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2008 Tour de Georgia preview

With no individual time trial and a trip planned up the steep Brasstown Bald mountain, the seven-day 2008 Tour de Georgia presented by AT&T, appears to be a climber’s race. Odds-on race favorites include 2006 overall winner Tom Danielson (Slipstream-Chipotle), Astana’s U.S. national champion Levi Leipheimer and Rock Racing’s Spanish climbing sensation Oscar Sevilla.

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Leipheimer, Danielson and Sevilla are the big GC threats

By Neal Rogers

Leipheimer at Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon stage race in March.

Leipheimer at Spain’s Vuelta Castilla y Leon stage race in March.

Photo: Graham Watson

With no individual time trial and a trip planned up the steep Brasstown Bald mountain, the seven-day 2008 Tour de Georgia presented by AT&T, appears to be a climber’s race. Odds-on race favorites include 2006 overall winner Tom Danielson (Slipstream-Chipotle), Astana’s U.S. national champion Levi Leipheimer and Rock Racing’s Spanish climbing sensation Oscar Sevilla.

However, as last year’s Tour de Georgia proved, when a 13-man breakaway took 29 minutes on the race’s GC favorites, stage races don’t always go according to plan.

No defending champ, but several former winners …

Last year’s race winner, Janez Brajkovic (Astana), will not be in Georgia to defend his title. The 2007 runner-up, American Christian Vande Velde (Slipstream) will return to Georgia.

Two former overall winners return to Georgia — Danielson, overall winner in 2005, and Astana’s Chris Horner, who won the inaugural race in 2003, prior to the introduction of the climb up Brasstown. Horner was originally scheduled to race Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, but was asked to fly to Georgia.

“The team is going for the win in Georgia,” Horner told VeloNews.

Because Brajkovic will not be racing, no rider will wear the No. 1. As a defending champion on the team of last year’s winner, Horner will race No.2 but will no doubt be riding for Leipheimer, who finished second overall to Danielson in 2005. Leipheimer, the winner of the Amgen Tour of California in 2007 and 2008, proving he was the strongest man in the race last year, winning both the individual time trial and the decisive Brasstown climb.

In place of an individual time trial is a new team time trial, to be held on Road Atlanta’s 2.5-mile, 12-turn track, used for events such as the Petit Le Mans. The 16.1km races will be held in heats with two teams on the track at a time. Teams will ride in the opposite direction normally used during auto racing, and will be faced with a short, but very steep climb almost immediately upon leaving the start house. Because of the technical nature of the course, riders will not be allowed to use aerodynamic time trial bikes.

“I think it’s a good call not to have time trial bikes on it because a couple of corners on the backside of the course are very, very fast,” Jittery Joe’s rider Neil Shirley told VeloNews in March.

In all, 120 riders from 15 teams representing 26 countries will ride in the 600-mile event, which begins Monday on Tybee Island, Georgia.

Slipstream’s plan

In addition to Danielson and Vande Velde, Slipstream brings Americans David Zabriskie, Tyler Farrar, Danny Pate, Timmy Duggan, Lucas Euser and Australian Trent Lowe. Director Chann McRae will be directing the Argyle Armada in Georgia.

“We will put our climbers into the moves that go on the flatter stages early on. For the sprints, we will work to set Tyler up for a stage win,” said McRae. “We’re also going to focus efforts on the team time trial.”

High-profile ProTour teams racing in Georgia include the CSC squad of American Bobby Julich, who placed fourth at the 2004 Tour de Georgia behind winner Lance Armstrong. Team CSC brings Julich, 2004 Georgia KOM Jason McCartney, Bradley McGee, Iñigo Cuesta and Argentinean sprint ace J.J. Haedo.

High Road’s plan

The High Road squad features American George Hincapie, winner of last year’s Tour of Missouri. In addition to Hincapie, High Road brings Americans John Devine and Craig Lewis. High Road also brings two sprinters — Greg Henderson, who recently placed seventh at the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen behind teammate Mark Cavendish, and Andre Greipel, who is recovering from an illness that laid him low during the spring classics.

