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25.02.2008/ With a bang of the starter’s gun the 2008 racing season is under way. This year’s Tour of California was a very challenging race. There was a mix of long stages, a few with some intense climbs, and a relatively short and brutal time trial. Teamwork proved to be crucial.  I’ve written this article as the race progressed. I hope you enjoy my impressions as things develop.

When I did this race in 2005 I was blown away by how many fans there were. With more than two million spectators on the road it was obvious that the Tour de
California was going to instantly go into the history books as one of the biggest races in the world.

So far this season we’ve already seen three stage wins by Tom Boonen plus an overall victory at the Tour of Qatar.  With the loss of a team like Discovery and the birth of new teams like Slipstream and High Road, it looks like this is going to be a very exciting year.  For most American cyclist’s, the Tour of California is the biggest race of the year. It’s now a world-class event with some of the biggest names in the cycling world participating.
It is early in the season but look for many riders coming to win.  A win in the Tour de California for an American means stardom.  For teams like Slipstream who have an all-star roster made up of mostly American riders the pressure is on to win. I’m certain deep down they must be nervous going up against Quickstep, Astana, Rabobank, CSC and Credit Agricole. Each of those teams is here to battle and grab the glory.

The opening prologue will reveal who is here to do war. In the first year of the race when Levi won the prologue it was obvious he came to win. The prologue this year is not like years past.  It’s a relatively flat course with two turns and a big turn at the finish.   I would look for a big power monster to come steal the show. All the skinny climbers will have big knots in their stomach going down that start ramp. They all know every second is important in a race of this caliber.  Making a big entrance into the season can make a huge impression on the rest of the peloton.

As I anticipated, a powerhouse won the prologue. The World time-trial champion, Fabian Cancellara, won by 3.15 seconds over my ex-teammate, Bradley Wiggens. Those two were followed by an absolutely great ride from my old roommate, Tyler Farrar. Tyler is now the best placed sprinter in the top ten. It’s an awesome result by the 24-year-old talent. I remember racing with Tyler on the USA National team. He was always the sprinter and I was the climber. Tyler is very skilled, and he loves the position as a team leader. Look for him to turn in some great performances this year.

Juan Jose Haedo of team CSC claimed victory the first stage this year. It’s no surprise that the Argentinean has taken the win. This is his fifth stage win in the three years of the Tour of California. J.J. knows how important this race is and it's obvious he came to do battle. He loves to win and the wide, smooth American roads suit him well.

Racing in America is not like anywhere else on earth. The huge, super smooth roads require a lot of teamwork because there are no cobbles, rarely cross winds, and not too many obstacles. Tour of California is all or nothing. This is a race for teams like CSC or Astana who can easily control the peloton and steal stages with a talent like Haedo.

CSC won the pro tour team of the year classification last year, and they are reinforcing their domination here again.
It’s no surprise that the big Belgian, Tom Boonen, won the second stage.

I know in his head he cannot believe how big and how popular this race is, and I’m sure he can also envision how big it will eventually be.  One thing racers love so much about this race is the organization. The event is run extremely well. After each race there is a short transfer to a very luxurious hotel. Racing in the Tour of California was the first and last time in my career that I that I heard a fellow competitor say, “This hotel is too nice and classy.” 

It was true. In 2005 they put us in such a luxurious hotel that we weren’t aloud to go in the reception room unless we wore a suit and tie. Also, they made the team cars park 10k down the road because they did not want them in the hotel parking lot. I can tell you, no one complained about the marble bathrooms, bathrobes, sixty-two inch plasma televisions, or five star services. This is race is not like any race you will do in professional cycling.  

Stage three kicks off the official start of the race. This was by far the hardest climbing stage of the race, and now the big boys have come out to play. The Mt. Hamilton climb is just hard enough to drop the stragglers, and many racers are trying to hang on for dear life.

When I raced here my breath was taken away when I saw the wall of spectators on Sierra Road. The crowds were staggering. My adrenaline pumped so hard I could hear my heartbeat in my ear.  Sierra road is not a pure climber’s climb, but it is surprising. By the time you get near the summit your neck is still tilted up wondering when the top will come. This climb is so important that you have to hit it all out. Nothing less than 100% is acceptable because of the 18 mile run in to the finish. 

