Lance Armstrong confirmed today that his comeback to competitive cycling in 2009 will include his participation in the Amgen Tour of California. The nine-day, 800-mile race, scheduled for February 14-22, will include an individual time trial at the seventh stage (Friday, February 20) in Solvang.
Amgen Tour officials heartily applauded Armstrong’s announcement at a cycling trade show in Las Vegas. His presence will add prestige to the California race, which was started in 2006 – the year Armstrong went into retirement following his seventh consecutive victory in the Tour de France.
“Its going to be a whole new world in terms of people looking at our race,” said Andrew Messick, the president of AEG Sports, the owner of the California tour, in a conference call.
Armstrong said he will race for the Astana Cycling Team, with his ultimate goal the 2009 Tour de France, which will start July 4. His competitive schedule will begin in January at Australia’s Tour Down Under. Prior to the Amgen Tour, the team will hold a training camp, possibly in the Santa Ynez Valley.
For the first time since the Tour of California’s inception, Santa Barbara will not be included at the start or finish of a stage. Several new cities have been added to the 2009 race, which will begin in Sacramento and wind up in San Diego. A day before the Solvang time trial, Stage Six will go from Visalia to Paso Robles. Stage Eight will start in Santa Clarita and finish in Pasadena.
In making his announcement, Armstrong called the Amgen Tour of California“the best race outside of Europe.” He cited “the level of competition, the challenge of the course, and the highly professional atmosphere.” He also noted that the race supports his mission of raising cancer awareness through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. That was a primary incentive for his return to competition at the age of 37.
Armstrong also seems determined to dispel doubts that he was a clean rider during an era the sport was wracked by doping scandals. He took the stage in Las Vegas with doping expert Don Catlin, head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory. All of the rider’s physiological data will be made public next year, Catlin told reporters.
Messick said Armstrong will face stiff competition in California from two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer; Christian Vandevelde, another top American cyclist; and Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who won four stages in this year’s Tour de France. “He’s the fastest man on a bicycle in the world right now,” Messick said.
Santa Barbara cycling enthusiasts will undoubtedly be disappointed that next year’s Amgen Tour is skipping the South Coast. They converged on Cabrillo Boulevard to get close to the professional cyclists before they started the penultimate stage in each of the past three years. The 2006 race also had a stage finish on the waterfront.
Barney Berglund, chairman of the local organizing committee for the first three Amgen Tours, said several factors played into the decision to bypass Santa Barbara, not the least of which was the anticipated expense. Berglund said his personal cost was “close to $15,000” for the last event, and he was not willing to go ahead next year without substantial help from sponsors. “I needed a commitment by May,” he said. “People wouldn’t come through.” Berglund also foresaw a problem with a planned construction project at the Mission Creek bridge on Cabrillo Boulevard.
“The tour people want to spread it around to more cities,” Berglund added. “We might have been out of luck even if we submitted a bid.”
Messick, the AEG president, is a Santa Barbara native. He anticipated that the 2010 Amgen Tour would restore southern Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties to the route. But there is no guarantee Lance Armstrong will be among the riders.