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From the pages of Velo: Momentum Gained (Analysis of the 2009 Amgen Tour)

Neal Rogers examines the 2009 Amgen Tour of California and whether the race can survive, or even thrive, with a new May date

Astana, Amgen Tour rock the cycling world in February. How will they stack up in the thick of the season?

ESCONDIDO, California (VN) — Who emerged the biggest victor from the 2009 Amgen Tour of California?

Astana’s Levi Leipheimer took his third consecutive overall victory, of course, but what about Lance Armstrong, who finished seventh and delivered his Livestrong message of cancer survivorship to two million roadside fans? Another winner was San Diego County, which celebrated its debut into the route with huge, rowdy crowds atop Palomar Mountain. And what about race owner AEG Sports, which now commands an event mentioned in the same breath as the Tour de France?

The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Held February 14-22, the Tour of California’s prologue and eight road stages covered more than 750 miles, the longest route yet, showcasing both the sport and the country’s most populated state on such a monumental scale that even three days of torrential rain couldn’t keep spirits down.

Fans turned out in droves for every start, finish and seemingly every stretch of road in between, even in horrid conditions. They were there to see the sport’s biggest names — and Armstrong, its biggest name of all.

“It’s sort of like being told you have a chance to see Superman fly by,” said one race official, referring to the thousands of rain-gear clad fans lining the roads hoping for a glimpse of Armstrong. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Even though it’s storming out, you’ve just got to go out and watch him go by.”

As part of AEG’s relationship with Tour de France organizer ASO, the race was broadcast in more than 200 countries and territories.

“We are enormously satisfied with the race,” said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports. “We’ve had some epic racing, beautiful terrain and tremendous crowds. The ratings for our television broadcast were up about 70 percent, we were broadcasting for twice as many hours and we were broadcast live all over the world.”

Casual fans may have been surprised to see the seven-time Tour de France champion riding in support of a teammate, but dedicated followers were thrilled to see Armstrong in the position of superdomestique. It was a role he’d promised to assume at Astana’s team training camp, held just weeks before the race in Leipheimer’s hometown of Santa Rosa rather than the previous Armstrong-era mainstay of Solvang.

During camp Leipheimer proved he was strong enough to win for a third time, and Armstrong pledged his support. “Nobody came in here with any expectation other than to ride for Levi,” Armstrong said.

And ride Astana did, at the front, from the first stage to the last, taking both the overall win and the team classification. But it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride. Armstrong’s Trek Equinox TTX time trial bike was stolen in Sacramento — along with several other team bikes — but later recovered. Leipheimer, Armstrong and teammate Chris Horner crashed during the first three rainy stages; x-rays later revealed that Leipheimer had fractured his sacrum. And the race’s second leader, Rock Racing’s

Francisco Mancebo, nearly ran away with the general classification on stage 1 when race officials shortened the stage for weather.

Leipheimer called this year’s win the most meaningful of his three.

“To win the Tour of California once, that was huge. To win it twice, it was a little bit of a surprise and felt like I was a little lucky,” Leipheimer said. “Now I’ve won it three times. It’s the sweetest of the three, and it’s hard to describe that.”

The stage is set — and then soaked

Perhaps outdoor apparel company Columbia was watching the weather forecast when it announced its role as official sportswear sponsor of the Tour of California. Seemingly the entire race entourage of 650 people spent the first four days covered in rain gear, while a harsh winter storm temporarily closed Highway 5 and shut down the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament.

Fans were undeterred. The biggest names in the sport were on display.

Pinning on numbers were men like the winners of the three of the most demanding events in professional cycling — Carlos Sastre (Tour de France), Tom Boonen (Paris-Roubaix) and Fabian Cancellara (Olympic time trial). In addition to the anticipated North American return of Armstrong, Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso — as well as Tyler Hamilton, who was not allowed to start California in 2008 — marquee names in attendance included star sprinters Mark Cavendish, J.J. Haedo, Thor Hushovd and Oscar Freire; Garmin-Slipstream’s Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde; Columbia-Highroad’s George Hincapie, Kim Kirchen and Michael Rogers; and a near replica of Saxo Bank’s Tour de France team, including Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady and Fränk and Andy Schleck.

