You've perused the almost-final startlist, you've read about the course, and you've figured out how and where to watch America's (other) premiere Pro Cycling event. But Cycling is a team venture, and the strings will be pulled by the guys in jeans in team cars, surrounded by radio equipment. So who's going to animate this race?
Over one tumultuous week, they've gone from stout defenders of the 2007 title to a team with a chip on its shoulder the size of Iceland. While earlier I might have thought Levi Leipheimer would be content to let some breaks go, send Brajkovic and Gusev and Horner on an occasional flyer, and hope for the best, now I think the entire team will be out for blood. Or, at least, not too worried about saving their form for later. Leipheimer in particular seems to have little else worth targeting this year. He's now my favorite to win, and I expect the team to ride with a completely different mentality than anyone else this week.
The Contenders: CSC, High Road, Slipstream
CSC, with its deep and flexible stable of all-rounders, show up everywhere to win, as evidenced by placing four riders in the top six last year. And they get up for the ToC: I don't think they pass by CSC Inc.'s corporate HQ this year, but close enough. By nabbing Jason McCartney this offseason, they now sport the defending GC#s 2-3-4-5. But... can they resist chasing stage wins? The ToC has been JJ Haedo's personal playground in the past. Look for them to walk a fine line with the leader's jersey, in the hope Astana will help control things.
High Road have the pedigree for the overall win here, and while it wasn't a T-Mobile priority, things stand to be different since Bob Stapleton is re-branding them as America's only Pro Tour squad. Expect Hincapie, Kirchen and Adam Hansen to chase the jersey, but largely in the time trials. After them come an armada of sprinters: Boasson Hagen, Cavendish, Ciolek, Wiggins. Does this look like a GC team?
Slipstream may be the true America's Team (for now), but it's tough to know what to expect. These guys simply haven't ridden together much yet, so while they have the quality to go for the win (Vandevelde, Millar, Danielson), it's hard to imagine them muscling Astana or CSC off the front of the pack.
The Stage-Hunters: Quick Step, Rabobank, Toyota-United, Gerolsteiner
Stage-hunting at the ToC is another time-honored tradition, thanks to climbs that all top out far from the day's finish line. Of the teams listed here, Rabobank could theoretically throw Robert Gesink at the overall, but I doubt they'll out-will the teams listed above. Instead, look for Oscar Freire to make it into the finale of just about every stage, probably nabbing a win or two.
The same could be said of Paolo Bettini, who like Freire shouldn't be too intimidated by the climbs on the course, save for Sierra Road. On the mellower stages (1, 5, 6), Quick Step will convene the race's only sizeable leadout train for Tom Boonen. Gerolsteiner are also heavy on sprinters, and while I wouldn't bet on them winning anything, we can at least tell what their strategy is. Toyota-United have a proud history (so far) of bagging wins here, and Ivan Dominguez would like to pick up where he left off from last year's final-stage victory.
Wolves: Bissel, Health Net, BMC
As carnivores go, wolves don't tend to take down larger creatures by solo efforts, but you never know. So go the fortunes of these squads, who can't be counted out... but who are more likely to get trampled on their own.
Tourists: Saunier Duval, Credit Ag,
Bouygues Bweeg Telecom
Why exactly are they here? A nice race, a little sunshine, and a week of California livin'... sounds more like a reward than a competition.