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Is It Too Early to Get Excited?

Tour_of_cali_mediumJust a random thought or two about the Tour of California... Is there any race whose organization and enthusiasm so outstrips its place on the annual calendar? What I mean by that is, the peloton likes to keep things in perspective in February, but the ATOC is so incredibly well done, so well attended, and so well received that it's a little hard to think of it as a winter race.

Now, I am not as intimately acquainted with the comparable events; perhaps what this means is that the race calendar is full of people and sponsors around the world giving their all to make their race great, and the ATOC folks are just one more shining example. 

Regardless of the answer to that question, the ATOC is at least slightly special: they have achieved this level of respect from the cycling world and its fans in an incredibly short time. Is this really only the fourth edition? The race does enjoy some built-in advantages: it's not one of three dozen pro tour races in the US; it's the only one. And California is a magnificent tapestry on which to draw up a Tour, sort of a warmer, busier Washington State.

Whether this translates into a higher level of competition remains to be seen, but from the riders' press conference yesterday (comments on the flip) some top riders are taking this race very, very seriously. We knew about the sprinters' contest -- Boonen, Cavendish, Freire, etc. -- but the GC may very well enjoy some increased intensity too, well in excess of what you'd expect this time of year. If this race were in, say, May, it would be positively HUGE.

Or maybe I need to stop channeling Phil Liggett... Anyway, it will be a breakthrough experience for me, and the Podium Cafe will be all over this race. Literally. Oh, and before we head to the flip, my pick to win is... George Hincapie. Hey, we're all about taking risks here.

Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana

“I think we’ve made it very clear from the beginning that there are two parts to my comeback.  One is the race – the reason we’ll be on the start line on Saturday – but more important really is the thought and the idea and the initiative to take Livestrong around the world.”


On the start of the 2009 season:

“We were blessed to have amazing launch in Australia, and I don’t just mean the team, but the foundation as well, and I hope we can carry that momentum through California and Europe for  the rest of the year.” 


On his return from retirement:

“I’ve been trying to stay reasonably fit; it’s comforting to know that I’m not the oldest guy in the race.  I’ve been at this a long time and it has been an interesting 17 years.  I think as far as the science of older athletes goes, performance doesn’t drop off, the mind drops off.  I’ve had a couple of breaks and my mind is fresh.  Let’s do it one more time.  I feel strong.  At 37, I feel just as strong as I did at 27.”


On drug testing:

“I think that we, in cycling, can sleep well knowing we’ve been more vigilant than anyone else with our testing.  Our testing is unannounced and unexpected.  It would be great to push for a global standard where everyone plays by the same rules.  There has been dark spot on cycling, but I think cycling is on its way out of that dark spot.”


On racing in California:

“California is prime cycling territory, and back in the 80s and 90s, I raced all over.  It also is a mythical place for a lot of people; everyone knows about California – people sing about California, there are movies about California, they dream about Highway 1.  California holds a lot of mystique, so for AEG to put together an event that starts in Northern California and ends in Southern California is great and provides a good prep for the season.  I’m looking forward to being on a bike for these nine days.  In just a few short years, the Amgen Tour of California has become a marquee event.”


On the team’s strategy:

“Our biggest concern this year is to try and avoid the cold, wet days that these guys had to race in last year.  Bad weather makes it harder and a bit more dangerous, but we’re still excited.”


“I’m looking forward to the Amgen Tour of California.  I’m confident in my talent and my ability.”


Levi Leipheimer (USA), Two-Time Defending Champion Astana

“The Amgen Tour of California is very near and dear to my heart.  When we first announced that there was going to be an Amgen Tour of California, I recognized right away that it was going to become one of the best races in the world in a very short amount of time, and that it would require the best effort that I could put forward.  The philosophy from the first Amgen Tour of California was to train extremely hard and just be as good as possible.”


“We have a fantastic team.  It’s an unbelievable team and we’re really motivated for race.  This is a huge race and it deserves our best effort.”


“The Amgen Tour of California is a huge race and the support behind it requires our best effort.  The power of peloton is phenomenal; you’d be hard pressed to find a better field before July than right here.  It’s going to be on this week.  Our team is really strong; I’m not the only one that can win this race.”


“I trained all through the winter for this race.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the time trial in Solvang, and I’ll start on Saturday knowing that I’ve done everything possible to train for this race.”


“The field is stronger than ever; everyone is taking it that much more seriously, so the race is getting harder and harder to win, but we came to this race prepared.”


“Cycling is a team sport.  Last year, the entire peloton threw their best at us; blood sweat and tears went into that race.”


 George Hincapie (USA) Team Columbia-High Road

“It means a lot to me to be a part of the Breakaway from Cancer initiative.”


