hrs – 20.30rhs LIVE (stage two)

Tuesday February 17

21.00hrs – 23.00hrs LIVE (stage three)

Wednesday February 18

21.00hrs – 23.30hrs LIVE (stage four)

Thursday February 19

21.00hrs – 23.30hrs LIVE (stage five)

Friday February 20

21.00hrs – 23.00hrs LIVE (stage six)

Saturday February 21

20.00hrs – midnight LIVE (stage seven)

Sunday February 22

20.00hrs – midnight LIVE (stage eight)


2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: LINKS

STAGE REPORTS

Stage five: Two in a row for Cavendish

Stage four: Cavendish battles over hills to wins stage

Stage three: Hushovd sprints home

Stage two: Leipheimer takes the lead

Stage one: Mancebo’s stage one win raises Puerto demons

Prologue: Cancellara Express derails the Armstrong show

NEWS & FEATURES

Cavendish rises to second in list of all-time British pro winners

Armstrong’s time trial bike handed in to police

Boonen set to ride Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne after Tour of California

Cancellara abandons Tour of California

Armstrong’s bike stolen in California

Cavendish poised to take leaders jersey

Tour of California blog

Armstrong and Astana train for Tour of California

Mark Cavendish: Rider Profile

Lance Armstrong: Rider Profile

PHOTOS

Stage five photo gallery

Stage four photo gallery

Stage three photo gallery

Stage two photo gallery

Stage one photo gallery

Prologue photo gallery

Cycling Weekly photo gallery

2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA PREVIEW

2009 Tour of California race preview

Start list: all the riders

Team list: all the squads

2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA STAGES

Saturday, February 14 Prologue details

Sunday, February 15 Stage one details

Monday, February 16 Stage two details

Tuesday, February 17 Stage three details

Wednesday, February 18 Stage four details

Thursday February 19 Stage five details

Friday, February 20 Stage six details

Saturday, February 21 Stage seven details

Sunday, February 22 Stage eight details

EXTERNAL LINKS

Tour of California official website