By Ben Delaney
He’s done it two years running, but scoring a pair of stage wins will be tougher than ever this year for J.J. Haedo. CSC’s big Argentinean sprinter currently holds the record for career Amgen Tour of California stage wins at four. This year he will have no fewer than three current and former world champion sprinters to deal with in the form of Paolo Bettini (2006-07), Tom Boonen (2005) and Oscar Freire (1999, 2001 and 2004).
The stiffer route for 2008 also means Haedo and his fellow sprinters will likely have fewer chances at a stage win. Last year, for example, stage 7 was a flat, circuitous affair; this year that final stage tops out at 4,906 feet, the highest point in the eight-day race, before bombing down into Pasadena for finishing circuits around the Rose Bowl.
Bettini raced in California for the first time last year, when he narrowly snagged a stage win with a desperate bike toss on stage 4.
Bettini’s teammate Boonen has never raced in California. He comes to the race fresh off a dominating run at the Tour of Qatar, where the Belgian snatched stages 1, 2, 3 and 6 en route to the overall victory.
Oscar Freire is also a first timer in the Golden State. Although the Spaniard has suffered from sporadic form over the years, when he’s on, he’s nearly unstoppable.
Of course there will be more men than just the three with rainbows on their sleeves giving Haedo a run for his money. Cuban Ivan Dominguez took last year’s stage 7 for Toyota-United, the same squad Haedo rode for in 2006 when he took his first two stages. This year Dominguez will have the able assistance of grand tour veteran Henk Vogels and the recently hired help of Hilton Clarke and Dominique Rollin.
Slipstream-Chipotle’s Tyler Farrar, is back from a season in Belgium. Last year, as a 22-year-old, he rode races like the Tour of Flanders for the first time. In California, he will certainly be eager to display the speed that earned him a spot in the ProTour with Cofidis before coming to Slipstream.
Three-time U.S. champ Fred Rodriguez (Rock Racing) will be another to watch in the fast finales. After years of service as Robbie McEwan’s leadout man, Rodriguez certainly knows his way around the front of the pack.
Another rider to watch is Rabobank’s Graeme Brown, who took the crash-marred finish into Santa Rosa last year. He will be looking for another W this year.
But perhaps the most sprint-heavy squad of all at this third edition of America’s biggest race will be America’s newest, and only, ProTour squad. High Road brings to the line George Hincapie, whose sprint has earned him dozens of wins over the years, including stages 2 and 5 of the inaugural Tour of California in 2006. Joining him is Mark Cavendish, the young British sprint phenom, Gerald Ciolek, the 2006 under-23 world champion and Edvald Hagen. Notably missing from the High Road speed squad is breakout German rider André Greipel, who stormed the Tour Down Under with four sprint stage wins and the overall.
Stage 1 into Santa Rosa, scene of the crash last year and stage 2 into Sacramento, are shoo-ins for the sprinters. The latter features the Cat 2 Trinity Grade early on, but then it’s downhill to dead flat the last 50 miles. Stages 3 and 4 could break up with the climbing, and stage 5 is the Solvang time trial. Stages 6 and 7 could play out any number of ways, but likely will finish with a small front group.