SACRAMENTO Levi Leipheimer is used to being favored at the Tour of California.
The winner of the last three events, the Santa Rosa resident will be the pick again to win when the eight-day, 800-mile race begins Sunday.
Still, there are some changes, including the 36-year-old Leipheimer's new Radio Shack team featuring Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner.
"There's a lot different about this year's Tour of California," Leipheimer said. "We're here in May, not in February, and the whole feeling of it is different."
The fifth annual event, shortened by one day and advanced three months into the season, will feature 16 teams and a 128-rider field. The prologue start last year has been scratched for an opening 104-mile road race from Nevada City to Sacramento.
Leipheimer, the third-place finisher in the 2008 Tour de France, beat David Zabriske last year by 36 seconds.
Despite winning two prologues and three time trials in four years in four Tour of California editions, this year will present a new approach for Leipheimer.
"It's summertime outside, although they're calling for showers on Monday," said Leipheimer, now in his 14th pro season. "So, the weather is different and the peloton is much more fit. For me, I've done races in Europe already and I haven't done that in four or five years."
Following the 110-mile second stage Monday from Davis to Santa Rosa, the event will progress to the starting and finishes stage cities of San Francisco, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Modesto, Visalia, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Big Bear Lake, Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills. The race ends May 23.
Leipheimer will attempt to claim his fourth straight title as leader of the new Radio Shack team, announced by Armstrong last July in the waning days of the Tour de France.
In addition to Leipheimer and Armstrong, who finished seventh last year in the second race of his comeback following a 3½-year retirement, Zabriskie and Australia's Michael Rogers also will return as will 2009 fourth-place finisher Jens Voigt of Germany.
Armstrong finished seventh in the Tour of California last year, while riding in a support for Leipheimer. He then finished third in the Tour de France.
"I would take it a step further and say this race is second for us only to the Tour de France," Armstrong said. "Obviously, Levi is focused on it to win again, and we have the guys to support him. But that's why they contest the event. It's eight days and anything can happen and anyone can win.
"There are a lot of good guys in the race, but we're excited and we're motivated."