Since 2007, the Amgen Tour of California has been little more than the Levi Leipheimer Invitational, with the Santa Rosa resident notching three straight impressive victories in the eight-day race.
However, with a new start date and an even more impressive cadre of world-class cyclists expected to compete, pulling off a four-peat will not be an easy task for Leipheimer as the fifth annual installment of America’s biggest cycling race begins today.
Unlike many other cyclists, who base their training schedules around competing in the three main cycling races that take place each summer in Europe, Leipheimer has made it no secret that the Amgen Tour is his No. 1 priority.
That strategy has helped him in years past, particularly since the race has historically been staged in February. While most cyclists were just beginning to dust off the cobwebs from a full winter’s rest, Leipheimer was already in midseason form.
However, the mid-May start date — three months later than normal — of this year’s Amgen Tour puts a new wrinkle into handicapping the favorites, according to Betsy Baker, a writer with the U.S. Cycling Report.
“I think Levi still has to be the favorite because he specifically targets this race, and, being a native Californian, he knows a lot about the terrain,” Baker said. “But it’s later in the season this year, so you’re going to see some very focused and very fit riders competing against him.”
Several top riders announced their commitment to the race early, making the field look very strong, Baker said.
British cyclist Mark Cavendish, racing for team HTC-Columbia, is one of the fastest sprinters in the world, and last year he won six stages at the Tour de France. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, who captured the 2008 Olympics time-trial gold medal, will compete, fresh off a victory at this spring’s Tour of Flanders in Belgium. Andy Schleck, coming off a second-place showing at last year’s Tour de France, will be among the favorites to capture the Amgen Tour.
And, of course, there is Lance Armstrong, the leader of Team RadioShack, which also features Leipheimer. While no cyclist in the world can match Armstrong’s credentials, the Texas native seems content to play wingman to Leipheimer in this year’s event, while counting on the latter’s support in the Tour de France this summer.
The simple fact that the Amgen Tour could attract such a wide range of internationally celebrated cyclists speaks miles for the event’s prestige, particularly since its schedule change has it matched up against the 93-year-old Giro d’Italia, according to Daniel Benson of Cycling News, a U.K.-based publication.
In years past, the world’s top racers focused on the three Grand Tours — the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France — but the growing popularity of the Amgen Tour has the cycling world considering a fourth major event, Benson said.
“In Europe, there is certainly the perception of the Amgen Tour as growing in prestige,” Benson said. “With the level of riders competing in this year’s race, it has certainly gotten the attention of the cycling world.”
Another key factor in promoting the event internationally has been the Tour’s constant improvement of the race route, Baker said.
Adding a grueling ascent to the top of the San Bernardino Mountains to cap off Stage 6 of the Amgen Tour gives the event a finish that can only be duplicated in the mountainous finales of the three major European races, according to Baker.
Lastly, the vast opportunities offered by the California tour have made it particularly attractive to riders and sponsors. In 2008, 2 million people attended the eight-day event that stretches from Sacramento to Southern California.
“Professional cycling is becoming globalized at an alarming rate,” Benson said. “And this Tour offers a massive audience for everyone involved in it.”
When: Today through May 23
Where: Begins in Nevada City and finishes in Thousand Oaks
Length: 809.7 miles
Prize money: $196,000
TV: Live every day on Versus. Today through Friday at 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
The Amgen Tour of California has blossomed into a major event as it starts its fifth year today, but it has a ways to go to match the Triple Crown of cycling.
||93||May 8-30||21||2,133 miles|
|Tour de France||97||July 3-25||20||2,237 miles|
|Vuelta a España||75||Aug. 28-Sept. 19||21||2,084 miles|