A lot will be happening as the nine-day Amgen Tour of California makes its way south from Sacramento to the finish line in Escondido.
Most American cycling fans won't be in sunny (we hope!) California for this annual rite of winter—or at best, they'll only be able to catch a stage or two. Below, I've outlined some things to watch for during the event, whether you are on the couch or standing along the race route.
Return of the Kings
You would have to have been on the moon for the past several months to not know that Lance Armstrong has returned to racing. The seven-time Tour de France champion is back in the pro peloton and is ahead of schedule in his comeback plans. While everybody seems to love seeing Lance win, his stated objective at the Tour of California (ToC) is to help Astana-teammate and two-time ToC winner Levi Leipheimer go for the three-peat.
There are so many top-quality pros in this year's field, close to every rider in the race is a "must watch". From the comebacks of Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso to the showdown between the world's top two sprinters, Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen, this is one stacked start list.
Brothers Frank and Andy Schleck, loveable Jens Voigt and Fabian "Spartacus" Cancellara are true superstars and are all on the same team (Saxo Bank). Whether you have a favorite or our looking to find a new most-popular rider this is a target-rich environment.
Where to Watch
If you happen to be one of the lucky ones who live in the Golden State or you are going to be here to watch the event, try to get out and ride all or part of a stage. If you like hills Stage 2 to Santa Cruz and Stage 8 to Escondido are your best bets. Flatlanders can check out the time trial course in Solvang or the days the race traverses the Central Valley.
Celebrities abound in California and the ToC is not without its hoopla. Governor Schwarzenegger always makes an appearance in Sacramento; last year supermodel Cheryl Tiegs was on hand in Solvang. Dr. McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey, made a SoCal showing in Long Beach. Hey, Lance Armstrong clearly qualifies as a celebrity and he will most likely be at each and every stage.
Highway 1 is the most scenic road in California if not the entire U.S. Gone this year is the astonishing Big Sur coastline, but the stretch from San Francisco to Santa Cruz isn't chopped liver. Check it out either in person or via TV.
Speaking of TV, Versus will be showing the event live each day. Unfortunately, in looking at the schedule times for each day's show, it is not clear whether they will be able to show each finish live. Don't forget to set your TiVo's for the nightly wrap-up show, where you can be guaranteed to see all the action.
Incidentally, the producer of the Versus show told me last year that they will be acquiring some European state-of-the-art microwave transmission hardware so the annoying picture break-up of previous years may be a thing of the past. (Unless the weather doesn't cooperate).
You should definitely check out the Road Rockets (a.k.a time trialists). While there is a lot of climbing in this year's race, the most decisive stage will once again be the time trial. Stage 2 to Santa Cruz will separate the contenders from the pretenders as the climb up Bonny Doon Road is steep for the first two miles then a real growler for the final four miles to the turn on Empire Grade.
It's not steep, but if you are climbing above your limit, there is no place to hide. The high-speed descent right to the finish line could allow a small group of four to 10 riders to separate themselves from the field.
Sign on Palomar Mt.
Let it snow. Let is snow. Let is snow. Yes, it snows in California and not just at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain. It has already snowed on Palomar Mountain at least once this year and the forecast is for the same during the week of the Tour of California. Will the race encounter Frosty and his kin in the mountains? Maybe a bunch of days of rain aren't so bad after all.
What's the last thing to look for? Good question! There are always unknowns which arise during a race of this caliber. So, the last thing to watch out for at the Tour of California is that unknown factor or happening that will suddenly take center stage. It will happen. It always does. What will it be? Your guess is as good as mine!
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado and Europe.