Not for the first time in its short history, the Tour of California will be the focus of everyone with an interest in Pro-Cycling, and not just the fans in the US. Held over 8 stages, the ToC, now in its 4th year, will be the first real test of whether Lance Armstrong's comeback efforts are to be taken seriously. Sure, he rode the Tour Down Under, the opening round of the ProTour, but his 29th position on GC supported his claims of using the race as training.
In my opinion, however, the ToC will be different. Lance is a racer, and winning on home soil is important to him, and to his cancer awareness cause. Levi Leipheimer, winner in '07 and '08, and Lance's Astana teammate, might be his biggest obstacle in achieving this objective. Levi came 2nd to Fabian Cancellara in the opening prologue on Saturday, but Cancellara withdrew early in Stage 1, leaving the door open for Levi to take control of the race. Stage 1 surprise winner, Francisco Mancebo of Rock Racing, holds the yellow jersey for now, but that might have changed by the time the peloton arrives at the end of Stage 2. Lance sits in 5th overall at 1:05, and he might fall into the supportive role, but if Levi should stumble, he’ll jump at the chance to take leadership of arguably the most important race on the US race calendar. Either way, it’ll be a test of his form, and an early indication of what we can expect come the Giro in May.
Another big name rider making his comeback after his 2 year doping ban is ’06 winner Floyd Landis, riding with the OUCH Team. He’s sitting in 29th overall, at 5:08, an improvement on his 90th position in the Prologue, but his performance was undoubtedly affected by a training crash on Friday; I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on him in the coming days.
And what of Tyler Hamilton, the other big US star that got caught up in the doping accusations and served a 2 year ban? Well, sadly, Tyler is languishing in 91st place, hardly fitting for the rider we all cheered for in the ’03 Tour de France, when he showed such grit and determination riding with a broken collarbone.