A new starting stage, a legend absent from the field and the guarantee of a new champion.
Changes are everywhere as dozens of the top cyclists from around the world prepare to descend upon the state for the sixth annual Amgen Tour of California, which kicks off in South Lake Tahoe on Sunday.
Among the top racers are Andy Schleck, who finished second in the 2010 Tour de France; Levi Leipheimer, three-time winner of the Tour of California; and Thor Hushovd.
“Our race has emerged as one of the most important races in cycling,” AEG Sports President Andrew Messick said.
One big name who won’t be riding is defending champion Michael Rogers, who can’t compete because of a virus that caused him to miss training time. The Australian-born Rogers held off David Zabriskie by nine seconds to win in 2010.
“It’s a great disappointment to be missing the chance to defend my title at the Amgen Tour of California,” Rogers said.
The Tour of California is the only American cycling event listed on the international professional cycling calendar.
Leipheimer won three straight Tour of Californias before coming in third place in last year’s event. He also finished in eighth in the Tour de France in 2010.
Schleck, a member of the Leopard Trek team, is ranked 30th in the world and should be a top contender for the Tour of California title.
Although ranked just outside the top 100 in the world, 21-year-old Peter Sagan is a rider who should garner attention going into the race.
Cycling veteran Oscar Freire will also look to take home his first Tour of California title.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has headlined the event in the past, but will not be participating this year after he retired from competitive racing in February.
“We will miss Lance,” Messick said.
Despite his absence, race officials do not think there will be a downturn in attendance at the event. Law enforcement officials estimated approximately 2 million people attended the 2010 Tour of California and expect similar numbers this year.
The 13 host cities will be supporting 19 race teams and 144 riders.
Although the race will not come through San Francisco this year, the highly attended eight-stage event will travel nearly 800 miles across various portions of the state including mountains, coastal and urban regions. The race’s only trip into the Bay Area will be the fourth stage, when the route takes riders from Livermore to San Jose.
The longest stage is the fifth, which extends 138.9 miles from Seaside to Paso Robles. The shortest is the 15-mile stretch in Solvang. The Solvang stage is for individual time trials.
The seventh stage of the event stretches from Claremont to Mount Baldy and, at 75.8 miles, is one of the shorter stages but, as Messick said, “The finish is very, very difficult.”
The final 25 miles of the route climbs 5,000 feet up Mt. Baldy, which overlooks Rancho Cucamonga. Stages in the Tour vary in location and length from year to year.
“You try to balance what is fair and reasonable to the athletes,” Messick said.
Seven of the 15 host cities are hosting for the first time.
Ten riders who are likely to be in the thick of the battle for the yellow jersey during the Amgen Tour of California (listed alphabetically):
Highlight: Three-time Milan-San Remo champion
Juan Jose Haedo
Team: Saxo Bank Sungard
Highlight: Five-time Tour of California stage winner
Team: BMC Racing
Highlight: Part of eight winning teams in Tour de France
Highlight: UCI World Road Race Champion in 2010
Highlight: Three-time Tour of California winner
Highlights: 2011 Milan-San Remo Classic champion
Highlights: Points classification in Paris-Nice and Tour de France in 2010
Team: Leopard Trek
Highlight: Placed second in 2010 Tour de France
Highlight: Won 2008 Tour of Missouri
Highlight: Three-time Tour of California runner-up