T of C Review and More!

by Jack  

The 4th Amgen Tour of California ended last Sunday with a very familiar result. Levi Leipheimer (Astana) took his 3rd title in a row and yet another record setting crowd turned out for an even bigger and better race. Over 2 million people lined the roads from Northern to Southern California to greet the peloton as it traversed through vineyards, mountain passes and 6 lane highways that are more native to Southern California than anywhere else in the world.

Despite the bad weather for 3 of the first 4 days, California once again showed the cycling world that it can indeed put on a great show! Sure, there was the "Lance factor" and while no one can deny that, the race has grown enough throughout the last 3 years that it has fans of its own regardless of who decides to race. But it is the cyclists that make the race what it is and this year's field was the best yet! We had an opportunity to see what a field may look like at both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. Whether for training or for winning, no one had a back seat ride in the peloton. If you wanted to finish the stage, you better be at your best.

We saw an aggressive Rock Racing made up of ex-Tour de France caliber riders animating the race from the very first stage. Regardless of what you thought of Francesco Mancebo before, you would have to give him credit for that gutsy solo break on Stage 1 to Santa Rosa. He courageously took the leader's yellow jersey from a sick Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), who had to pull out mid-stage after winning a stunning Prologue the day before.

The following day netted an exciting end as Levi Leipheimer and his Astana team hammered it home to give Levi his first lead of this year's race. After climbing a very tough Tunitas Creek Road, the fireworks began at the beginning of the climb of Bonny Doon Road. Levi attacked the front group on a mission to catch the breakaway and gain time on all of his rivals. For a brief moment, it looked like Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) was going to join him but the teammate of Ivan Basso just didn't have enough horse power. Even though Levi finished second to young American Tom Peterson (Garmin), one of the original breakaway members, he was able to gain a valuable 21 seconds on his rivals after Stage 2.

The next three stages resulted in the long awaited bunch sprints. A talented crop of fast men including Mark Cavendish (Columbia), Tom Boonen (Quickstep), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and many others sought out glory as well as some bragging rights. Stage 3 surprisingly went to Hushovd as he easily beat his rivals while Mark Cavendish won both Stage 4 and 5 by outgunning rival Boonen at the finish.

After the fast men had their days on the stage, it was time for the GC guys again. The Solvang time trial traditionally cemented the winner of the Tour of California but this year, Stage 6 would only serve as an appetizer of what was to come in the next few days. American David Zabriskie (Garmin) pushed Levi to the edge. But at the end of the day, Levi won the stage by a slender 8 seconds and increased his lead to 36 seconds over 2nd place Zabriskie. By the way, a certain Lance Armstrong finished over a minute behind and slotted in at 14th place. I expected a bit more from Lance but he said he was right on target.

The following day's Stage 7 was an exact replica of the final stage of last year's race, won by American George Hincapie (Columbia) in a rain storm. Although the race played out in a similar fashion (minus the rain storm), including having Hincapie in the successful break, the winner was different. AG2R, new to the race and relatively quiet until today, won when Italian Rinaldo Nocentini beat Hayden Roulston (Cervelo) and Pieter Weening (Rabobank) in a sprint. The GC stayed the same while the contenders conserved energy for tomorrow's tough final stage.

Stage 8 was to be no cakewalk. Not only was it possibly the toughest day but it brought the Tour of California to it's highest ever peak, the 5,123 ft. Palomar Mountain at mid-stage. If that didn't break things up, a final push up Cole Grade would provide Levi's challengers a final opportunity to dethrone him. While no one expected Levi to be isolated from his teammates (including Armstrong) crossing over Palomar Mountain, everyone did expect Levi to keep his cool and defend his leader's jersey. After all of the attacks, we saw a powerful Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) outsprint Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas) to take the win less than a minute ahead of the winner of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, Levi Leiphmeimer, who was back in the comfort of an Astana lead peloton.

A wonderful stage capped off a very exciting race that had a lot of surprises. I was disappointed that Floyd Landis (OUCH!) didn't fair better thanks to bad luck on Stage 1, though he did show himself during the final stage. I was looking forward to a better showdown between Levi, Armstrong and Basso at the Solvang time trial but it was only Levi that showed up big time! Basso skipped his start after injuring his knee prior to the stage while Armstrong was clearly not at the same level, yet. What Armstrong did show was that he is clearly back and ready to commit himself 110% towards his goal of the Giro and the Tour. I have no doubt he will be competitive at both races.

Final GC Standings:
1 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana
2 David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin
3 Michael Rogers (Aus) Team Columbia
4 Jens Voigt (Ger) Team Saxo Bank
5 Thomas Lövkvist (Swe) Team Columbia
6 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas
7 Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana
8 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
9 Thomas Danielson (USA) Garmin
10 José Luis Rubiera (Spa) Astana

Also! The Belgium classics season started today with the running of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Het Volk), won by the God of Thunder himself, Thor Hushovd and continues tomorrow with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. To me, this is the most exciting part of the cycling season. Nothing beats 250k's of pain over ball busting cobblestones. I hope this all culminates with Big George Hincapie finally winning his Paris-Roubaix.

Although with flaws, I am eagerly watching each of these races on CyclingTV. I know a lot of you have had trouble with it. But for some reason, I have only had some minor headaches and have been relatively satisfied with their system. I'm keeping my fingers crossed though.

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