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By Neal Rogers
It’s almost difficult to believe that a year has passed since last year’sTour de Georgia, which will be remembered not only for an aggressive raceseparated by nine seconds between Americans Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimerand overall winner Tom Danielson, but also for the pre-race press conferencethat brought the world the news that Lance Armstrong would retire after attempting a historic seventh Tour de France victory.
In Armstrong’s swan song American race appearance, the defending 2004Tour de Georgia champion had an admittedly sub-par time trial and rodein support of his young teammate Danielson. Danielson repaid the favorby riding away from Landis and then Leipheimer on the final pitches ofthe steep and decisive BrasstownBald Mountain, securing the race lead ahead of Leipheimer by only fourseconds. Landis, who began the penultimate stage in the leader’s jerseyafter winning the time trial in convincing fashion, dropped to third overall,nine seconds behind Armstrong’s protégé.
The most notable change for the 2006 event is the title sponsor, Ford,which replaces three-year sponsor Dodge. Changes for the 2006 route includethree new host cities and a new time trial route that sees a stage finishout of state for the first time, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Tour deGeorgia will again begin in Augusta, on Tuesday, April 18, and again concludeits 650-plus miles of racing in Alpharetta on April 23.
As the defending champion, Danielson returns to Georgia to don racebib number 1 with the form, and team, to defend his title. While next month’sGiro d’Italia is Danielson’s main objective for 2006, the timing of NorthAmerica’s only UCI Hors Classe (2.HC) stage race is perfect for the climberextraordinaire. After placing eighth overall at the Amgen Tour of Californiaand 10th overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, Danielson returned to his home inDurango, Colorado, during the first week of April. He promptly set outto test himself by breaking the record at the LookoutMountain hill climb, in Golden, Colorado, on April 8. Danielsontopped the previous record of 16:48, held by Michael Carter, by 46 secondsbefore heading to Denver for a groupride and autograph session.
“I was doing it mainly for training,” Danielson said. “Just a littletest before the group ride. Ten days before Georgia, I think it’s a goodindication where I’m at.”
Unlike the Giro, where Danielson’s teammate Paolo Salvodelli is thedefending champion, Discovery will rally completely behind Danielson inGeorgia. Supporting him will be Yaroslav Popovych, winner of the best youngrider award at the 2005 Tour de France, Viatcheslav Ekimov, the 2000 OlympicGames time trial gold medalist and 14-time veteran of the Tour de France,
2004 Tour de Georgia stage winner and king of the mountains Jason McCartneyand 2005 Tour de Georgia best young rider Trent Lowe.
Looking to build on Armstrong’s legacy, Discovery Communications has,for the first-time ever, signed on as a signature sponsor of the Ford Tourde Georgia. Discovery’s on-site sponsorship activities at the race willinclude the promotion of a new integrated multimedia campaign branded “Raceto Replace,” which is designed to give audiences a look inside the passingof the torch from Armstrong — as improbable as that might be. Nevertheless,the importance of the event isn’t lost on Danielson.
“I think as an athlete you put pressure on yourself,” he said. “I knowthis is a big race for Discovery Channel. The VIPs associated with team— actually a who’s who of our team, including Lance — will be there. Sofor me, there is a little pressure, but I kind of like it. The Tour deGeorgia is smaller than the Giro or the Tour de France, and these are theraces I would like to be competitive in. I think if I can manage the pressureat the smaller races, it’s good practice for the bigger ones. But that’snot taking anything away from the Tour de Georgia. The guys I am racingwith, Floyd and Dave Zabriskie, these guys are the best. Floyd is currentlyone of the best in the world, so that’s not bad competition.”
An All-American Podium?
A total of 15 eight-man teams will attend the Tour de Georgia, butin Landis and Zabriskie, Danielson will likely face his stiffest opposition.If not for struggling a bit on Brasstown Bald, a mountain he had not seenbefore, Landis might have held on to his overall lead in 2005. Stage-racevictories this year at the Amgen Tour of California in February and Paris-Nicein March have proven that Landis began the 2006 season as one of the bestall-around racers in the sport. After a crash and early withdrawal at CriteriumInternational in late March, Landis announced that he would not race theGiro as originally planned, and has kept a low profile over the past month.The Phonak rider returns to competition in Georgia before spending Mayreconnoitering stages of the upcoming Tour de France.