I’m not surprised that Levi Leipheimer grabbed the gold jersey. To my knowledge, other than Bobby Julich, he was the best placed American in a grand tour including the Tour de France who is racing in this years Tour of California. Levi is a California native and this race is extremely important to him. He wants to win so bad he can taste it. The time trial was going to be very important. Would he be able to hold off Fabian Cancellara, David Millar, Chris Horner, and David Zabriskie who are all less then 30 seconds behind him?

The Canadian Dominique Rollin of the Toyota-United team scored his biggest victory of his career this far, winning the longest stage of the race the 217k 6 hour death march in the rain. Any race in the rain is hard because when you are in the rain it is necessary for you to stay on top of things. You have to pay attention to every move of every racer. The drop of temperature and added stress really takes it out of you. Today, in addition, the cyclists dealt with ferocious winds. Those conditions can be especially miserable because only the men at the front of the peloton are able to work hard enough to keep their bodies warm. Under these conditions the men in the peloton can be freezing cold, and not at all happy.

I bet after today many guys are feeling their legs. In a race like Tour of California with the blasting speeds I’m sure many are exhausted. Proof of the fatigue is the 217k race took a creeping seven hours. Seven hours slow is still seven hours. It’s obvious that guys are getting tired. I would look for the race to slow down a bit because after a long day in the rain I bet the racers are less motivated to go all out.

I’m not surprised that Levi Lepheimer stamped his authority on the Tour of
California. Winning the Stage Five time trial by 29 seconds, he extended his lead by 49 seconds over David Millar. Levi has a very powerful team to help him defend the lead. One thing a lot of people do not know is that there are unwritten ethics in the sport of professional cycling. For example: You never attack the yellow jersey if he has a mechanical problem or crashes. You never attack in the feed zone or when the peloton has a bathroom break. Race ethics are very important in earning respect in pro cycling. What I am saying is, that unless Levi Lepheimer crashed out or his team made a stupid tactical error, he could claim victory in the race.

There are no big mountain stages where other riders can try to take advantage, and because Levi and Millar are not battling for the point’s jersey, I wouldn’t look for David Milliar to try to steal a few seconds. That would be unethical in pro cycling. 

German rider Mark Cavendish from team High Road crossed the line first in Stage Six. Team Astana controlled the day’s race.  He was disqualified by twenty seconds for holding on his team car.  Not a fun way to win. The man with the longest name in the race, Saunier Duval rider Luciano Andre Pagliarini Medonca from Brazil gets the victory. What can you say? Rules are rules. I remember a race I did in France when two guys jumped the train tracks and then rode away to win the race. They were disqualified and one of my teammates won instead.

It looks like team Astana had Stage Seven under control by allowing a breakaway escape early in the race. Their plan is to let the break go just long enough to where they would take over and bring it all back together by the end.  Team Astana looks unstoppable and nothing can get in their way. Going into the last stage it is clear that Levi Lepheimer is going to take the win. I know Astana was getting a little nervous in the seventh and last stage.  With a ten-man break off the front it is nerve racking to try to control things. Astana did not show one bit of
weakness and proved that they are the strongest team here.

George Hincapie showed that he is still a big player in the sport and he loves to win. Hincapie was in the original break of the day. With his superior tactics and
superhuman strength he put his mark on the final stage being the first and only American racer to win a road stage this year. He won with class.

To summarize Tour of California this year is simple. The race is growing into one of the biggest races in the world. One day I believe it cold possible be regarded at the same caliber as a Grand Tour or Classic. For the second year Levi Lepheimer has carried home victory. The big question is, what is next for Levi this year?? Team Astana has been denied entry into the Tour de France. That has to be a big blow to Levi. I would look for more big performance from Levi in early season races to try to put pressure on the Tour de France organizers.

One this is for sure, it is going to be a very exciting racing season. I look forward to putting in my 2 cents here on Cycling Heroes. Thanks for reading, and please tune in for more.


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