The 2009 Amgen Tour of California(AToC) starts on Saturday (it's my valentine this year) and looks to be an E-ticket ride for a whole host of reasons. First off, Lance is back in the saddle and unlike the recently concluded Tour Down Under in Australia, he will be riding to help his teammate Levi Leipheimer's quest for a three-peat. That means you won't be seeing Lance hanging out in the back of the pack working on his tan. He will have to be on the front or off the front to be an effective domestique.
But it is not all about Lance as a number of very accomplished professionals are in attendance. The aforementioned Leipheimer, of Team Astana, looks very good for a three-peat, but Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde, who finished fourth overall in last year's Tour de France and was on the podium a the AToC last year is a definite contender. Floyd Landis and Italian Ivan Basso are making comebacks after serving doping suspensions. Basso won't be on top form, but Landis, who won the inaugural AToC in 2006, could surprise.
The race route is extremely challenging with lots of climbing. Unfortunately, from a strategy and tactics standpoint, most of the really difficult ascents come too far from the stage finish to have an affect on the overall standings. The lone exception is Stage 2 on Monday from Sausalito to Santa Cruz where the final climb, Bonny Doon Road is long enough, six miles, and steep enough, the first two miles are 10% after that is is 4-7% to cause a selection. At the top of the climb a technical 10-mile descent drops the racers right into the finish. Look for a group of 3-10 riders to come to the line.
While the Bonny Doon climb will select the semi-finalists for the overall win, the time trial will choose the leader. As in the past three years, this 15-mile race against the clock will decide who will wear the golden fleece into the finish Sunday after next in Escondido.
While the race for the overall title usually takes center stage, look for former World Champion Tom Boonen and Britain's wunderkind, Mark Cavendish, to duke it out for wins on the flatter stages. I like Tom and one of his sponsors is the American bike company Specialized, but Cavendish seems even more motivated as his team's title sponsor, Columbia is headquartered on the west coast. Look for Boonen to take a stage and Cav to win on at least two days.
The weather will also make the race exciting, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. A series of major winter storms are lined up to come into Northern California starting on Sunday with daytime highs around 50F and snow levels of around 1500-2000 feet. There are several climbs in the race which eclipse that altitude so things may be white for the racers. Hopefully, the weather will not play a deciding factor. The racers are as tough as they come, but there is no need to turn it into a daily sufferfest.
Look for daily updates from behind-the-scenes at the race. It's going to be another week of unforgettable racing in California.