Surprises in store for Tour of California riders

Organizers of the three-year-old Amgen Tour of California say they are guarding against any waning excitement by dramatically changing portions of the course — a move that may shake up the order at the finish lines.

Both last year’s winner, Levi Leipheimer, and 2006 champion Floyd Landis have dominated the field in their victories.

Race organizer Jim Birrell said he is not concerned there is becoming a pattern with the same winners. Still, organizers have eliminated a major climb in the first leg — which will be more favorable to sprinters —and added more climbs overall to the 650-mile course.

In Stage 3, cyclists will pedal up a grueling hill over the backside of San Jose’s Mount Hamilton. That’s welcome news to Tom Danielson of Team Slipstream Chipotle.

“I think it’s definitely more exciting having it a little more challenging,” he said. “Someday I’d like to see a mountaintop finish.”

But Danielson thinks the course had little to do with Leipheimer and Landis’ victories.

“I think they just came to the race in really good condition,” he said. “The field is so strong and it’s so early in the year, so the differences in everyone’s fitness is quite large. You have to prepare as early as November and both Floyd and Levi really trained for the time trials.”

Rory Sutherland of the Health Net Pro Cycling Team said the Mount Hamilton climb brings a feeling of “do or die” to the competition.

“I think they’ve done that to generate a little more interest, but also to make it as good of a competition as it can be,” he said.

Frank Pipp, also of the Health Net team, said he thinks the course alterations may result in more lead changes this year.

“It’s more fun that way. If you’re behind and you see the same team in front of you day after day, it gets a little sickening,” he said with a laugh.

Also adding to this year’s excitement for spectators is the sheer number of powerhouse racers in the mix, Birrell said.

“You’re going to see a lot more racing action,” he said. “The finish lines are going to be very competitive. You look at our top riders here, they’re all major-league players.”

Despite the heavy competition and course changes, some riders are expecting to see Leipheimer dominate.

“I think Levi is the heavy favorite again. I think you’ll see him keeping a tight leash of things from the early going,” said Belmont resident Bernard van Ulden of Jelly Belly Pro Cycling.

tbarak@examiner.com

Tour of California

» WHEN: Sunday through Feb. 24

» WHAT: An eight-day, 650-mile cycling race that begins in Palo Alto and finishes in Pasadena

» DEFENDING CHAMPION: Levi Leipheimer

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