The Amgen Tour of California heats up in Solvang on Friday, May 20, in more ways than one. Ample sunshine is forecast for the sixth stage of the week-long cycling marathon. That should be welcome relief to the riders and organizers, who were forced to cancel the opening stage at Lake Tahoe last Sunday because of an unseasonal snowstorm and had to put up with intermittent rainfall once the tour got rolling.
Nobody is happier to see Solvang on this year’s tour than Levi Leipheimer, who claimed three straight championships (’07, ’08, ’09) in America’s greatest cycling race after winning the time trials in the Santa Ynez Valley village. The tour bypassed Santa Barbara County last year, and Leipheimer finished third overall behind Michael Rogers of Australia and David Zabriskie. Rogers was unable to start this year because of a virus, but the gritty 39-year-old Leipheimer is facing waves of competition from Zabriskie, 32; two-time Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck, 25, of Luxembourg; Tejay Van Garderen, 22, wearing the mantle of the next great U.S. hope; world road race champion Thor Hushovd, 33, of Norway; and many other professional riders who passed up the Giro in Italy to race in California.
The Amgen Tour started with a moment of silence in memory of Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt, who was killed last week when he crashed on a descent in the Giro. He was a member of the Leopard Trek team, which also has a contingent in California led by Schleck. “I’m sure he would have wanted me to stay in the race and do my best,” Schleck said. “The team is here, and we ride for Wouter.”
Weylandt’s death was a reminder of the danger that lurks in high-speed cycling, even when roads are closed off. This year’s sixth Tour of California is the most arduous to date. The seventh stage Saturday is a grueling climb to the finish at the top of Mount Baldy. Whoever owns the yellow jersey after that stage will undoubtedly be crowned the champion at the end of the tour Sunday in Thousand Oaks.
The racing in Solvang begins Friday, May 20, at 10:30 a.m., with the “Race of Truth” for amateur cyclists who will ply the same 15-mile course that awaits the pros. It starts and finishes in downtown Solvang. Other prime viewing spots are along the early uphill push on Alisal Road and the corkscrew climb at the north end of Ballard Canyon Road.
“It’s like having the Tour de France in our backyard,” said Corey Evans, an area bike shop owner. “Andy Schleck was in town a few days ago. I helped air up his tire.” Evans has entered the amateur race. “It’s exciting,” he said. “Coming down Copenhagen Drive [the last 200 yards] is like the Champs-Élysées in Paris—everything but the cobblestones.”
The youngest amateur is 15-year-old Matthew Honeyman, a Dunn School freshman who took up competitive cycling four months ago. “It’s going to be a blast,” he said. “I can go out there and work really hard and push myself.”
One of the highlights of the day will be the Women’s International Time Trial Challenge at 11:30 a.m. The 13 competitors include world time trial champion Emma Pooley of Great Britain and Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong of the United States.
The Amgen Tour time trial starts at 12:30 p.m. Each man will ride solo, starting at two-minute intervals. There were 144 riders representing 18 teams at the beginning of the tour. There will be two hours of television coverage on the Versus network at 2 p.m.
In 2009, Leipheimer’s winning time was 30 minutes, 40 seconds. Zabriskie was eight seconds behind him. Lance Armstrong, preparing for his last fling in the Tour de France, finished 14th in 31:56.
In conjunction with the races, there will be exhibits and entertainment during the Lifestyle Festival in Solvang Park from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Health, fitness, and cancer awareness will be part of the program. A wine garden and a beer garden will also be onsite.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Four area teams will host CIF playoff games on Thursday, May 19, at 3:15 p.m.: Santa Barbara High and Bishop Diego in baseball; Dos Pueblos and Carpinteria in softball.
GAUCHOS TRY HARDER: Following on the heels of the NCAA volleyball final—UCSB losing a five-game thriller against Ohio State—the Gaucho rugby team fell to Davenport University of Michigan, 38-19, in the U.S.A. Rugby Division I college championship at Stanford last weekend. It was UCSB’s only loss in 12 games, including a 30-3 victory over Bowling Green in the semifinals. Davenport, an NAIA school, takes its rugby seriously, with a coach and a key player from South Africa.