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Mont Ventoux
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Tour de Georgia - 2.HC

USA, April 16-22, 2007

Georgia is back, and bigger

By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor

Floyd Landis (Phonak)
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

Since its inception four years ago, the Tour de Georgia has continued to increase in both size and stature, ensuring its place as one of the preeminent races in North America, for both ProTour squads with sponsor ties and domestic teams chomping at the bit to steal the limelight. Last year the race increased its UCI classification to become hors category -- this year, the race adds another day, extending it to an entire week. As in previous years, a few potential contenders of a certain race in July have made this race part of their preparation, and thanks to new sponsorship agreements, the racing is ready to begin.

The 2006 race was a bell-weather of sorts -- the first edition in a post-Lance cycling world. While the overall fan attendance on the road was noticeably less, it was still well within expectations, with the enthusiasm of those in attendance was as high as ever. And how could it not be, with Floyd Landis standing toe-to-toe with Lance's successor Tom Danielson, racing to a dramatic finish atop Brasstown Bald Mountain?

For 2007, Landis remains on the sidelines awaiting the start of his arbitration in May; Tom Danielson returns, but with a much different Discovery Channel team that includes 2007 Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer; and Tyler Hamilton will make his North American professional return as part of the Tinkoff Credit Systems team. Add the following facts: the race is a day longer, three significantly different stages, two brand new stages, an uphill time trial; and you have the makings for a week of quality racing in America's back yard.

George Hincapie
Photo ©: John Pierce
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As mentioned, the Discovery Channel team is bringing a slightly different team than last year and that it brought to the Tour of California. Ivan Basso will stay in Europe but competent domestiques such as Jose Luis Rubiera and Pavel Padrnos will assist either Leipheimer of Danielson in a bid for the leader's jersey. Jason McCartney will also be back as a super-domestique in what has to be one of his favourite races on the calendar. George Hincapie also will be in attendance, flying the colours as U.S. champion.

Team CSC is back, and with a quite different line-up. David Zabriskie will be representing the other U.S. champion jersey and looking for additional time trial practice with the revised course finishing up Lookout Mountain, while speedster Juan Jose Haedo, fresh off his first European win, will look to take out stages like the newly created final 123.9km (77 mile) Atlanta Circuit race.

Fred Rodrigeuz (Predictor-Lotto)
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

World champion Paolo Bettini is not returning to the U.S. (no towns in Georgia are named after his hometown,) but his team is back with many competent riders such as Leonardo Scarselli. Predictor-Lotto's Fred Rodriguez will likely be the team's designate, surrounded by riders such as Nick Gates and Stefano Zanini to get him to the sprint line first. Suanier Duval-Prodir has a couple of names of note too -- particularly time trial specialist David Millar and two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni.

However, the rider that is likely to elicit the most attention, possibly both positive and negative, is Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton returns to racing as a pro in his home country after serving his two-year suspension. His new team, Tinkoff Credit Systems, makes its debut of racing across the pond as the only European Professional Continental team. Also on the team is former Italian champion Salvatore Commesso, who has raced in Georgia in previous races.

Tyler Hamilton (Tinkoff Credit Systems)
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

The American teams have their three Professional Continental team -- Slipstream-Chipotle, Health Net-Maxxis, and Navigators Insurance -- with Navigators and Slipstream recently back from substantial European campaigns, including strong performances by Navigators' Sergey Lagutin at Hel van het Mergelland and Slipstream's Danny Pate at the Critérium International. Health Net's Nathan O'Neill must be ready to race in his adopted home state after suffering setbacks due to two major auto-related incidents.

Other American teams are looking to use this world stage to make a name for themselves, whether it be a surprise stage win or just a suicide breakaway for some valuable TV time. Toyota-United has shown that stage wins are the way to go and are ready with the likes of sprinter Ivan Dominguez and time trialer Chris Baldwin. Colavita-Sutter Home has put its cards on the table with Irish champion David McCann, while the BMC team is relying on a mix of veteran and youth, led by Alexandre Moos and Scott Moninger. Jittery Joe's is always a dark-horse, racing on their home turf -- and with the new Aussie acquisition of Chris Jongewaard could be a threat. Priority Health rounds out the domestic teams but showed in the Tour of California that it belongs, thanks to a strong effort from Ben Jacques-Maynes.

The action begins with stage one on Monday -- but if you cannot make it down to the Peach State, no worries -- Cyclingnews has secured a giant peach hot air balloon (a la James and the Giant Peach) called "Airship Just Peachy Ya'll" to give you live updates from inside the race. Be sure to tune-in everyday!