An on-form Zabriskie — Landis’s housemate in Girona, Spain, and therunner-up at the Tour of California — could complete an all-American podiumin Georgia. The CSC rider, best known for taking the yellow jersey at lastyear’s Tour de France by winning the prologue, finished sixth overall lastyear in Georgia. Astrong time trial, only 19 seconds behind Landis, put the Utahnative in second place, but he sank on Brasstown, yielding 3:45 to Danielson.Zabriskie proved in California that he could climb with Landis, Danielsonand Leipheimer, but he will need to put in a performance similar to hisindividual time-trial victory at last year’s Giro d’Italia to take theoverall win in Georgia. Unlike in 2004 and 2005, Zabriskie’s Danish CSCsquad will not bring Jens Voigt or Bobby Julich; instead, Zabriskie willbe backed by Tour de France aggressor Jakob Piil and Brian Vandborg ofGermany, winner of a tough mountainous stage at the 2005 Tour de Georgia.
Also absent from the race are former podium finishers Leipheimer andChris Horner, who won the inaugural event in 2003. Leipheimer developedan illness after placing sixth and winning the king of the mountains contestat the Tour of California, and recently returned to racing at the Sea OtterClassic, where he placed eighth in the circuitrace. Though Horner’s ProTour squad Davitamon-Lotto will race inGeorgia, Horner is focusing on the Ardennes Classics, as evidenced by his20th place at the AmstelGold Race Sunday.
“I’m sorry to miss Georgia, it’s a great race and I always love to racein the States,” Horner said. “But at the same time, there are some prettygreat races in Europe I’d like to win.”
Instead of overall victory, Davitamon-Lotto brings proven sprintersHenk Vogels and Fred Rodriguez, both stage winners at the 2003 Tour deGeorgia. Davitamon’s Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen was once rumored totake the start in Augusta, but was not listed on the most-recentstart list.
Spanish ProTour squad Prodir-Saunier Duval will bring two newcomersto their roster this year, American Aaron Olson, formerly of Colavita OliveOil-Sutter Home, and Brazilian Luciano Pagliarini, winner of multiple sprintstages at the Tour de Langkawi. Also riding with Prodir-Saunier Duval (theteam switches the position of its title sponsors when racing in North America)is Francisco Ventoso, mass-sprint winner at the 2004 USPRO Championship.
The Tour de Georgia marks the first big race on American soil for theQuick Step team of world champion Tom Boonen and Olympic champion PaoloBettini, although neither will race in Georgia.
The Domestic Squads
Leading the charge for the North American-based squads is the HealthNet-Maxxis team of Aussie Nathan O’Neill. O’Neill placed third at the inauguralTour de Georgia, where he also met his wife Karen. The Australian time-trialspecialist has since moved to Georgia and is quite familiar with the race’scourse.
The overall winner at the Redlands Classic in March, as well as theCommonwealth Games time trial champion in Melbourne, Australia, just daysearlier, O’Neill placed fifth at the Tour of California in February, theonly non-ProTour winner in the top 20. Anything less than an improvementon his eighth-place at last year’s Tour de Georgia, riding with NavigatorsInsurance, would be disappointment.
Health Net is lamenting the temporary loss of two of its key riders,both New Zealanders. Last year’s Tour de Georgia points-jersey winner GregHenderson fractured his hip at during the McLane Pacific Downtown Criteriumin March. Initially the injury was thought to be a deep contusion, butafter several weeks without improvement, x-rays showed a femoral head fracture.Compatriot Hayden Roulston will be out indefinitely after contracting aviral illness shortly after his silver-medal winning performance in thepoints race at the Commonwealth Games on March 17. Doctors are continuingto monitor his recovery in his native New Zealand.
Still, with Health Net’s Gord Fraser, Mike Sayers, Jeff Louder, KarlMenzies, Kirk O’Bee, Doug Ollerenshaw and Tim Johnson riding in support,an overall podium placing would not be out of the question for O’Neill.
Navigators Insurance brings 2004 Brasstown Bald stage winner CaesarGrajales as well as emerging stage-race talent Phil Zajicek, who was thetop non-ProTour American at the Tour of California before he was takendown in a crash on the final stage. While not known for his time-trialskill, Burke Swindlehurst could well make the final selection on BrasstownBald.
In the sprint finishes, all eyes will be on Toyota-United’s J.J. Haedo,winner of two stages at the Tour of California as well as fast finishesat San Dimas and Redlands. The domestic Toyota-United squad will bringan A-list squad to the race, including co-captain Tony Cruz, U.S. timetrial champion Chris Baldwin, former New Zealand national vhampion HeathBlackgrove, 2004 Tour de Georgia yellow jersey wearer Ivan Dominguez, establishedclimber and Tour de Georgia veteran Justin England, former national trackchampion Mariano Friedick, Australian racer Sean Sullivan and Haedo.
Baldwin scored one of the biggest results in his career at last year’sTour de Georgia with a third-place finish in the time trial, ahead of ridersnamed Julich, Leipheimer, Ekimov and Armstrong. Unfortunately, he droppedout of GC contention the following day during treacherous weather on themountainous stage from Dalton to Dahlonega. Cruz believes this year Baldwinwill improve on last year’s ride.