As Rogers told VeloNews, the only 2009 event more important to Columbia, the most successful team of 2008, is the Tour de France.

As expected, Cancellara crushed all comers in the prologue, powering around the flat course like a motorbike as he did in Palo Alto one year earlier. But when he abandoned the following day with a strep throat infection, Leipheimer became the de facto race leader. A breakaway went up the road, and Astana found itself riding at the front. Because race radio and TV pictures were down when the weather grounded the race’s communications plane, racers didn’t receive word that the stage would be shortened on the finishing circuits in Santa Rosa until mile 80, at which point a solo Mancebo had a near five-minute lead with just 18 miles remaining.

Astana nearly pulled the Spaniard back, but ran out of road. Mancebo took the jersey by a minute over Leipheimer — in the Californian’s hometown, no less. With only 19 riders making the split into Santa Rosa, the race’s first selection had already been made. Astana’s Leipheimer, Armstrong, Horner, Steve Morabito, and José Luis Rubiera were all there, but other teams weren’t so fortunate. Columbia had Rogers and Thomas Lövkvist, Liquigas had Basso and Vincenzo Nibali, Garmin had Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, and Saxo had Voigt and Andy Schleck. The race winner would emerge from that group.

From hard to harder

The following day, race officials were disappointed to see their photo op washed out as the peloton crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in rain and fog. Once the day’s 10-man breakaway was established Rock Racing went to the front, until the group hit the day’s final climb over Bonny Doon Road into Santa Cruz.

While the breakaway disintegrated halfway up the slopes of Bonny Doon, Leipheimer launched an audacious solo attack from the bottom of the 7-mile Cat. 3 climb. No one could follow.

“I couldn’t follow Levi, he was so strong,” Danielson said. “I didn’t even try. The key was to ride with Zabriskie and make sure he got to the finish line and lost the least amount of time.”

Leipheimer caught and passed the remnants of the breakaway, with only Garmin’s Tom Peterson able to crest the summit with the two-time race champion. The pair rode to the line, with Peterson sitting on, while Zabriskie rode in the chase group behind. Peterson came around Leipheimer at the line for the biggest win of his career, while the chase group came through 21 seconds later.

It was a scenario all too familiar — in 2008, Leipheimer and Rabobank’s Robert Gesink crested San Jose’s Sierra Road alone and rode a two-man time trial to the line, with Gesink taking the stage win and Leipheimer taking the leader’s jersey. Once again, Leipheimer wasn’t waiting for the Solvang time trial to take control. He later called his attack into Santa Cruz the defining moment of the nine-day race.

“Many days on the bike when I was pushing myself and suffering alone, I dreamt about moments like I had on Bonny Doon, where it’s a long way from the finish, the conditions are horrendous, and just spur of the moment you feel inspired and feel great, and you go for it,” Leipheimer said. “You know you’re fully committed and there’s no looking back. And to pull it off and grab the yellow jersey, and to have the team to back you up — with a guy like Lance Armstrong — it’s a lifelong dream for me.”

The race route then traveled east and south for the following three stages, bringing anticipated field sprints in Modesto and Paso Robles, as well as a surprise massgallop in Clovis after five categorized climbs along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada failed to shatter the peloton. Riding with this new Cervélo TestTeam, Hushovd took the sprint in Modesto. Working for the first time with Aussie Mark Renshaw, Cavendish took the next two days, besting Boonen at the line in Clovis and Paso Robles.

“When my teammates drop me off with 200 meters to go, there can only be one outcome,” Cavendish said.

The overall battle came down to the 15-mile time trial. Again Leipheimer proved he was the strongest, crossing the line with three fingers in the air, eight seconds ahead of second-place Zabriskie. Rogers, fourth on the stage behind Saxo Bank’s Gustav Larsson, moved into third overall. Though there was plenty of racing to come, the GC podium was settled.

With the general classification firmed up, the final two stages belonged to breakaways. Both days saw Fränk Schleck escape in moves, first into the hilly finishing circuits in Pasadena alongside Hincapie and Vande Velde, which saw the week’s most exciting moments — all-bets-off, classics-style racing — and again the following day over Mount Palomar.

