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.
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Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla get to race this year having been withdrawn from the 2008 edition because of their alleged involvement in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping investigation.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.
|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
Saturday, February 14
PROLOGUE: Sacramento, 3.9km (individual time trial)
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 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
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
Tour of California official website