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Tour of California - 2.1
USA, February 19-26, 2006
By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
It has been a long time coming, and now the North American cycling fans, as well as the rest of the cycling world, will know if the new Tour of California will live up to the hype to become the top race in the land. Finishing in Los Angeles, the race begins on Sunday with a prologue in San Francisco -- from the Embarcadero through Telegraph Hill up to the finish at Coit Tower. The start city is a little ironic with the last pro cycling race in San Francisco having been run out of town by the city. Regardless, one thing is certain, the cast of characters set to play out the drama on the roads past Hollywood shows that people are taking this race seriously.
Without even glancing at the specific riders on the team list, the teams alone make for an impressive line-up. Of the sixteen teams in the race, half are ProTour squads -- the most ever to race on this continent. The full T-Mobile team makes its debut in this hemisphere with the world time trial champion, Australian Mick Rogers, leading the way. T-Mobile is racing here in southern California, in part, for its bicycle sponsor Giant. "We are really excited about it," says Giant's Andrew Juskaitis. "We are a little hesitant of how successful it could be, but we are hoping it turns out to be a big deal. Obviously stage seven finishes in our back yard and we are certainly going to take advantage of it with a huge party here. Not only just celebrating the race, but that our team is here. It's almost a homecoming for us!"
Of course, many in America will be looking at the Discovery Channel team -- not only for a win, but to see the first step in a process to replace Lance Armstrong. "Tour of California is an important race for us," director Johan Bruyneel said at the team's presentation last month. "The course is great and we are going to bring a strong team. The most important guys are going to be Hincapie, Tom Danielson, Ekimov and Paolo Savoldelli."
Coming to America
As for the other ProTour squads, four of those have clear American leaders for this race. Team CSC has veteran Bobby Julich wearing the low number on a very deep squad. His seasons have progressively gotten better in recent years, and the inclusion of a prologue as well as an individual time trial will certainly be in the Olympic time trial bronze medalist's favour. CSC is also racing near their sponsor's home in California, and boasts powerful riders for every stage. Yellow jersey wearer David Zabriskie, Tour de France prologue winner Fabian Cancellara, veteran Jens Voigt and sprinter Stuart O'Grady are all possible stage winners.
Phonak Hearing Systems comes back across the pond and is lead by American Floyd Landis. Floyd knows the California roads well as a resident of the state, and is aided by a number of stage win contenders. South African sprinter Robbie Hunter won a stage of the Tour de Georgia last year, and American Jonathan McCarty makes his U.S. debut with the team. Davitamon-Lotto's Fast Freddy Rodriguez will be battling for the sprint category in his native land, with many young fans cheering their mentor on to victory. Look for fellow Californian Chris Horner to aim for a podium spot as well as Aussie Cadel Evans who comes off a good Tour Down Under.
Yet another Californian is Gerolsteiner's leader Levi Leipheimer. The last time his team was in San Francisco, teammate Fabian Wegmann won the San Francisco Grand Prix amidst a strong team performance. Speaking of former San Francisco winners, Canadian Charles Dionne makes his ProTour debut on the Suanier Duval-Prodir squad -- as does American Aaron Olsen. However, the team leader has to be two-time Giro d'Italia winner Gilberto Simoni who joins the team from Lampre-Caffita. Rounding out the ProTour entries is Credit Agricole with American Saul Raisin who comes off a near top ten finish at the Tour de Langkawi.
Not in my backyard
Eight continental and domestic teams will represent the best teams in North America. One team that many eyes will focus on is the newly formed Toyota-United Pro Cycling team in its first race ever. This all-star collection of top domestic racers has looked good on paper since news of the team began leaking last summer -- but the first test, and the biggest, will be matching up against the top teams in the world. U.S. time trial champion Chris Baldwin will be eyeing the prologue and time trial, while sprinters Juan Jose Haedo and Ivan Dominguez will be challenging the sprints. USPRO road champion Chris Wherry is not on the squad for this race, but Baldwin and Tony Cruz will be likely team leader candidates.
The best team in the land last year, Health Net-Maxxis, comes with a strong team and some new faces. Not new is the sprinting duo of Gord Fraser and Greg Henderson, who will be looking to win the sprint jerseys at both of America's top stage races. Australian time trial champion Nathan O'Neill will challenge against the clock, while the winningest American Scott Moninger and newly acquired Tim Johnson will be podium oriented.
Team TIAA-CREF upped its stock value considerably in the off-season by adding Danny Pate and Michael Creed to their ranks. While this has bumped the average age of the mostly developmental squad up a few years, there are still many younger riders gaining invaluable experience from racing against the best in the world. Nonetheless, Pate and Creed will be contenders for stages and high placement overall.
Colavita-Sutter Home has new faces as well, but is led by one of the most recognizable names in American cycling, Mark McCormack. Strongman Viktor Rapinski joins the team, giving his trademark power with some additional years of experience over in Europe under his belt. Navigators Insurance acquired the very quick Aussie Ben Brooks in the off-season, and will rely on the experience of Vassili Davidenko to contend for an overall victory.
Jelly Belly is riding in its backyard as well with a mix of young and old. Veteran Kirk Albers leads the team with sprinter Alex Candelario looking to sneak a stage win in a sprint . Kodakgallery.com-Sierra Nevada contends for the most number of letters in their name, but also boasts two dangerous riders in Canadian Dominique Perras and Ben Jacques-Maynes. Rounding out the field are our neighbors from the south, the KB Home Mexican National Team.
The eight days of the Tour of California looks set to become the top race in the States - perhaps alongside April's Tour de Georgia - and possibly one of the top races to signal the beginning of the season.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Rob O'Dea/www.BaldZebra.com