Both Schleck and Hincapie, the winner in Pasadena last year, were marked out of the 10-man escape group that lit up the roads around the Rose Bowl with attacks, concluding with AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini taking a photo-finish ahead of Cervélo’s Hayden Roulston. Hincapie called the outcome some of the most negative racing he’d ever seen, while Schleck was equally furious about the tactics. Even more disappointed was Mancebo, who crashed at high speed on the descent into Pasadena, surrendering his KOM jersey to Saxo Bank’s Jason McCartney.

With four categorized climbs standing between the peloton and the race’s completion in Escondido, Schleck and his Saxo Bank teammates had several cards to play on the final stage. Voigt, who finished second overall to Leipheimer in 2007, began the day fourth overall, 1:10 down on the race leader. Meanwhile McCartney was only a few points ahead of Hamilton in the KOM contest, and Schleck was itching for another opportunity to take a win.

Saxo went on the offensive early, sending McCartney and Andy Schleck in the early move, with the younger Schleck helping McCartney take the day’s first KOM points on Lake Wohlford Road before he dropped back to set tempo up Palomar, the race’s biggest climb at over 5,000 feet.

The crowd on Palomar, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, was treated to the race’s most tense moment when Leipheimer was the only Astana rider who could follow attacks by Danielson, Zabriskie, Rogers and three Saxo riders — Voigt and the Schleck brothers.

“It felt like the Alps in July,” Leipheimer said, “not California in February.”

The 10-man group crested the summit one minute ahead of Leipheimer’s teammates — with Fränk Schleck and Nibali springing forward to contest the stage win — but with 40 miles remaining, the main field was back together by the bottom of the descent.

Behind the escapees, Armstrong took to the front leading into the short-but-steep Cole Grade Road, which topped out just 15 miles from the finish. The pace, and the culmination of a week’s worth of hard racing, proved too much; the course’s final opportunity to deliver fireworks was instead unnaturally calm.

“Lance led into it at a good speed and basically put his foot down,” Leipheimer said. “Nobody was coming around. It was damn cool to see.”

Armstrong was humble about his role as a superdomestique. “Frankly, I think that’s good for me,” he said. “If I did that all year long — in the Giro for someone else, in the Tour for [Alberto] Contador — it might be an important part of my life to know what it’s like to slave away on the bike for someone else. I’ve spent 15 years with people riding for me.”

A new date for 2010

With the Tour of California’s field strength and course profiles on a crescendo, fans were delighted. Some riders, however, felt it was a little rich for February.

“Palomar Mountain was hard — a bit too hard for the last stage,” Rogers said, “and I think most of the riders agree with me.”

The race’s difficulty forced a 39-percent attrition rate (84 of 136 starters). Smaller-budget domestic teams took the heaviest blows. Mancebo took the only domestic team victory of the race with a stage win, a day in the leader’s jersey and a near-lock on the KOM jersey until he crashed out. Other standout domestic performances included Bissell’s Tom Zirbel and Ben Jacques-Maynes, who placed seventh and 11th in the stage-6 time trial. On the other end of the spectrum, the Fly V Australia-Successful Living team had only one finisher, Aussie Ben Day.

If the race continues to grow in stature, domestic teams could be face an even tougher road. Should California join the ProTour, as organizers are discussing with the UCI, it would mean no continental teams, such as Rock, Bissell, Jelly Belly, Colavita Olive Oil, OUCH-Maxxis and Team Type 1, which were there this year.

Still, Messick said California’s organizers value control over invitations and developing the sport with domestic teams. “At the same time, I think this year’s course made it clear that we don’t aspire to be a race for riders to just show up and around ride for week,” he said. “We make no apologies; we want the best guy to win. We’re not trying to kill the riders, but we want it to be a challenge. We loved the fact that we went up Palomar this year. I know that is hard, but we don’t want to be a race determined by time bonuses, either.”

