I know, Peter Sagan has it in the bag. So let's just go through the paces. Here are ten guys to think about when the Amgen Tour of California heats up, on the off-chance that Sagan loses interest in winning every day.
1. Chris Horner, Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek
Interest? No doubt. As the defending champ and with the Schlecks blocking his July ambitions (as far as they know), Horner has plenty of reasons to go for it here.
Current Form: Probably solid. He hasn't raced since taking a DNF at Liege, but he was out of the game for five weeks before the Tour of Cali last year, hitting the slopes. He's had his usual share of issues -- knee tendinitis, etc. -- but honestly I think he's past caring about pain.
So...? Pick to win. Anywhere but California and maybe he'd have Tiago Machado to look at over his shoulder.
2. Levi Leipheimer, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Interest? Ah, the race is practically named after him.
To the flip!
2. Levi Leipheimer, Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Cont'd)
Current Form: This has been the subject of some curious speculation around the peloton. Personally, I am fine with assuming that two weeks of training after a broken leg is enough to whip an older rider into the form of his life. Does anyone not want this to be true?
So...? Well, they call the time trial the race of truth, so we should know for sure by Thursday afternoon. I have my doubts, though they may not be confirmed until the going gets super tough on Baldy.
3. Tom Danielson, Garmin-Barracuda
Interest? Questionable. Garmin are certainly big and American enough to need a result here. Last year he finished third in Cali en route to a stunning 8th in the Tour de France. On the one hand, you can see him sticking with what worked -- at 34, his chances to better his Tour finish are running short. But he is a bit lighter in his program so far, which makes me think maybe Cali is part of a slow, careful fitness plan.
Current Form: Last time out he finished 38th in a time trial. Behind Joaquim Rodriguez and no less than five Italians. In a time trial.
So...? Nope. Which leaves an opening for...
4. Andrew Talansky, Garmin-Barracuda
Interest? No doubt. This would be a great first stage win at the top level. Huge... if he can do it.
Current Form: Cracking. He barely missed out on the Tour de Romandie, one of the better gauges of stage racing quality around. Speaking of huge.
So...? Easily the most interesting name on this list, at least to fans in search of a little intrigue. The Romandie time trial wasn't as stacked as Bakersfield will be, so he will need a strong time there and still be able to follow wheels the next two days. Last year that was too tall a task, but Talansky has a lot of quality miles in his legs since then.
5. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas
Interest? Hm... I like this guy. He fights. Does Nibali ever seem not interested in a race?
Current Form: He hasn't raced since Liege, where he very nearly stole the prize. But that's not a huge layoff; the question is whether he rested and this is the start of a big July push, or he just kept going.
So...? I doubt it. Sagan is becoming a regular winner here, so Liquigas don't need Vinny to take his eyes off the bigger prize. He may have a stomach of anger though, with the Giro business and the impending departure from de Gaas.
6. Tejay Van Garderen, BMC
Interest? For sure.
Current Form: A bit unclear, but my guess is he's flying. Van Garderen was looking at least as good in Romandie as Talansky was, before a tree branch bloodied him a bit and ended his race.
So...? Another hot pick. If old guys don't rule, the kids could make things very, very fun. TJVG was fifth here last year, even after dropping a minute on Baldy. Since then he's completed a Tour de France. So the long, hot climb shouldn't bother him as much... mayhaps.
7. Steve Morabito, BMC
Interest? Sure, this is a good time to toughen up for the Tour de Suisse.
Current Form: Probably fine. He was in the lead group in the big Sion stage at Romandie, and he almost surely is peaking a bit earlier than the non-Swiss guys here.
So...? A solid plan B if Tejay doesn't have it.
8. Robert Gesink, Rabobank
Interest? Yep. He could use a win. And Rabo aren't going to drum up oodles of new customers in California by pulling for Garmin every day.
Current Form: Probably not great. His spring started very slowly after coming back from a nasty broken leg last fall, the kind you don't put strict timetables on. If he's good for the Tour de France, it'll only be just.
So...? Nice to see him getting miles in. Maybe Laurens Ten Dam can open another can of whoop-ass on Baldy.
9. Rinaldo Nocentini, AG2R
Interest? He hasn't been here in a couple years, and is almost certainly eyeing France. So minimal.
Current Form: Very strong spring with good results through the classics and Romandie.
So...? More of a punchy climber. That plus no obvious reason to want it bad enough probably adds up to losing time on Baldy.
10. Peter Velits, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Interest? Levi's understudy. Someone has to carry on. And Velits hasn't pitched in yet.
Current Form: Seems fine, though he hasn't raced since the Pais Vasco.
So...? Velits could use a result, and with Levi's injuries happening six weeks ago Velits has been on notice about this race. It almost certainly started as Tour prep, but if opportunity knocks, you answer.
OK, who ya got?