Tougher course awaits stronger field of riders 

Most of the world’s top cyclists are oiling their chains and dusting off their kits in the final hours before the nation’s highest-profile race, which for many is also the season opener.

The Tour of California, which gained fame in its inaugural year of 2006 when an unprecedented 1.3 million people lined the eight-stage route, kicks off its sophomore run Sunday on the Embarcadero with an improved field that features many of the world’s top teams and riders.

Among the big names in the invitational race are the Discovery Channel and Team CSC, which dominated last year’s race.

This year’s course strays east from last year’s coast-hugging stages, passing through Sacramento and Stockton before breaking onto the coast again in Big Sur.

"I’ve talked to [teammate] Levi [Leipheimer] a little and he said this year, maybe some of the first stages are a little harder than last year, which is good for us," Discovery Channel rider Jason McCartney said.

With strong climbers, the Discovery team hopes to jump out quickly to a big lead and not let the race come down to time trials, McCartney said.

Tour announcer Dave Towle said he favored Discovery for the win. He mentioned Tom Danielson, George Hincapie and Leipheimer as favorites on that team. Leipheimer, who is from Santa Rosa, has, "the incredible motivation of having the race go through his hometown," Towle said. Last year, Leipheimer won the opening prologue, meaning he was wearing the leader’s yellow jersey for the stage that finished in Santa Rosa.

As the news broke last week that the Discovery Channel will pull its sponsorship of the team after this year, the riders will not only be racing for the win, but looking to woo a new sponsor.

But there are more victories in a stage race than the general win. Towle indicated that the Team Slipstream, made up of riders in their early 20s, looks hopeful to win the best young rider jersey.

Towle named Toyota-United’s Henk Vogels and Ivan Dominguez as contenders for the sprinting jersey and mentioned Leipheimer again as a favorite for the climbing jersey.

Overall, Towle said, "Danielson and [CSC rider Dave] Zabriskie are the two guys who I’d expect to see on the podium."

But in a field of 144 contenders, there will be plenty of room for upsets.

"We really need to try to put as many guys as we can in the top five and then play those cards. We need to win it on some of the road stages, I guess, and not have it be such a close race," McCartney said.

Coverage ramped up thanks to high-tech

As cycling technology rolls ahead to create bicycles that bring out riders’ maximum performance, so do technology companies continue to innovate to take the spectators’ experience further.

After 1.3 million fans turned out to watch the inaugural Amgen Tour of California in 2006 and another 300,000 per day spent an average of 17 minutes each following the race online, race organizers began to search for new ways to bring the action closer to the fans.

In 2007,AEG Sports, which produces the Amgen Tour of California, is incorporating the technology of some of the race and team sponsors in order to provide some innovative new options for spectators.

Global positioning system trackers placed on selected riders will allow those who tune in online to follow the peleton throughout the course. Sensors on the bikes will even monitor riders’ heart rates and even how many watts each rider generates.

Computer Sciences Corp., which sponsors a team from Denmark, is providing the GPS data as a demonstration of its products, while T-Mobile, which sponsors a team from Germany, will provide the network to communicate the data, which will be available on the Web.

But not all the coverage relies on high technology to gain more depth. Good old-fashioned cable television has become much more prevalent as a means to follow the race. Race organizers signed up with the sports channel Versus to broadcast the race and contracted 14 hours of coverage compared with last year’s eight hours. Versus is the channel that covers the Tour de France and has a strong cycling audience. Versus’ announcing team for the race includes Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll.

On the Web: www.amgentourofcalifornia.com and www.csc.com/toctracker

amartin@examiner.com

For the latest news and features about the race, be sure to check our special Amgen Tour of California page.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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