“With the right kind of support, Chris can hang on,” Cruz said. “Hehas to have the right environment. I’m pretty confident that with the teamwe have, the guys will give 110 percent to Chris if he’s up there afterthe time trial. I watched him fall apart in the road race the day afterthe time trial last year. We just need to get back to the day before thatand help him out, maybe give him a little more. He’s got the talent todo very well.”
But Cruz added that anything less than a top-five GC finish won’t bea team goal. “The team is not going to work for an eighth or ninth placeoverall,” he said. “Fifth is as low as we’d work for. Eighth is not goingto bring another sponsor on board. It will come down to winning stagesat that point.”
As for the top podium spot, Cruz said he thinks Landis will emerge thenext Georgia champion. “I expect Tom to be going better than he was inCalifornia, because the Giro is a target for him,” Cruz said. “But Floydis such a balanced rider. He could out time-trial Danielson and then staywithin reach of him on Brasstown. I give him the advantage. Floyd wantsto win, so he’s my pick.”
Headlining the Kodakgallery.com-Sierra Nevada squad is Ben Jacques-Maynes,an all-arounder who currently holds the highest NRC ranking of his career,eighth, as of April 12. Dominique Perras, an experienced and aggressiveclimber who figured prominently in the final stage of last year’s Tourde Georgia, and Jackson Stewart, a breakaway threat with great finishingspeed, will also be in the hunt for stage wins, while Dan Schmatz willcaptain the team on the open roads. Pete Lopinto, Scott Zwizanski, MikeDietrich, and Jesse Anthony will primarily play support roles, but mayalso be called upon to represent the team in a breakaway, as Zwizanskidid in the final stage of the Tour of California. The team is also optimisticthat Anthony, 20, will contend for the Best Young Rider classification.
The Athens, Georgia-based Jittery Joe’s squad is once again lookingto make an impact on one of the biggest races in North America. “We havedone so well the past couple of years that our sponsors have learned tojust expect great things,” said team manager Micah Rice. “Some of our sponsorsdon’t know how hard it is to race against teams like Discovery, CSC andQuick Step—they just assume that we will have a big impact on the race.”
In 2004 Jittery Joe’s won the queen stage of the tour when Grajalesattacked out of a group containing Armstrong, Voigt and Horner with 2kmremaining to win on top of Brasstown Bald. In 2005 Lowe managed todefend the Best Young Rider jersey for four days against a hard chargingSaul Raisin. The team heads into the tour with Trent Wilson, JeffHopkins, Evan Elken, Craig Wilcox, Peter Hatton, Phil Wong, Austin Kingand Neil Shirley.
“Trent is riding really well right now and his experience at the Girod’Italia will really help lead the team,” said Rice. “We have a numberof other riders riding good and we expect to have a trick or two up oursleeve for next week.”
Other riders to watch include climbing specialist Anthony Colby andsprinter Alejandro “Ale-jet” Acton of Target Training; Danny Pate and MichaelCreed of TIAA-CREF; Alex Candelario, Brice Jones and Matthew Rice of JellyBelly; and Viktor “The Russian Concussion” Rapinski and former USPRO ChampionMark McCormack of Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home Wines.
Lastly, one conspicuous absence from the race this year will be 2003best young rider Saul Raisin, who hails from Dalton, Georgia, the startcity of stage 4. Raisin, who finished second in the same competition lastyear, is currently recovering in France from a cerebral hemorrhage andbrain surgery after a crashat the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports, the sports agency licensed to operatethe Ford Tour, told VeloNews that he and his staff had somethingplanned to honor Raisin throughout the week, particularly in Dalton.
Tour de Georgia podium history2005: Tom Danielson, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis2004: Lance Armstrong, Jens Voigt, Chris Horner2003: Chris Horner, Fred Rodriguez, Nathan O’Neill
Stages and Host Cities
Race schedule (all times EST):Stage 1: Tuesday, April 18 – Augusta-Macon
Start – 11:30 a.m. Finish- 4:15-5 p.m.Stage 2: Wednesday, April 19 – Fayetteville-Rome
Start – 1:30 p.m.Finish – 5:40-6:30 p.m.Stage 3: Thursday, April 20 – Individual Time Trial-Chickamauga/WalkerCo., GA, to Chattanooga, TN
Start – 11 a.m. Finish – 12-2 p.m.Stage 4: Friday, April 21 – Dalton, GA to Dahlonega, GA
Start -10:30 a.m. Finish – 3-4 p.m.Stage 5: Saturday, April 22 – Blairsville/Union Co.-Brasstown BaldMountain/Towns Co.
Start – 11:30 a.m. Finish – 3:20-4 p.m.Stage 6: Sunday, April 23 – Cumming/Forsyth Co., Ga. to Alpharetta,Ga.
Start – 12:30 p.m. Finish – 4:45-6 p.m.