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Tour of California - 2.HC
USA, February 18-25, 2007
EPO testing? Key sponsor's wishes ignored as USA Cycling clams up
By Kirsten Robbins in San Francisco, California
Citing its economic benefits from the injection of money into the California economy, it was a buoyant group of 'stakeholders' who greeted the press a day prior to the start of the 2007 Tour of California, to be held from February 18 - 25.
Shawn Hunter, president of race owner AEG, said the race is now "the biggest and best race in America, and it is the biggest and best sporting event in California.
"There were 1.3 million fans in attendance at last year's Tour with the economic impact of $100 million on the state of California. In just a week last year, we raised over a million dollars for the Break Away From Cancer initiative," he said.
"This year we want to have national relevance and to improve the broadcast to double the amount of coverage the event gets. For AEG, we want to create a grand tour and that is our finish line."
However, the national relevance and profile has come to the race via an unflattering report published on Saturday in the New York Times, that revealed the race's lead sponsor, the biotech firm and EPO manufacturer Amgen, had requested that the riders be tested for EPO, but this had not been carried out.
"Our understanding going into the race was that the test would be included," Amgen spokeswoman Mary Klem told the New York Times. "And we were told afterwards that no rider tested positive for EPO or for any banned substance." According to the newspaper, company executives were angry and surprised when they heard that EPO testing was not actually carried out.
"We made it clear that if Amgen was going to continue as sponsor of the race, it needed to be a clean race and EPO had to be tested for," Klem said. "If somebody's using EPO in this race, we want to know about it. At least we know going into this year's race that we will."
At the press conference, it was confirmed that Amgen had made this request, but there was no explanation offered as to why it had not been carried out.
When directly asked and given the microphone to respond, Sean Petty, chief operating officer of USA Cycling, simply refused to comment. (A separate story on this issue is to follow on Cyclingnews.)
'Super Bowl' of cycling
However, Petty was more forthcoming when asked about the race itself. "After the first year it was hard to believe that the event surpassed all of our expectations. It is fair to say that the Tour of California is the Super Bowl of cycling for us in the USA. It starts us off earlier than in the past and the riders have had to prepare and be ready earlier."
Joining Petty and representatives from AEG and Medallist Sports, the company contracted to handle race organization, were a selection of leading cyclists, including current world road race champion, Paolo Bettini.
The Italian's presence is indicative of the field the race has attracted for 2007, with Bettini's Quick Step squad being joined by other A-listers, such as Discovery Channel and CSC.
Petty said, "This is only the second year and we have two world champions here so this is exciting for the country. This race has inspired a lot of race growth in the USA and we went from six to fourteen UCI races this year."
Questions then turned to the inevitable talk of the race being made part of the UCI's ProTour. "We would like to see a Pro Tour event in the USA if that becomes available," Petty said. "California is a natural fit because of the time of the year and the quality of the event and we have had a lot of discussions of the event becoming ProTour. We know the other ProTour events so we know what the organization looks like behind an event that big."
UCI president, Pat McQuaid, will be arriving in California and Petty intends to continue these discussions. "These riders are used to competing in the best races and under the best conditions and their input is important," Petty said. "Many teams got turned away that wanted to compete and the teams that did return brought stronger teams and this is phenomenal."
The race will feature twenty-three teams and offers an opportunity for some of America's domestic professional squads to mix it with the ProTour teams. There have been changes made to the course, in an effort to have the 'golden' leader's jersey change hands frequently.
Last year's race was decided by eventual winner, Floyd Landis, during the time trial (see report) midway through the race, with other stages finishing in field sprints that made little difference to the overall classification.
"We wanted to design a course that would have the leader's jersey change on a nightly basis," said race director and part owner of Medallist Sports, Jim Birrell. "We kept the same prologue but stage one (see profile) has the addition of two climbs leaving Sausalito over Mt. Tam and finish on Coleman Valley Rd into Santa Rosa. We incorporated a climb over Trinity Road too, but the key change is the individual time trial moved to Friday."
The time trial (see profile for stage 5) was reduced in length with a vision of keeping the time gaps closer between the top five riders so the spectators can see a battle for the overall on Saturday over four major climbs (see course profile).
On hand at the press conference was pre-race favourite, Levi Leipheimer, who this year will be racing (again) for Discovery Channel. Leipheimer took out the prologue last year (see report) when riding with German team, Gerolsteiner, but in 2007 he is back on the blue train, although the team has had a change of sponsors since he raced with Lance Armstrong on the US Postal Service team.
"This is a great sporting event and important for cycling in the USA," Leipheimer said. "I see this race growing into being one of the biggest races in the world. It is an emotional experience for me because these are the roads that I have suffered on as a cyclist for years.
"Last year it was a surprise for me to win the prologue and the next day was one of the best days in my career. It was overwhelming to come into my hometown in the leader's jersey in front of thousands of people. It was such a great experience that I would really love to win the event again tomorrow. I was motivated last year to do well and I am motivated to win tomorrow too."
Another American hoping for a stage win is Leipheimer's teammate, the US national road champion George Hincapie. Hincapie won two stages during last year's race and placed fourth in the overall classification.
"I am looking for another stage win this year - one or two would be good," Hincapie said. "I feel really great about the way I've come out of camp and I am excited to get the race started."
The race will begin tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco, with a 3.1km prologue (see course profile and description) up the Embarcadero and up to Coit Tower. "It is always such a violent way to start the season off because a three-kilometre time trial is one of the toughest things you can do," Hincapie said. "Last year I paced myself on the first part of the time trial and set a good pace up the first part of the climb. My intention was to get out of the saddle and sprint the final three hundred metres of the climb but I couldn't pedal any more and I basically crawled to the finish line. That is the kind of effort it is going to take to win tomorrow."
Michael Rasmussen, Rabobank's Danish climber and the winner of the climber's jersey in the 2006 Tour de France, said the 2007 course had several climbs added that will suit his style, but he will have to battle the motivated domestic riders if he wants to wear the climber's jersey this week. "For the Americans this race is like the world championships and I am sure we will have our hands full even through there are a lot of lesser-known teams here," Rasmussen said. "I am sure the American part of the peloton will give us a run for our money."
Paolo Bettini is in California, USA, for the first time with the intention of gaining fitness before the Spring Classics. "I live in a town called California in Tuscany and it is nice to see the real California for the first time," Bettini said. "I don't know where my early form is but I am here to try to get ready for the bigger races this year. It is a big experience to be here as a cyclist and a person. We are all used to traveling so why not travel farther. I have not changed my program at all from last year. I try to prepare for the early classics and I am going to use California to do this."
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