SANTA ROSA (VN) — Levi Leipheimer confirmed Friday afternoon that he would start the Amgen Tour of California this Sunday, but the three-time champion will do so with checked ambitions.
“We’re sitting here before the race and nobody knows,” Leipheimer said at a press conference when asked if he was racing for fitness or for a fourth Amgen Tour win.
“My leg was broken. I’ve only been training for two weeks and it hasn’t gone that great,” he continued. “As professional cyclists, professional athletes, we’re always taught and engrained to reach for the stars, to be positive to never give up. But I’ve got to be realistic. It’s taken me a lot of hard work just to be able to take the start, and I don’t think you should count on me for the overall.”
That should not come as a surprise — Leipheimer was hit by a car April 1 while training in Spain for the Tour of the Basque Country — but the statement still seemed shocking for the proud Californian who’s owned this race in years past.
Defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) wasn’t ready to let Leipheimer go. He pointed to himself and Leipheimer as favorites in a race that will depart without one.
“I’m not going to let Levi just go up the road on the first stage,” Horner said.
This year’s race should not reveal its contenders until stage 5, a rolling time trial in the heat and wind in Bakersfield. If Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) rides a solid time trial, it’s conceivable he could have raced himself into fitness and might compete on the high slopes of Mount Baldy, where the race will most likely be sorted out on day 7. It’s on that climb that Horner said he hopes to seize control of the general classification.
“My race really doesn’t start until Baldy,” Horner said. “Until then, I’ve just got to sit back and stay fresh and stay out of trouble.”
Omega Pharma won’t rely on Leipheimer squarely. The Belgian squad has national hero Tom Boonen on its California roster, in addition to former Vuelta a España podium finisher Peter Velits, who may end up the team’s GC threat should Leipheimer fall from contention.
WorldTour bigs and world beaters
The Amgen Tour opens this Sunday and runs to Sunday May 20. The route covers 800 miles and begins in California’s wine country before winding south to finish in Los Angeles.
The race has matured into a high-profile alternative to the Giro d’Italia for riders preferring a shorter stage race while tuning up for July’s Tour de France. The Tour of California moved to May in 2010, from its former February calendar slot, in hopes of taking advantage of mild weather and garnering Europe’s high-profile teams, while continuing to offer a platform for the top American teams and riders.
This year’s running sees both — upper-crust U.S. squad UnitedHealthcare brings Australian Rory Sutherland, just off a win at the SRAM Tour of the Gila, with hopes for a high finish; and Omega Pharma arrived with world number one Boonen, who is fresh off an historic second Flanders-Roubaix double.
In fact, the race is loaded with several of this season’s top riders. Of the world’s top four in the UCI individual rankings, three are lining up in Santa Rosa on Sunday. Boonen said he’d contend in four stages; world number two Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) could win the general classification and his teammate, Peter Sagan, may very will take multiple stages.
Those names, thrown in with Horner, Leipheimer, Andrew Talansky and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) and BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen, make for an explosive field that is as enigmatic as it is talented.
The initial stages, pegged as sprinter-friendly, should only see finishing groups of 50 or so riders, with enough climbing toward the end to spring late attacks and string the main field out. That could certainly suit Boonen, a strong bunch sprinter and classics rider whose palmarès include a 2005 world championship, multiple Tour de France sprint victories and more than 100 career wins.
“I think these first few stages should be the Liquigas show, with Peter Sagan winning just about everything,” Horner said. “Then you will see the RadioShack boys coming in at the finish.”
“We came here with a great team,” Horner added. “I’d like two hard summit finishes like we had last year, but they gave me one so I’ll take it… in general, I think we came here with a strong team, and I’m looking forward to Baldy.”
Another American hunting for a win is Tom Danielson, coming off a 2011 that saw him take 9th in the Tour de France and third in California.
“Last year, I realized it’s time for me to get back on track and back to my place,” Danielson said. “This is a really huge priority for Garmin-Barracuda. We’ve never been in the position to win and I feel this year we have a great opportunity.”
And for as much as this race is about a stacked field, it still has the feel of revolving around one rider.
As Ernesto Olivares, the Mayor of Santa Rosa, said, “Well see you at the finish line. And go Levi.”