America's second most prestigious stage race starts today as the Tour de Georgia(TdG) sends 15 teams of 8 riders out on the roads of the peach state. As a bit of history, the TdG was first run in 2003 and it quickly became the number one stage race in the US. The organizers, Medalist Sports, had a long history in cycling, it's personnel were responsible for organizing the Tour de Trump and Tour Dupont in the 1990's. Chris Horner, now of Team Astana, was the first winner, Lance Armstrong launched the event into the stratosphere with his victory in 2004.
The Discovery Channel rider Tom Danielson's stock rose sharply in 2005 when he upstaged his Texas teammate and stole the race from Floyd Landis. The tables were turned in 2006 when, after an epic mano y mano battle on the fearsome slopes of Brasstown Bald, Landis bested Danielson. The Landis-Danielson duel on the 20+% ramps of Brasstown Bald was probably the most thrilling bicycle racing action ever seen by a TV audience on US soil. And the fact that top European teams were sending squads to the race made the performances by US riders memorable as well as credible.
However, 2006 also marked the beginning of another stage race organized by Medalist Sports. On the other side of the country, the Tour of California(ToC) began with much fanfare and anticipation. For the European pro teams, the ToC, with its February position on the racing calendar was a better fit. Throw in the fact that the weather in California usually trumps the climate found across the pond and it was clear that the ToC was going to be a hit with the Euros. Realizing that most European teams have tight budgets and don't like to cross too many time zones to race, would the Euros really head west for more than one stage race?
Two years ago I opined that the Tour de Georgia would suffer if the Tour of California became successful and, unfortunately, that appears to be true. This year there are only four European teams in the race, compared to eight for the ToC. That doesn't mean that the racing won't be difficult and entertaining. On the contrary. US domestic racing has increased in both speed and ability over the past few years; clearly the home boys can hold their own against their Euro counterparts. It is just that it would be nice to have a few more of the top pro teams in Georgia so that they can showcase their talents on US soil.
One hugely positive side to this whole situation is that it offers an opportunity for US-based pros to strut their stuff in front of some of the best professional teams and earn some respect for their efforts. Look for the homies to be very aggressive all race long with early breakaways and go-and-blow moves on every stage.
As for race predictions, there is no individual time trial in this year's TdG so Levi won't be able to crush everyone in the race of truth. However, look for the Astana rider and recent ToC winner to lay down some serious hurt on Brasstown Bald on the way to his second major victory in 2008.