The 2010 Amgen Tour of California wrapped up on Sunday and as predicted, there was nothing ceremonial about the last stage. Michael Rogers was under constant attack on the final ascent of the Rock Store climb by Dave Zabriskie and Levi Leipheimer who trailed the Australian by only nine and twenty five seconds respectively.
Adding to the drama, both Zabriskie and Leipheimer had teammates with them on that final ascent. Rogers, who found himself with no teammates, was definitely vulnerable, but the Aussie rallied to bring back every single attack. This was the type of action the race organizers were looking for when they selected this as their final stage and the three protagonists didn't disappoint.
What the spectators saw was undoubtedly some of the most exciting racing in the five year history of the AToC. Everything hung in the balance and Leipheimer and Zabriskie attacked at will hoping to gap Rogers. At one point, Leipheimer looked to have broken Rogers. Zabriskie quickly joined the Team Radio Shack rider in the move, but Rogers somehow found a way to claw his way back to the two.
Ahead of the fight for the overall championship, George Hincapie was leading the remnants of the day's major breakaway in hopes of salvaging his AToC with a stage win. Hincapie was clearly the crowd favorite and it would have been an emotional victory, but Ryder Hesjedal(Garmin-Transitions) spoiled the show with a late race move that put him in a sprint with Hincapie for the win.
The organizers couldn't have planned the finale any better, other than maybe having an American winner. The eight-day race was exciting from start to finish and should be back next year with even more competitive racing and unforgettable stages.
Michael "Mick" Rogers was the big winner today in the Amgen Tour of California's stage 7 time trial. While his HTC-Columbia teammate, Tony Martin, won the 20-mile test, it was Rogers who beat his two chief rivals Dave Zabriskie and Levi Leipheimer by five and eleven seconds respectively.
Going into tomorrow's final stage, Rogers leads Zabriskie by nine seconds and Leipheimer by twenty five seconds. Normally, that would be enough to call it a wrap, but the AToC's final stage is deceptively difficult and could allow a late race challenge to succeed.
Sunday's stage is four laps of a 21-mile circuit in the Santa Monica mountains. The first 10 miles are flat and fast. The second half of each lap starts with the 2.5 mile Rock Store climb which is followed by another, less difficult, ascent and concludes with a very tricky downhill into the finish.
Because the first half of each lap is flat that will allow a concerted chase to peg back any significant moves. If Zabriskie or Leipheimer wants to gain time on Rogers, their best bet is to put everything into a last lap attack on the Rock Store climb and then hope they have the legs to drive it all the way to the line.
So, the race is far from over. Look for the Garmin-Transitions and Team Radio Shack to be putting pressure on HTC-Columbia from the gun in hopes of softening up Rogers and his mates for a late race attack.
As three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC), Levi Leipheimer, predicted the race for the overall title will once again come down to the time trial. With the move of the race from February to May, it was hoped that the longer and more difficult courses would provide some separation, but that was not the case with the top four riders separated by only 14 seconds after 29 hours of racing.
To uplevel the discussion a bit, the race really does need a mountain top finish if it wants to provide a bigger challenge. Leipheimer has been vocal about the lack of such a finish, luckily for him, he is a very good time trialist. But, with the move to May, difficulty means not just adding more climbing, but making that climbing relevant. The fact that critical breakaways were chased down on both Stage 3 and Stage 6 demonstrates that it is not sufficient to put the final climb within 10-15 miles of the finish line.
So, without a mountain top finish, Saturday's time trial will be about as exciting as possible. The three strongest riders, Michael Rogers(HTC-Columbia), Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Transitions) and Levi Leipheimer(Team Radio Shack) are all excellent time trialists. Michael Rogers is a three-time World Time Trial Champion. Dave Zabriskie has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia and is a medalist at the World Championships. Levi Leipheimer has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana and an Olympic bronze medal.
The one big unknown is the time trialing ability of Slovakian Peter Sagan. The 20 year old is the revelation of the 2010 season. He has shown he can sprint with two convincing stage wins at the AToC (as well as at Paris-Nice and Tour of Romandie) and that he can climb. But, can he go fast in the race against the clock?He is only fourteen seconds out of the lead and could take the jersey with an inspired ride.
The first two stages of the Amgen Tour of California are complete and while the winner of Stage 1, Mark Cavendish, was no surprise, Brett Lancaster's victory on Stage 2 was not as predictable. In the race for the overall championship, three-time and defending champion, Levi Leipheimer (Team Radio Shack) is still on track for win number four. But, his main challengers, save for Fabian Cancellara, have also finished at the front meaning the race is still far from over.
Stage 1 from Nevada City to Sacramento was held in warm, dry weather and until the race hit the three 2-mile laps of the finishing circuits in downtown Sacramento it was a pretty boring affair. That's not to say that the first day's four man breakaway wasn't deserving of their time off the front, it is just that with the powerful HTC-Columbia team driving the chase, a field sprint was inevitable.
Drenching rain greeted the peloton for stage 2 and it was another breakway which dominated the early and mid-race action, but as in the first stage, the escapees were caught. But, unlike the first stage it wasn't the whole field rather a select group of the overall contenders including Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Transitions), Mick Rogers(HTC-Columbia) and Andy Schleck(Team Saxo Bank).
Noticably absent was Fabian Cancellara who started the race sick and succumbed to his illness and ultimately losing fifteen minutes by the stage finish.
Twenty five riders contested the sprint into Santa Rosa with Brett Lancaster(Cervelo Test Team) taking the win over emerging spring sensation Peter Sagan(Liquigas). Lance Armstrong, whose fitness had been called into question before the race, was also part of the lead group. Radio Shack had five of its eight riders in the front at the finish, a strong showing by their team which bodes well for the difficulties ahead.
Because of his stage 2 win and the accompanying time bonus, Lancaster assumed the overall race lead from Stage 1 winner Mark Cavendish. Tomorrow's stage, a hilly test from San Francisco to Santa Cruz will most likely cause a change in overall race leadership as well.
Sports history was made on Sunday as Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a men's Professional Bowler's Association event, the 45th Tournament of Champions. I know a few years ago ultra-distance runner Ann Trason beat some men in an ultra run competition, but this is a much more significant event given the depth of competition in bowling, and more specifically, professional bowling.
What is also significant is that unlike other professional sports like golfing, the women compete on exactly the same setup as the men. There are no "women's tees" like there are in golf. The bowling pins aren't closer together or lighter for the women. It is exactly the same equipment as the men. So, chalk one up for the ladies.
Of course, there is the bigger picture discussion as to whether bowling really is a sport. I was disappointed to learn that the normal bowling balls have an especially-designed center to give the ball the curving motion so necessary to roll a strike. That's why bowling aficionados have a special ball which rolls straight for picking up spares. Is that fair?
But, in the end there are enough factors in the plus column that we can probably call bowling a sport. Just try telling someone from Wisconsin that kegglers aren't true athletes.
BTW, the reason I am talking about bowling rather than cycling is that the Tour Down Under going on in Australia this week was a bit of a snoozer. Except for Cadel Evans' big attack on Old Willunga Hill (and it is a hill and not a mountain), the HTC-Columbia team took over where they left off last year and totally dominated the race with Andre Greipel winning three of the six stages en-route to victory.
You can't really blame an early season race for being a bit boring. Most riders are using an event such as this to hone their racing form for the bigger events coming up later in the year. But, the organizers could throw some challenges into a couple more of the stages to break things up a bit.