If you have been hanging around the Podium Cafe for any length of time, you probably noticed that I know next to nothing about domestic American pro cycling. This is a tad complicating when it comes to the preeminent race on US soil, the Amgen Tour of California, a complicated enough subject considering the wavering ambitions of the Europe-based teams. So when I don't sit down to write a preview of the GC battle, it's out of respect for you, the readers. You're welcome.
Still, in its sixth season it's apparent even to a moron like me that the race is oozing with plotlines. One of which has already been written -- the weather. As I've said before, I'm glad they tried to have a stage up at Tahoe, and I'm just as glad they pulled the plug on it. Cycling's stadium is nothing less than the (mostly) paved surface of the Earth, and as such it can't hide from the weather when it happens. Anyway, with that one off the list, let's continue our ATOC by the Sixes theme and peek in on six more plotlines to keep you intrigued.
1. Will Levi Win?
With three wins to his name and a coverup that he ever lived in Montana, Levi Leipheimer has stamped his authority on the race as the local hero. They even gave him the #1 dossard this year, despite finally losing in 2010 to both Mick Rogers (not here in 2011) and Dave Zabriskie (not from Cali). Whatever ambition and swagger he suffers a lack of in France each year, he ably musters when it's time to check in on the Golden State.
Last year Leipheimer lost because the race simply wasn't hard enough for him to drop Rogers or Zabriskie, both of whom used their formidable skills against the watch to fend off the superior climber in Leipheimer. This year's parcours tilts back in Levi's direction, however, and if Zabriskie doesn't grow wings on Baldy, it will be up to someone else to reel in the Radio Shack captain. Andy Schleck is the only guy in the world who can stay with Alberto Contador in the mountains, so he's an odds-on favorite to prevent the inevitable. So too are his teammates Linus Gerdemann and Brice Feillu. Garmin has a squad full of climbers; HTC have Tejay Van Garderen and Peter Velits. But as the Baldy climb comes after the Solvang time trial, Leipheimer will look to establish a lead on that course which he loves so much, leaving him in the position of just having to defend on Baldy. In that case, take a good look at Gustav Larsson, Velits and Van Garderen, Zabriskie, and even Levi's teammate Chris Horner as guys who could put Levi under more pressure than a pure climber.
The Call: in Levi vs. the field, I'll go with the field.
2. Will the Domestic Teams Rise Up?
History hasn't been kind to the domestic US pros facing off against the Girona Gang in California, despite some home-turf advantages. Of course, those advantages might be overstated when guys like Leipheimer spend a fair amount of time training in California anyway. But several years in the local guys' quest to teach those foreign(ish) invaders a lesson goes unredeemed.
A big part of the problem with history, however, is that until last year the race was held in February, when the European teams are perhaps a bit further along in their preparations than the US guys, what with so many early goals like Paris-Nice and the Spanish mini-tours. They also get the key invites to places like the TDU, Oman and Qatar, valuable race-pace training events at the very least. [Some Aussies and Kiwis are on a whole 'nother schedule, but these guys are distributed in the US and Europe, and anyway those January peaks didn't line up so well with Cali.]
Now, however, with the race in May, the US pro peloton hits the ATOC in prime form. Fairer fight, says I. Rory Sutherland was best-placed last year in 7th overall, but more telling was the fact that we saw six domestic riders in the final top 20. Compare with 2009 when Enrique Gonzalez finished 20th for Rock Racing... and was the top-placed domestic pro. Sutherland is back, as are guys like Luis Amaran, Ben Jacques-Mayne, Phil Zajicek, Svein Tuft and Andrew Bajadali. Jacques-Mayne has done well in Solvang, as has Tom Zirbel, though he's just coming off suspension and isn't likely to be on top form.
The Call: two guys in the top ten; top 5 is a reach.
3. What Will Tejay Do?
America sits and waits for its next great grand tour rider, and most of the betting is on Van Garderen. You could call it unfair to heap such grandiose expectations on anyone, but the kid has nobody to blame besides himself. Finishing 3rd in the Criterium du Dauphine in his first try? 34th in his first grand tour (Vuelta)? 18th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Those are eye-popping numbers for a 22-year-old. A win in California would be a logical first step: sponsor would go gaga, press is drooling, fans highly interested, and the course is a nice appetizer to his career.
The Call: Winning is a big step up from, say, a podium challenge. Consider the latter more realistic for now.
4. Who Will Win on Baldy?
The pure climbers finally have a stage of Cali to call their own. This one is hard too -- Jimbo is still struggling to get up and down stairs following his heroic course preview. Only the purest of the pure climbers, a climber as pure as the driven snows of the Northstar at Tahoe access road, should be eligible for the win. Right?
Er, yah, sure. But there are plenty of other factors to consider. Like, who emptied their tank in Solvang the day before? It's only 129km, so who can climb at the end of a three-hour stage much better than a six-hour stage? Can a break stay away with the GC race likely on pins and needles? Wouldn't you let some climby dudes get away if they sit 6' back or so? Possibilities are endless. A few extra names to consider: Dan Martin, explosive when he feels the energy (and not the allergens); decoys like Leenoos, or maybe Jens! Voigt in a break; Laurens Ten Dam of Rabo, pretty pure on the climber scale; Jannick Eijssen of BMC, unless he's working with Steve Morabito on his GC placing.
The Call: I am guessing the GC guys emerge. Schleck or Horner, if I had to pick.
5. How About the Stage Hunters?
Lots of big names abound. Matt Goss, Lars Boom, Bernie Eisel, Daniel Oss, Peter Sagan, a stable of Sky sprinters. But the one big name stage hunter that intrigues me is George Hincapie. Nobody's motivation could be clearer. And Stage 5 to Paso Robles, a long, bouncy, middlin' stage, could be his day. If the action is hot on Sierra Road the day before, and Hincapie drops some time, he won't be reeled in by the GC guys.
The Call: Lots of meh; but Sky aren't done winning, and neither is Big George. Sagan won't leave without a scalp someplace.
6. Who Wins the Solvang ITT?
In past seasons Solvang was the key to it all. Now it's just a place to rearrange things before hitting Baldy. But it's still a centerpiece of the race from an optics POV; lovely place, great course, lots of identity with this stage, and crowds will be big. Here's a short list of top contenders: Levi, Horner, Christian Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Marten Tjallingii, Boom, Hincapie, Taylor Phinney, Larsson, Morabito. The course rolls up and down in two places, but it's not technical at all and is great fun.
The Call: GC guys letting it all hang out. I'll go with Horner for the win.