The Largest American Cycling Event, Tour of California, Begins Saturday

James ThompsonCorrespondent IFebruary 12, 2009

This Saturday starts the fourth edition of the Tour of California. Expecting to be the most spectacular cycling event on American soil this year, the nine-day race not only includes many extremely hard climbs, but also comprises its most illustrious roster of riders in its history.

Two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer of Team Astana will have a tough time making his winning streak three in a row. 

He will have some help, though, in the form of teammate Lance Armstrong, for whom it is the second race of his 2009 comeback. Armstrong says, though, that the team's goal will be for Leipheimer's overall win, so expect Armstrong to do the work of an excellent domestique (support rider).

As mentioned in many "comeback" articles, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Floyd Landis (OUCH-Maxxis) will not only be using this race as part of their returns, but will also be legitimate threats for the overall victory. Landis won the Tour of California's inaugural event back in 2006. 

Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson of Garmin-Slipstream will be tough contenders.  Vande Velde was fourth last year in the Tour de France and third in last year's Tour of California. Danielson is coming off of an excellent winter training program to regain the form that he had lost last year. 

Finally, Saxobank will be sending its A-game with Frank and Andy Schleck and time trial ace Fabian Cancellara, all of whom could be contenders for the overall. 

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad) and Tom Boonen (QuickStep) will continue their sprint battle from Qatar, along with perennial sprint favorites Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam), JJ Haedo (Saxobank), and Oscar Friere (Rabobank). However, unlike in Australia and Qatar, their options for sprint victories will be limited.

Not only will the riders be top notch, but the course will be as well. Every one of the eight road stages will face at least one, though usually more, tough climbs that will make the race very difficult. 

Climbs of note include Stage One's Howell Mountain Road at a nine percent average gradient, which is sure to break up the field. 

Stage Three features the ToC's most famous climb, Sierra Road, which is 3.6 miles at ten percent and should be a race-decider, and where last year's winner Levi Leipheimer made his move to take a commanding lead.

The individual time trial in Stage Six may be the deciding factor in the race, though, as it will be the best opportunity for the favorites to assert their intentions. Leipheimer also won this time trial last year to consolidate his lead. 

Finally, Stage Eight's Mount Palomar, a staggering 12 miles—longer than virtually all famous climbs in the Tour de France—will either confirm that the race leader by that point is the man for the overall win, or show cracks in any rider's armor, allowing the race overall to be decided at the last minute.

The 2009 Tour of California confirms its epic status on the world race calendar with an epic field and an epic course.