America's greatest stage race (for now) kicks off tomorrow in Augusta, Georgia, where the fourth edition of the Tour of... de Georgia challenges a nation to get its French on. It's been a while since the French influence on the Southern colonies/states waned, but the same could be said of Cycling too, and yet we all still say "maillot jaune" obsessively every July. Anyway, the organizers have amped up the climbing, added a second state ("Tour de Georgia et brevement Tennessee?"), and assembled a fine cast for some serious racing... stateside!
Let's break it down.
The race can be broken out into three phases: two long days of rollers and sprint finishes, each in the 200km range; a Stage 3 ITT with about 1000 vertical feet of climbing, give or take some more rollers, where the selection begins; two days of increasingly strenuous climbing, culminating in the hors categoire (i.e. too sick to rate) 5km climb up Brasstown Bald. Sunday is a parade to a sprint, but the race will be long since sorted out.
Clearly the TdG is another preseason-style race for the big names, in that they're not necessarily here to win so much as work on their form. But at the same time you can't lump the TdG in with other spring stage races, mostly because of Brasstown Bald. Don't quote me, but I believe it's the season's first above-category climb for anyone, and the splits in the field that historically occur are more like what you'd see in the Alpes.
Last year, on Brasstown Bald, only five riders were within two minutes of Tom Danielson, and their names were Armstrong, Leipheimer, Landis and Julich; 20th place left you a full eight minutes in arrears. By contrast, in last week's Vuelta a Pais Vasco, probably the stage race of the European season so far and one where you can find your share of grand tour names, the penultimate mountain stage saw 62 riders within 2.31 of the winner.
Of course, some of the differences can be traced to the middlin' quality field. Last year's Lance Worship Tour drew only the American GC guys as serious challengers from the European scene, and this year's start list is probably a tad weaker. Outside Marco Pinotti, the non-Americanized Pro Tour teams (Saunier Duval, Davitamon and God's own Classics Squad Quick Step) are fielding strictly C-list teams.
Tom Danielson seems like an ideal repeat winner for a race that weighs so heavily in favor of the pure climbers, and he'll have Discovery's support like last year... minus only Lance, Hincapie and Chechu Rubiera. Floyd Landis is a top favorite if he's aiming for a win, and Phonak has made a living this year off small stage races, but I wonder how deeply into the red Floyd wants to go here. His success is as much in time trials, and 24km's worth isn't much. CSC, meanwhile, will run Dave Zabriskie out there -- not a heavy favorite -- but he'll have Jakob Piil, Brian Vandborg (2005 winner in the second-toughest Dahlonega stage) and Lars Michaelson on hand. If Vegas makes CSC less than 1:2 for the team competition, bet the ranch. Finally, Health Net-Maxxis will animate the race with Gord Fraser and Nathan O'Neill, while Toyota United and Navigators go stage-win hunting.
- Weather can be iffy in north Georgia, but not this year, barring a T-storm. Highs in the 80s...
- One more all-purpose preview: CyclingNews chimes in.
- No live TV coverage, this being America and all. OLN will have a single wrapup show Sunday, mixed in somehow with Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Fleche Wallone. For our purposes here, we won't be doing live reports as a result (I do have a day job), but will try to stay on top of things throughout the day.