“Lance one of my best friends; he is an incredible rider.  I am really looking forward to this race.  We have brought an amazing team to the Amgen Tour of California.  It’s essentially our Tour de France team; this is an important race for us.  We would love to win some stages here.  I’m feeling good; better than I have in a long time.  I expect big things from myself this race.  Our team has a lot of options for this race, so it should be exciting.”


 Tyler Hamilton (USA) Rock Racing

“I am really excited to be here.  We just finished training camp yesterday outside of Los Angeles.  We had a great training camp and the new riders are fitting incredibly well; we’re already like a family.  I can’t tell you how excited we are to be here at the Amgen Tour of California, one of the biggest races in the world.”


“This is the fourth or fifth largest race in world and that’s pretty incredible.  Hopefully one day it will become a Grand Tour.  We have four riders who have been on a podium in a Grand Tour – I’m excited to see it!  We’ve got a lot of up-and-coming talent.  I think there are at least three different riders that have the opportunity for a podium spot here at the Amgen Tour of California.”


“I’ve seen this race grow and I’m excited to be a part of it.  There is an amazing amount of talent in the peloton and I’m happy to be here and happy to race.  Our team is looking forward to making a statement.”


“I think it’s great that Lance is back, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that it has already brought so much excitement to the sport.  He has shown that he is fit and ready to go, so we’re expecting great things.  He is an amazing talent and we are fortunate to have him back.”


“I’m just going to take it day by day and hope I can do something on a stage and then support my teammates.  I’m going to be a domestique in this race and I’ll be happy to do it.”


Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin-Slipstream

“We’re doing our own thing and doing the best we can.”


“The Amgen Tour of California is a huge objective for every American cyclist.  I’ve done my best to prepare; that’s all I can say.”


“I don’t like the rain at all, but we raced here last year and it was raining.  Hopefully we won’t back down too much due to weather this year.”


Ivan Basso (ITA) Liquigas

“I am very happy to be here at the Amgen Tour of California.  I am maybe not in my top form, but definitely have a conviction to do as well as possible.  We’ve got a very young team, so we’re going to try and race together as united group and do as good as possible.”


Mark Cavendish (GBR) Team Columbia-Highroad

“There is maybe a little bit more pressure this year.  We’ve got a strong team here, and we’ve got some good chances.  I’d like to cross the line in front many times here in California.”


Carlos Sastre Candil (ESP) Cervélo TestTeam

“It’s like the Tour de France.  You can see the proof that this race is growing, even since last year.  This is my first time in this race, but it seems like a great race and draws a lot of media attention.”


Juan Jose “JJ” Haedo Saxo Bank

“I think there are a bit too many good sprinters in this race (laughing).  Our team is doing really well; we’ve been working really good together.  Everyone knows this is one of the most important races; harder than some races in Europe .  When I won my first stage at the Amgen Tour of California, it was my ticket to Europe, because of the attention I received, so it’s always special to race here.  I always feel welcome in America.”


Oscar Freire Gomez (ESP) Rabobank

“This is my second time racing in the Amgen Tour of California.  Last year was a different race; the level of competition gets better every year.  In my opinion, I would like to win here because the riders are really good and the level of competition is the highest.  If I win here, it means I can win other races.  Cycling is still a relatively new sport in America, but I think people enjoy this race a lot.”


 Scott Nydam (USA) BMC Racing Team

“A rider like me is indebted to this race because, as someone who is trying to move up through ranks, we need opportunities like this to get alongside the best riders in the world.  It’s a good opportunity for us to showcase that we do have talent in the U.S. and that we need to find creative ways, like to the Amgen Tour of California, to extract it; to develop programs that provide a gap between junior and professional riders.  For me, the Amgen Tour of California is the biggest race of my season; it’s in my home state.”


“I do train with Levi (Leipheimer) in Santa Rosa, and I think we’ve developed a mutually beneficial training partnership that challenges us both.  I’m trying to build my career, so I can hang in some of the biggest races this year.  It’s an honor to wear a jersey in the Amgen Tour of California.”


“Our team goal is to get a 2011 bid to the Tour de France.  I’m here to race a bike and do what we can do.  The ultimate goal is do what you can while you can, but the tone has shifted and we’re looking now to be more present during the second half of the race.”


Brooke Miller (USA) Women’s Criterium Defending Champion Team TIBCO

“People don’t know enough about women’s cycling, and the Amgen Tour of California provides a great opportunity to help spread the word; it’s really exciting to be able to win fans over.  We always try to make sure we have a good venue for our races and that we get a lot of good coverage.  Last year, the Amgen Tour of California was one of the biggest races of the season in terms of media coverage, which is huge for us.  We have confidence that one day we’ll get a full stage race.  I want to thank AEG for the opportunity and for the exposure.”


