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Tour of California Shines at Gala Dinner – Report and Photos

by Andrew Rogers

May 15, 2010 (Sacramento, CA) – Like last year in California’s state capitol, a decked-out crowd enjoyed a black tie dinner and silent auction, with the who’s who of Sacramento attending. But this year amidst the bling of diamonds and pearls was the epic magnitude of a growing Tour of California (ToC) which has gained considerable respect while taking a bite out of the Giro d’Italia, the first leg of cycling’s three grand tours.

Unlike the fickle Italian Alpini, which can dump a meter of snow on the roads in May, the weather predictions point to sunny with light winds for most of the 5th edition of the ToC. But this year’s tour will hardly reflect the laid back disposition of sunny Cali – the 2010 route is the most grueling cycling spectacle California has ever hosted.

Many top foreign sprinters, time trialists, and climbers have signed up – Boonen, Cavendish, Schleck, Cancellara, Rogers, etc. – a testimony that ToC has become a top notch spring board for the Tour de France. This is a big step forward over last year when the ToC was the first race of a long season for many top riders who showed up with untested legs and extra kilos – except Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack).

Not just Levi is fit this year. Everyone here is gnashing their collective teeth to show their form only 50 days before the Tour de France. As Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions), once considered to be the next ‘Lance’, exclaimed, “I’m here to kick some ass!”.

Even Leipheimer, normally the quiet “King of California, was marking his competition while having the strongest team to date to defend his hat trick of three straight wins here. But this year’s route will make even his stalwart team mates, Lance and Co., shudder at this eight-stage race – and they admitted it.

Perhaps Phil Liggett, the gala’s legendary MC said it best: “I was skeptical when the ToC decided to switch from February to May as there is so much going on on the European racing circuit (Giro), and it’s far for many riders to come to compete before the Tour de France, but here they are, the crème de la crème lining up to do battle”.

Lance Armstrong (Radioshack) annoited Leipheimer as the man to watch, along with Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank): “We are here to support Levi, I’m happy to be a domestique for him, he’s earned the right.”

Cancellara weighed in modestly: “Well I had a few weeks off the bike after the Spring classics, so I’m not in the same form I might want to be to win this, but we’ll see how my legs feel.”

His team mate Andy Schleck, who was second at last year’s TdF also played down his role and wasn’t admitting he came here to win, but did mention he wanted to “get a tan, and climb a few tough mountains”. Although his older brother, Frank, is not here this time to support him, his team has come to prove they can take a page out of the Lance and Levi legend book and re-write the winning story.

Leipheimer, who hopes to win for the fourth straight year oozed confidence: “I’m in better form than last year, and so yes, sure, I’d like to ride into town Monday and win that stage in front of my hometown, but it’s not a stage tailored for me. Our team is here to show the deep talent Johan has assembled, and we’ll represent the US and hope to bring home the prize.”

Expect a few surprises in the sprints this year as Mark Cavendish (HTC Columbia) will clash with Tom Boonen (Quick Step), while Steve Bauer’s SpiderTech p/b Planet Energy team and Martin Gilbert, the first Canadian team to race at the ToC, are shooting for the podium along with others. Meanwhile Cancellara’s squad will be marking Leipheimer, looking for chinks in the Radioshack armour.

The ToC begins on Sunday with the 104.2-mile/167.7km Stage 1 in Nevada City, California, home to the second oldest cycling race in the US (Armstrong won last year), ending in Sacramento, with three laps around the state capitol for a sprint finish. The 7-day, eight stage race will crown the winner next Sunday, May 23.

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