For the overall, High Road will be looking to former Swedish road and time trial champion Thomas Lovkvist and former world U-23 champion Kanstantin Siutzou to make their mark on the Brasstown Bald, but team director Allan Peiper said the squad is prepared for a tactical battle.

“With the Brasstown Bald climb coming late in the race, and the team time trial preceding that, teams will have to keep their options open for as long as possible,” Peiper said. “The route structure will make for a complex and interesting race, tactically. If the climb came early on in the race and the team time trial second, it would be possible to try to ensure things stayed together on Brasstown and then aim to take control of the GC at the time trial. But that won’t be possible. Having Brasstown so late on effectively freezes everything up beforehand.”

Gerolsteiner is fielding a team that includes German stars Robert Forster, Thomas Fothen and Sebastian Lang.

The original field of invited teams included Spanish ProTour team Saunier Duval-Scott. However due to a high number of injuries in races the past two weeks, Saunier Duval could not field a competitive squad and was permitted to withdrawal. Saunier Duval’s David Cañada and Rubens Bertogliati finished third and fourth overall at last year’s Tour de Georgia.

Rock Racing gets in

Domestic team Rock Racing was not originally invited and had threatened take race organizer Medalist Sports to court over a disputed verbal invitation, but was given Saunier Duval’s team slot Tuesday. With that settlement, Rock has signed on as a founding sponsor of the Tour de Georgia — the event’s highest sponsorship level.

“My commitment to cycling is long-term and I am proud to support this world-class race which has featured such winners as Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis,” Rock team owner Michael Ball said. “As a tribute to the state of Georgia and to the rich tradition of this race, we plan something special for the final stage, so stay tuned.”

Rock’s eleventh-hour entry means the Tour de Georgia won’t just see European teams battling it out for overall victory. Rock brings a controversial, star-studded roster to Georgia, including Sevilla, winner of the uphill time trial at March’s San Dimas Stage Race, and 2002 world time trial champion Santiago Botero, recent overall winner at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. Also racing for Rock are American teammates Tyler Hamilton and Fred Rodriguez, the Tour de Georgia sprint champion in 2003 and 2006 and all-time leading Georgia stage winner, with four wins.

Other domestic squads:

Other top domestic teams headed to Georgia include BMC, Health Net-Maxxis, Toyota-United, Symmetrics, Bissell, Team Type I, Jelly Belly and Athens, Georgia-based Jittery Joe’s.

Toyota’s stacked roster could see breakaway attempts from riders like Chris Baldwin, Ben Day and Heath Blackgrove, or field sprint wins from Cuban fastman Ivan Dominguez.

Health Net will likely pin its hopes of a stage win on 2007 NRC individual rankings winner Rory Sutherland, who finished second to Hincapie out of a breakaway on the final stage of the Tour of California in February. Health Net’s star climber Phil Zajicek is returning to form after a recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, a genetically linked gastrointestinal inflammation. Zajicek, who has been taking anti-inflammatory medicine for several weeks, said after months of disrupted training and recovery he finally feels normal, but he expects to play a supporting role in Georgia.

“I feel fantastic, I can finally eat meals again,” Zajicek said. “My objectives for the team are to help the team — Rory is really flying right now — and also use the race to get stronger day by day.”

Canadian and Chinese teams:

Canadian Svein Tuft, the 2007 UCI America Tour champion, heads up a Symmetrics squad that also includes veteran Eric Wohlberg and recent San Dimas stage race winner Cameron Evans. Symmetrics also brings riders Zach Bell and Andrew Pinfold, who each finished second in field sprints behind Toyota’s Dominguez at last September’s Tour of Missouri.

China’s pro cycling team, GE Energy Marco Polo, will be making its American debut. The team features Fuyu Li, who rode for the Discovery Channel team in 2007 and is now on the short list of cyclists hoping to be selected to represent China in the Beijing Olympics.