By Ben Delaney
The real race for the overall begins Wednesday at the Amgen Tour of California. After a prologue and two stages for the sprinters, stage 3 takes the riders up and over five categorized climbs, including the race’s only hors categorie mountain.
After three categorized climbs, the race peaks with the HC Mt. Hamilton, then bombs down 4000 feet before tackling the 2000-foot Cat. 1 Sierra Road climb, which has proven decisive in past editions of the race.
Last year defending champion Levi Leipheimer went clear over Sierra Road with CSC’s Jens Voigt, Jason McCartney (Discovery Channel), Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
Leipheimer, for one, hopes the steeper, higher battlefield will mean fewer men left standing in the front group. How many would he like to see over the last climb?
“I’m hoping for one,” he said before the start of stage 2. “But it’s a ways to the finish. I’m hoping it separates it more this year because of Mt. Hamilton.”
Like Leipheimer, BMC directeur sportif Gavin Chilcott lives in Santa Rosa, and has ridden Mt. Hamilton many times.
“We did it in training camp,” Chilcott said. “Some of the guys, at least all of us from Northern California, have been on it a lot because it’s a road we race over once a year [in the Mt. Hamilton Challenge]. It’s going to be nice to see climbing of that level in the race, which we haven’t done before.”
With the big climbing day in stage 3 combined with the stage 5 time trial and the 4906-foot spike in the final stage Sunday, the 2008 Tour of California remains an open affair.
“It’s a better race than last year and harder to predict,” Chilcott said.
Leipheimer currently sits in 6th place, 7 seconds behind yellow jersey Tyler Farrar (Slipstream-Chipotle). After stage 2, Farrar was pleased to have moved into the lead, but made no presumptions about being able to hold onto it.
“We have several riders who are a major threat for the general classification,” Farrar said. “Dave Zabriskie’s riding well. Tom Danielson is going well. Dave Millar is going well. Danny Pate is going like a motorcycle. We have a lot of cards to play. My hope is that I’ll be handing this jersey to a teammate.”
CSC may well be the strongest team in the race. With Voigt, second overall last year, and American veteran Bobby Julich both 16 seconds down on GC, and McCartney at 20 seconds back, the team led by Bjarne Riis has plenty of options.
High Road has George Hincapie in 12th, 11 seconds back, and Thomas Lökvist, 12 seconds back, as well as Kim Kirchen at 15 seconds.
Bissell’s Ben Jacques-Maynes remains the one domestic rider in the top 10, sitting 10 seconds behind the jersey.
One thing is certain — the overall will be looking much different after stage 3.
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