By Ben Delaney
The first road stage of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California will take riders from the cycling crazy college town of Davis west into Santa Rosa, home of two-time race champion Levi Leipheimer. While there are three categorized climbs on this 107.6-mile stage, it still appears to be one for the sprinters.
The two main obstacles for the fast-twitch finishers will be the Howell Mt. Road climb, which tops out at about 1,800 feet and comes at mile 60, and the Petrified Forest Road climb, which is much shorter — only about 600 feet of elevation gain — and comes at mile 82.
Another challenge for the riders will be the weather. Riders woke Monday morning in Sacramento to wind and rain with dark, stormy skies, and the forecast only calls for more of the same. At the start, a large crowd wearing ponchos and slickers waited in pouring rain while riders stayed under cover as long as they could.
Although the route itself is new to the tour, the finish is not. Three finishing circuits in downtown Santa Rosa will give the sprinters a good look at the finish line before it’s game on.
Saxo Bank sprinter JJ Haedo won here last year after a chaotic crash where race leader Levi Leipheimer, among many others, was delayed behind a pile-up through the start/finish with two laps still to go.
This year Haedo’s competition is formidable. Quick Step’s Tom Boonen is here, fresh off his second consecutive victory at the Tour of Qatar. With a seventh place prologue, he’s obviously going well. Judging from the results in the Qatari desert, Columbia-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish is neck-and-neck with Boonen. The young sprinter from the Isle of Man took two Qatar stages against Boonen and also finished well Saturday. Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd can never be ruled out in a sprint. And Garmin-Slipstream’s Tyler Farrar is also eager for a win. Last year the American finished just off the podium in Santa Rosa, and this year he laid down a good time in the prologue.
Other sprinters who will certainly be looking for the finish include former U.S. criterium champion Brad Huff (Jelly Belly), currently 15th on GC, three-time world champ Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and former U.S. road champion Fred Rodriguez (Rock Racing), among others.
With 28 men — including all those listed above — within 11 seconds of the leader’s jersey, today’s finish is about more than the stage win. There are time bonuses on the line for the top three finishers of 10, 6 and 4 seconds. Further, the two intermediate sprints each pack 3, 2 and 1-second bonuses for the first three men across the lines in Winters (mile 14) and Calistoga (mile 79).
Last year, thousands of noisy fans packed the Santa Rosa finishing circuit. This year should only be bigger.
In addition to following our live text coverage of the prologue as it unfolds and results and stories afterward, be sure to check out our new video show, VeloCenter, for analysis, highlights and tech features from each day’s stage.
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