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Inside Cycling: Cancellara to challenge Leipheimer for California crown?

When Saxo Bank’s Olympic and world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara won the Sacramento prologue in last year’s Amgen Tour of California, he looked capable of going on to defend the leader’s yellow jersey all the way through to the finish. That’s because the once burly Swiss star had shed several kilos over the 2008-09 winter and was making great improvements as a climber and GC contender.

When Saxo Bank’s Olympic and world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara won the Sacramento prologue in last year’s Amgen Tour of California, he looked capable of going on to defend the leader’s yellow jersey all the way through to the finish. That’s because the once burly Swiss star had shed several kilos over the 2008-09 winter and was making great improvements as a climber and GC contender.

Cancellara proved his new skills later in 2009 when he won the Tour of Switzerland — a race that included two mountain-top stage finishes besides a couple of time trials. But he didn’t contend in California because he went down with a stomach virus and pulled out of the race midway through stage 1.

So Cancellara has unfinished business when he makes his return to the Amgen Tour next month; and judging by the way he demolished the field on the climbs at last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, he could end up by challenging three-time defending champ Levi Leipheimer of Team RadioShack for the overall victory in May.

Besides Cancellara, Saxo Bank has two other potential race winners in Andy Schleck and Jens Voigt. Health problems have disrupted the younger Schleck brother’s early season, but by finishing with the lead group in Monday’s opening stage of Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country, the 2009 Tour de France runner-up showed he’s ready for action.

As for Schleck’s veteran teammate Voigt, he won a stage of the recent Tour of Catalonia to prove he is back from the dreadful crash he had at last year’s Tour and ready to do another good Tour of California — he was second to Leipheimer in 2007 and came in fourth in 2009. Both Voigt and Schleck give Saxo Bank great strength, and they could prove perfect teammates for Cancellara should the world champ be in position to take the yellow jersey in the final weekend’s time trial

Besides Leipheimer, who is determined to shoot for his fourth consecutive Amgen Tour title, RadioShack can count on his fellow Americans Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner to add to the team’s firepower. In the second year of his unprecedented comeback, Armstrong gave his strongest performance of the season in last Sunday’s Flanders classic, and the celebrity Texan will strengthen his form at this week’s Circuit de la Sarthe and in the Ardennes classics later in the month. Meanwhile, Horner has already placed second at the Tour of Sardinia and seventh in the Tour of Catalonia, and is looking good in the week’s Tour of the Basque Country.

Three-time U.S. national TT champ Dave Zabriskie hasn’t shown great form this year, but the Garmin-Transitions rider has targeted the Amgen race, especially as it ends near his new home in Southern California with a time trial in Los Angeles and a circuit race on familiar training roads near Malibu. He won’t have the backing of his regular teammates Christian Vande Velde and David Millar — who are both competing in the concurrent Giro d’Italia — but Zabriskie knows the California race inside out and he’s sure to have some strong team support.

After Saxo and RadioShack, perhaps the strongest squad will be San Luis Obispo-based HTC-Columbia. Its Michael Rogers finished third in the 2009 edition, and this year the Australian appears to be back to the strong form that earned him several major stage race victories earlier in his career. And should Rogers falter, his young German teammate Tony Martin is developing into a solid stage racer to complement his natural time trial talents.

A further benefit for HTC will be the presence of super-sprinter Mark Cavendish, who could easily take two of the Amgen Tour’s opening stages and will thus take off the pressure from his GC teammates. The Brit’s chief rival in the bunch finishes will be Quick Step’s Tom Boonen, who’s returning to California in the hopes of adding to the one stage win he scored in the rain at Sacramento in 2008. Second to Boonen that day was Australian-German Heinrich Haussler, who’s returning to the race with his Cervélo TestTeam teammate Thor Hushovd — who took the Modesto stage win ahead of Oscar Freire in 2009.

Freire won’t be back this year with a Rabobank team that will be headed by the talented young Dutchman Lars Boom, who took a stage of the 2009 Vuelta a España and surprised most by his opening time trial victory at this year’s Paris-Nice. Also on the squad is its veteran Spanish climber Juan Manuel Garate, who won the Mont Ventoux stage of the 2009 Tour de France after a long-distance breakaway with HTC’s Martin.

Garate and Boom will both be looking to distinguish themselves on the hillier stages in California, as will BMC Racing’s George Hincapie, the U.S. national road champion, who won two stages here in 2006 and another in 2008. He’s due for a fourth this year.

Besides Cancellara, the biggest dark horse in the 2010 Amgen Tour could be the Sicilian Vincenzo Nibali, whose Liquigas-Diomo teammates Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger will be riding the Giro d’Italia. But given Nibali’s time trial strength, his sixth place on GC last year, and his subsequent seventh-place finish at the Tour de France, the Italian will be eager to challenge the best in California.

There were fears that switching the Tour of California from February to May would weaken the field, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. If anything, three months into the season, all of the stars will be stronger than before, knowing that the Tour de France begins only six weeks later.

There were hopes that the calendar change would allow the organizers to add some true mountain stages, but their plans to have one stage in the Yosemite area were scuttled by the National Parks Service, and the route for the stage finishing at Big Bear doesn’t appear to have all the elements needed to challenge the likes of Schleck, Armstrong and Leipheimer. And that’s why Cancellara could easily stay with those reputed climbers and cause a sensation the next day at the time trial in LA.