Tour of California Preview

The defining moment of the 2011 ATOC - Chris Horner's win on Sierra Road.

The 2012 Amgen Tour of California will be the hardest edition of the race ever with even more mountains than last year’s route. The 8-day race is in its seventh year and will cover 735.6 miles with new features such as a climb up Mount Diablo, a time trial in Bakersfield and a final stage in Hollywood. The battle for the overall win is really up for grabs with defending champion Chris Horner the favorite. But the 40-year-old will face stiff competition from a host of young guns and veterans alike.

Here are our favorites to claim the golden leader’s jersey:

1. Chris Horner – RadioShack Nissan Trek

Horner absolutely crushed the field on stage four last year finishing over a minute in front of his rivals on the super steep summit finish on Sierra Road. Only his teammate Levi Leipheimer could hang with him on the seventh stage that finished atop the infamous Mount Baldy. Horner suffered a nasty crash during the Tour de France that derailed the second half of his season. But he is back to full strength and focused on California glory.

2. Tejay Van Garderen – BMC

Tejay Van Garderen will look to improve on his 5th place finish last year.

It’s hard to believe Van Garderen is only 23 years old considering everything he’s accomplished. The lanky American finished fifth last year in the ATOC and third in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, winning the best young rider classification in both races. The Tour of California is a major goal for the young pro so look for him to be at the front of the race on the key climbs.

3. Tom Danielson – Garmin Barracuda

Tommy D had his best season ever in 2011 finishing third in the Tour of California and ninth in the Tour de France. He proved he is capable of hanging with just about anyone on the toughest climbs in the world and he’ll have a strong team to back him up.

The 2010 Vuelta a España winner has had a stellar start to his 2012 season, winning the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico in addition to a second place finish at  Liège–Bastogne–Liège and a third at Milan-San Remo. “The Shark” is poised for his best Tour of California finish ever and should contest for the overall win.

5. Andrew Talansky – Garmin Barracuda

Talansky is the dark horse on this list but consider his breakthrough second place finish at the Tour de Romandie a few weeks ago. The 23-year-old nearly beat Bradley Wiggins in the final time trial. If he can find his climbing legs, look for Talansky to surprise the world with another podium finish. Check out this video filmed from the follow car behind Talansky at last year’s time trial in Solvang.

6. Levi Leipheimer – Omega Pharma Quickstep

Levi Leipheimer is still recovering from a crash in April.

The three-time winner may not even toe the start line this year. Leipheimer is still recovering from a broken fibula sustained in a crash on April 1st. He was hit by an elderly driver the day before the start of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. If he does start, we don’t anticipate he’ll be close to contending for the overall win because of the training he’s missed in the last month. But it’s hard to count Levi out, especially since the first stage of the race starts and finishes in his hometown of Santa Rosa.

There are plenty of other riders who could contend for the overall including Laurens Ten Dam and Robert Gesink of Rabobank and Rory Sutherland of United Healthcare. Other big names to look out for include the green jersey winner of 2010 and 2011, Peter Sagan. Sagan could face a huge challenge in the points competition from Tom Boonen, who has had a magical 2012 season, winning Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Qatar.

In addition to watching the big name riders, we also enjoy watching the domestic pro teams such as Bissel, Exergy and Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies duke it out with the best teams in the world. We’ll be rooting for at least one stage win by an underdog team.