The seven-time Tour de France champion is back from a three-year retirement. Yes, he's 37, but the bet here: He is, or soon will be, as good as ever. His goal this week, he says, is to help teammate Levi Leipheimer win. If circumstances allow, though, Armstrong would love to send the message that he's still the boss.
The Tour of California is homecourt for two-time defending champion Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa. This is his race to lose, and he's as motivated as anyone. He has a great team around him (Armstrong and Chris Horner). More top riders than ever are here, and they have their eye on Levi.
Landis is back after a two-year drug suspension that cost him his dramatic 2006 Tour de France title. He won this race in 2006. Is he a contender this year? He's in very good shape, and he will have something to prove. Lance and Levi's powerhouse Astana team will be watching Floyd, and they will try to run him ragged in the hills.
The 2006 Giro d'Italia champion is another rider making a comeback from a drug suspension. Three years ago, he was the anointed heir to Armstrong's Tour de France crown, but he was banned from the race days before it started. (He and Landis deny taking drugs.) This week should offer the first clue of whether Basso is ready to rejoin the top of the heap.
Veteran Sastre won last year's
Tour de France. California provides an early-season testing ground for his legs in defending his France crown. He won't try for the win here, but the mountain climbing specialist will want to show his stuff when the top climbers hit the flanks of Palomar Mountain late in the week.
The two-time U.S. champion's team is loaded. Two other Team Columbia riders, Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg and Michael Rogers of Australia, could vie for the win. And count on superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish from the Isle of Man winning a flat stage or two. But if Hincapie, a 13-time Tour de France vet, shows strength in the early stages, the team will coalesce in support of him.
When it comes to pure, jaw-dropping power, the 2008 Olympic champion and two-time world time trial champion is the guy. Superb against the clock, he should shine in the time trial in Solvang, and he could vie for the overall title. But he might choose to work for two teammates, brothers Frank and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. Some peg Andy, the younger Schleck, as a future Tour de France winner.
CHRISTIAN VANDE VELDE
Vande Velde, the top U.S. finisher in last year's Tour de France, arrived with an updated attitude. He and his team manager say they played it too conservatively last year. This year, they say, they will be bold. If Vande Velde wants to climb the Tour de France podium in July, it starts here.
Gesink was a revelation during last year's race. Besides giving Leipheimer all he could handle up steep Sierra Road outside San Jose, he won the Best Young Rider title for the second year. He did well later in Europe. He is a nimble mountain climber, and this year's race offers him a chance to beat the best up Palomar on the final day.
Boonen, former world champion and two-time winner of the Paris-Roubaix race, will be dead set on outracing Mark Cavendish in daredevil 40-mph-plus sprints, starting today in Santa Rosa. This rivalry is sure to produce fireworks.
-- TONY BIZJAK/THE SACRAMENTO BEE