With the overwhelming success of the event, AEG isn’t shy about moving the date of the event either. Three spots are under consideration: late April, formerly occupied by the now defunct Tour de Georgia; early May, as a lead-in to the Giro d’Italia; and early June, as a warm-up for the Tour de France.

“Each spot on the calendar is quite different, in terms of what types of riders and teams it would attract, what they would be preparing for, and what part of the state we would be able to race in,” Messick said. “We love the notion of racing in the High Sierra, but we can’t do it in February or April. But I think to have a stage finish at Mammoth Mountain would be pretty awesome.”

However, the date change might discourage some of Europe’s top stars from crossing the Atlantic mid-season. Which brings up the million-dollar question. The Tour of California is huge in February; can it be a huge race in the spring?

A late-April date might work for the cobbled classics stars — Hincapie regularly raced in Georgia — but would certainly prevent hilly spring classics riders, such as the Schleck brothers, who regularly target Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

An early-May spot would come up against the Tour of Romandie, the traditional Giro warm-up race, while an early-June spot would butt up against the Dauphiné Libéré, a race won in the past by Hamilton, Armstrong and Leipheimer in preparation for the Tour de France.

Not only are Romandie and the Dauphiné steeped in cycling tradition (both were first held in 1947), but they also aren’t saddled with jetlag and long travel — factors European riders are more apt to deal with at the outset of the season, rather than just a few weeks before a grand tour.

Messick dismissed this argument, pointing to Hushovd winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Boonen taking Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne in Belgium one week after racing California.

“These guys come over, race our race, fly back to Europe and win races a week later. What does that say about the time-zone argument?” Messick said. “It’s a fallacy that pro athletes can’t get on airplane, fly back, and with a week of preparation, compete at a high level. Around the world, athletes from other sports like tennis and soccer do it all the time.”

Leipheimer said jetlag isn’t so much an issue to European stars as having to choose between a new American event and races thick with history — European riders didn’t grow up dreaming of winning California.

“It’s a tough call,” he said. “Right now California’s spot on the calendar draws a great field — the best riders in the world. It’s a good early-season race for guys like Boonen and Freire, who are preparing for the classics. If the race were in late April or May, it could make a great Giro tune-up, but I’m wondering about the peloton you would attract. Guys might just choose to do Romandie instead of sitting on a plane for 12 hours each way.

“If it were in early June, it gives everyone plenty of time to return and prepare for the Tour de France. The Dauphiné is a great race, and it’s a race I don’t want to see challenged or endangered. But I think if California went against it, it would severely hurt the Dauphiné, which shows just how strong the Tour of California is now. I think it has gained enough in stature for a lot of teams to come. But who would actually come is probably something we won’t know until they change the date.”

What’s clear is that with Amgen on board through 2011, AEG is aiming to continue building the Tour of California into one of the most important events in international cycling. Messick said that due to the logistics involved in putting on the event, AEG’s date-change decision was an immediate priority, and likely would be made by April.

As for the more immediate future, the question everyone is wondering relates to whether the Tour of California was a preview of what the cycling community can expect to see from Astana at stage races all season long, particularly at targets like the Giro and the Tour.

Considering that Contador, Andreas Klöden and Haimar Zubeldia weren’t in California, a conservative guess would be that the rest of the pro peloton is going to need a bit of luck to unseat the Astana juggernaut.

“The momentum we take from California is huge,” Leipheimer said. “It puts everyone on the team, even the guys who weren’t at the race, in the mindset of winning. But this is bike racing. There are plenty of strong people that want to win. Just because on paper we are the strongest team, and we show up and everything is working 100 percent, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be the best. People can show up to win and ride a smart race and take advantage of the teamwork we do. There are 200 other people in race, and you can’t control how good they are, or how fast they are.”

With Armstrong targeting the Giro, and the team agreeing to decide its leader on the road in July, Astana will certainly have plenty of cards to play. But coming out of California as the strongest man in a world-class field, it’s fair to wonder if Leipheimer — third-place finisher of the 2007 Tour and second overall at last year’s Vuelta, both behind Contador — isn’t thinking about his own chances.

