Flanked by compatriots Lance Armstrong and Dave Zabriskie, RadioShack’s three-time Amgen Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer sat front and center at a pre-race press conference Friday afternoon in Sacramento, stating that he was prepared to defend his title against a world-class field competing in America’s biggest race.
After being held in February that past four years, the Amgen Tour of California this year moved to May, and the riders have more race miles in their legs.
“I know everyone is in better shape, but I think I’m in better shape, too,” Leipheimer said. “This year the race will be different for everyone. We’ve all had some hard races in Europe. Everyone takes a different path to the race. I think I’ve chosen a pretty good one. I feel good, and am feeling better and better over the last few weeks. My expectations are that I’m ready, and I’m here to win.”
(Related: Armstrong has doubts about his form)
Along with national road champion George Hincapie, Leipheimer, Armstrong and Zabriskie were the American contingent at a press conference that also included HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish and Saxo Bank riders Fabian Cancellara and Andy Schleck.
One rider scheduled to attend was missing — Quick Step’s Tom Boonen. According to race officials, the Quick Step team was turned around during a training ride and ran late, forcing the Belgian star to miss the press conference.
Also onstage was Jim Birrell of contracted race organizer Medalist Sports, Sacramento mayor (and former NBA star) Kevin Johnson, Roger Dickinson of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, Amgen vice president Stuart Arbuckle, Versus TV commentator Phil Liggett and AEG Sports president Andrew Messick. Messick, a recreational cyclist himself, has personally rallied behind the event his organization has owned since 2006.
“We are proud of the powerful and talented group of international and domestic cyclists set to participate in the 2010 Amgen Tour of California,” Messick said. “From Tour de France champions to Olympic medalists and world champions, this field is one of the best that has ever competed on American soil. The growing reputation of the Amgen Tour of California has resulted in a very accomplished field of cyclists, which should make for a great race.”
Both Leipheimer and Armstrong stressed that for an American team led by American riders, the Amgen Tour of California is of utmost importance to Team RadioShack, which also brought Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Janez Brajkovic, Jason McCartney, Dmitriy Muravyev and José Luis Rubiera.
“This is a big race for us,” Armstrong said. “Especially having RadioShack involved, considering they have so many retail outlets in the U.S., and especially in California. It’s no secret that this race is a priority. You might say it’s second only to the Tour de France. We come with a good squad. We come with Levi focused on winning again, and we have strong guys to support him. Of course that’s why we contest a race; a lot can happen, and there are a lot of good guys here. I’m excited and motivated, and I know RadioShack is.”
Like RadioShack, Saxo Bank has also brought a team worthy of the Tour de France to California. In addition to Schleck and Cancellara, Saxo has fielded J.J. Haedo, Matti Breschel, Jakob Fuglsang, Stuart O’Grady, Andre Steensen and Jens Voigt, who has finished second (in 2007) and fourth (in 2009) in California.
However both Saxo riders in attendance at Friday’s press conference were hesitant to forecast their chances. For Schleck, one of the sport’s best climbers, there may not be enough elevation gain in the eight-stage race for him to make a difference. The stage 6 climb to Big Bear is long but not steep, and with its flat 10-mile run-in to the finish, separation between the GC favorites is not expected.
“We have a good team,” Schleck said. “It’s basically the Tour de France team here, only Fränk (Schleck) is not here. Jens is super motivated, and I’m motivated for the race this year. To be honest I have heard about the Big Bear climb but never done it. I’ve heard it’s hard. Hopefully it’s a decisive stage.”
And though most are predicting the race to come down to the stage 7 time trial in Los Angeles, world TT champ Cancellara repeatedly downplayed his chances, claiming he took a 2.5-week vacation from riding following his win at Paris-Roubaix five weeks ago. Even if he is able to stay with the favorites on the climb to Big Bear, he said, that effort might take its toll the following day.
“I’m motivated for the race. I hope I still have the form, I really don’t know,” Cancellara said. “For me, first of all it was most important to rest after the classics, and then to find a way back, to train again. Probably it’s not enough, we will see. I remember a few years ago at this race, I was not in great condition, but I was good on the climb over Sierra Road, and everyone starting talking about me as a GC threat, but then I blew up on the time trial. So I know that one day you can have a good day, but maybe the next day you’re not recovered well. Our team is strong. Who we have for GC we will see in a few days. But our team will go for stages, we will do what we can, and then we will see.”
Armstrong, who finished seventh at this race in 2009 riding for Leipheimer but has struggled to find his form this season, downplayed his chances to be anything more than a domestique.
“Personally I have struggled a little to find the condition I’d like,” Armstrong said. “There have been moments where I thought it was getting better, but then I’ve had physical or health issues get in the way. I’d like to think we’re headed in the right direction, and this race is an opportunity to test yourself. The main priority is to support Levi. As we know it’s a deep squad. Chris Horner is also riding fantastic, and could factor into the race. Jani, Popo, Chechu (Rubiera), any of those guys can factor into the race if we need them to. It’s a big race for the team. It’s Levi’s SuperBowl, he’s Mr. California. Winning it with him is our intention, however sometimes the road dictates differently.”
Asked who he saw as Leipheimer’s biggest threats for the overall classification, Armstrong took inventory of the men assembled at the dais.
“I think Andy Schleck tried to blame some jetlag, but we’re not buying that,” Armstrong said. “Fabian says he took two weeks off the bike, but we don’t believe that, either. I guarantee Levi will kick Cav’s ass on all the climbs, so we’re not worried about him. And of course there’s Dave Zabriskie… I think it comes down to the TT. And if I was looking at it as an analyst, I’d say Levi, Dave and (HTC-Columbia’s) Michael Rogers will be the big three, although that’s probably not a surprise to anyone here. I’m not sure the climbs are selective enough. I think the time trial still decides the overall.”
Asked the same question following the press conference, RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel said he sees Zabriskie
— a two-time runner-up at this race and five-time national time-trial champion — as Leipheimer’s biggest threat.
Zabriskie, a Salt Lake City native who now resides in Los Angeles, was modest in his predictions.
“I’m looking forward to (the Los Angeles time trial),” he said. “Being a new resident of L.A., that stage has a special place in my heart. I went down and took a look at the course early in the morning, on Mother’s Day, when there was no traffic. It’s great. I’m looking forward to that one. We’ll see you there.”