Andrew Messick, President, AEG Sports

“We are delighted that we are about to kick off the 2009 Amgen Tour of California.  We think we are going to have a fantastic race.  The race is now nine stages long, starting in Sacramento and finishing in San Diego County.  We’re covering new terrain to better showcase the state of California and some of the best racing we’ve ever had.  This is the best field of athletes, the best field ever assembled in the U.S. We are thrilled that California is able to host a field of athletes this strong.  This race will showcase the state in a way never done before.  We are pleased to be partners with the Amaury Sports Organization; they have been really helpful with the promotion of the race.  We are delighted to be partnering with the UCI; the race will be a part of the biological passport program. We believe in the system; we believe that there should be a rigorous testing program administered by an independent source, and it’s our belief that everyone in this race has to fulfill the same anti-doping policy.  We have the same policy as last year.  We believe that we have done everything in our power to make sure that it’s a clean race. The Women’s Criterium allows women’s professional cycling to able to benefit from the platform we have here.  We need to continue to showcase women’s professional cycling; we need to give sponsors the opportunity to watch and appreciate the competition and athleticism in both the men’s and women’s race.  We’d love continue to grow this race.”


Steve Johnson, CEO, USA Cycling

“I really want to extend a huge thanks to AEG for their vision in creating the Amgen Tour of California.  This is one of the biggest cycling events in the world.  Cycling is still a small sport; I can’t overstate the importance of an event like this.  Frankly, the Amgen Tour of California puts the sport of cycling in the awareness of millions of spectators, not only in California, but across the country.  This race generates people’s interest and enthusiasm.  There is no doubt in my mind that some young person standing on the side of the road during this race will one day be standing on a podium, as a result of this race.  The Amgen Tour of California has a profound impact on the sport of cycling, and the commitment to promote healthy lifestyles is everywhere you look during this race.”


Phil Liggett, VERSUS Announcer “The peloton is terrific.  The organizers have put in a lot of hard work, in a very short amount o f time, to put together a race that encompasses almost the entire state of California.  It slots into the world cycling calendar nicely, and the fact is, now, you can happily call it the fourth or fifth biggest race in the world.  The organization of this race just ticks.  It is the best field that has ever raced in the U.S.  It is a tremendous race and I congratulate everyone involved. The race is going to be broadcast live every day; the first time that Versus has attempted something like this, apart from the Tour de France.  We’re going to have a terrific week of coverage.”“The Amgen Tour of California has a big part to play in the world of cycling now.  The teams have honored that by sending very good riders here.  This is the next big race.  The elements in this course will create a very big race.”


Jim Birrell, Race Director, Amgen Tour of California“We spent a considerable amount of time before the Amgen Tour of California coming up with this route.  It’s a tough task, but we think it will be a compelling race.  It will be a world-class event.”“We do have contingency plans based on weather conditions, but rain or shine, the race will go on.  These athletes have seen some pretty adverse conditions, but hopefully we’ll have a good race.”


Bob Stapleton, Owner, Team Columbia-High Road

“Welcome to the world’s great new Grand Tour.  This race has taken leaps and bounds; it’s a longer, stronger, better Amgen Tour of California.  Even in a down economy, this race can still pull off something dramatic and exciting.” “We are a California-based team and proud to participate in the Amgen Tour of California.  We are optimistic about the future of the race.  It’s an event that everyone talks about.  You’ll see great performances from all of the athletes here; it shows what a great competition we have here.  Almost every team has sent their best athletes.  We hope the fans will embrace and enjoy the drama and suspense up until the last stage.  Through rain or shine, you’re going to see a great event.  This race comes at a time of great transition; this race has a bright future and is great for 2009 in cycling.”


Phyllis Piano, Vice President of Corporate Communication, Philanthropy, Amgen, official race sponsor“We couldn’t be more proud of how much the race has grown – world-class.  We started our sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California and created the Breakaway from Cancer initiative at the same time.  We have expanded that component this year to include even more partners.” “There are so many fantastic riders in this race, which is great!  Levi (Leipheimer) has been such an ambassador for this race from the start.  There is a special rider for us at Amgen though, and that’s George Hincapie.  We have been working with him since 2005, and he has been such a great ambassador.”The Amgen Tour of California allows us to speak out against doping and educate people on the proper use of our medicines.  We applaud AEG for having one of the strictest anti-doping programs in the sport.” We are proud to showcase this great state.  This is a free race, so families can come out and enjoy it.  I know we are going to have a great race.”