“When we get to July we are going to have the best team there and ride for the strongest rider,” he said. “Whether it’s Lance or Alberto or whoever. We want to keep all those cards in play as long as possible. I just need to show up in my best condition. As a team we just need to work together well. There’s certainly that chance that I could be the guy, but it would be awesome to help Lance win an eighth Tour de France. What kind of a story is that? I would be proud to be part of that. California was certainly was my race, and it is always a goal of mine, but from now on we all have to wait and see.”

What is for certain is that both Astana, and the Amgen Tour of California itself, exited the week poised to take on the world.

VeloNews editors Ben Delaney and John Wilcockson contributed to this report.

Demolition Derby

Big names, bizarre crashes marked Amgen Tour
Rarely has a race produced as many consequential crashes and bizarre incidents as the 2009 Amgen Tour of California. They began even before the start in Sacramento, when comeback man Floyd Landis (OUCH-Maxxis) had a training fall that stopped him attending the pre-race press conference. They didn’t know it then, but six of the 11 riders who attended that press conference would be involved in crashes in the following week. It was almost as if there were a hex on the race.

Turns out that Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) was already sick with strep throat when he won the prologue and took the first yellow jersey — and he was the first rider to abandon a couple of hours into the cold, wet stage 1 to Santa Rosa. And the first guy to hit the deck on that stage? Seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong. Just a minor blip on a brutal day. “Holy hell,” he wrote about that stage on his Twitter account. “That was terrible. I’m still freezing.”

The next day he was reporting: “Had a spill halfway. Moto with a photog crashed in front of me and I t-boned them. Body’s ok tho.” The moto driver was seasoned race commissaire David Walls, who said, “his own photographer Liz Kreutz was getting shots of Lance at the team car and we were driving alongside. I drove into a puddle, but it was deeper than it looked, the front wheel caught and we went down.”

Two of Armstrong’s Astana teammates crashed the very next day. Coming out onto a four-lane highway after the hairy descent from Sierra Road, Chris Horner hit a road stud and fell in the middle of the road, but wasn’t hurt; and two miles later, on the same stretch of road, with the pace low, race leader Levi Leipheimer touched wheels with Armstrong and went tumbling.

After he won his third straight AToC, Leipheimer discovered via an MRI that he had fractured his sacrum — the bone that sits between the pelvis and the tailbone. The injury kept him from starting the March 8-15 Paris-Nice.

The rain stopped by stage 4 in California but the crashes continued. The most serious one saw a dozen riders come down shortly after the day’s fourth KOM sprint. At the bottom of the pile was Kim Kirchen (Columbia-Highroad), whose rain jacket got caught in his front wheel. He was out with a broken clavicle, which will prevent him defending his Flèche Wallonne title in April, while two broken ribs for Oscar Freire (Rabobank) stopped him from shooting for a third Milan-San Remo title on March 21.

Also involved in the stage 4 pileup was the unlucky Landis, while in a separate crash Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) and Pedro Horillo (Rabobank) both fell, without injury, on a fast downhill before Mariposa. The scariest accident came with 20 mile to go when BMC’s Scott Nydam went down while the peloton was chasing down the day’s breakaway.

BMC team director John Lelangue, driving the team car, said “Scott was just ahead of me to the left when his handlebars suddenly swung to the left and he went down right in front of the car. His fork cracked and his front wheel shot to the right. I drove over his bike, stopped and ran back. His helmet was in two pieces, he was unconscious and his arm was at a funny angle. I was frightened. It was very bad.”

Nydam regained consciousness in the hospital. When he found team leader Alexandre Moos’ rain jacket in his back pocket he remembered he was returning jackets to the car and as he went to toss one to Lelangue the jacket’s arm caught on his brake lever, jerked his bars and caused the high-speed crash. He broke a collarbone, which team doctor and surgeon Eric Heiden repaired with a titanium plate.

The last of the big-name riders to abandon after an accident was Ivan Basso (Liquigas). While riding the Solvang TT course before stage 6, his foot slipped from the pedal and he banged his knee on the aerobars. The 2008 Giro d’Italia winner tried to warm up on his wind trainer, “but too much pain,” he twittered. “I’m sad to have to leave the race.” — John Wilcockson