The 2009 Amgen Tour of California proved to be a good barometer for who would shine in 2009. Held in February at the beginning of the season, the nine day race was long enough and tough enough to show who would have the chops later in the season. Now scheduled for May, next year's race will be a great indicator for who will be the top favorites at the Tour de France, but the day's of using the AToC as a barometer for the entire season are gone. Still, a look back at this past year's Tour of California and the stars who would shine the whole year through.
Fabian Cancellara got things started in California at the prologue doing what he does best: time trialing. The Swiss machine rode a scintillating time trial despite a high fever, taking the leader's jersey for the first stage. He would have a tough mid season dealing with crashes and injury, but he set everything correct toward the end of the year in Mendrisio, taking his fourth world time trial title. Heading into 2010, Cancellara is the undisputed king in the race against the clock.
Stage one went to a resurgent Francesco Mancebo, who launched a sloo bid in deplorable conditions to net a hard-earned win. Behind him, young Vincenzo Nibali took third place. Nibali had a slew of podium appearances throughout the rest of the season, but the 24 year old Italian seemed to lack that extra kick to finish races. He'll look for bigger gains in 2010.
Stage two took place once again in terrible rainy conditions, and this time it was the American Thomas Peterson of the Garmin team who was able to follow a blistering attack by Levi Leipheimer to take his biggest win of his career. Leipheimer, showing amazing form, flashed the early season fitness that would mark the remainder of the early 2009 cycling season. Leipheimer had a solid mid season as well, before shutting things down in the fall. He'll look for a fourth AToC title in May before heading to France in support of his teammate Lance Armstrong.
Stage three saw the skies clear a bit and a chance for the sprinters. It was big Thor Hushovd who was the beneficiary of a solid team lead out for the sprint, as the Norwegian took top honors on the day. Thor continued after the AToC with an amazing early season, and then re-loaded for the Tour de France where he took the green points jersey. 2009 was by far his best to date, and he'll once again be a team leader for the Cervelo TestTeam in 2010 as he searches for his first monument win, be it at San Remo or Roubaix.
Stage four and stage five were both relatively flat stages made for bunch sprints, and the fastest man in the world came to the front to claim his spot as the rightful owner of the points jersey at California. Mark Cavendish annihilated the field on both days, winning easily, with a smile on his face. The Manxman would of course go on to dominate the 2009 sprint season behind the best lead out train in the business, and he even added a win in Milan-San Remo, a race that many didn't believe he could win. Cavendish will dominate the sport in the coming years, and 2010 should see him net 20+ wins once again.
Stage six once again was the famed Solvang time trial, and once again it was Levi Leipheimer who dominated the field. The impish Astana leader blazed the course, and bested some big names, including a returning Lance Armstrong. Armstrong finished 12th in the time trial that day, which foreshadowed his overall finish later that year in Italy when he placed 12th overall to the Giro d'Italia. Armstrong moved up to third overall at the Tour de France, but clearly he wasn't the same dominant pro he was nearly four seasons ago.
Stage seven of the 2009 Tour of California saw an unlikely victor, as Ronaldo Nocentini took top honors on a day with some tough climbs. Nocentini soloed home for his Ag2R team, and the Italian would end up wearing the fabled yellow jersey of the Tour de France that July, finally earning the respect he deserves as a solid one day rider.
The final stage of the Tour of California went to a jubilant Frank Schleck and Saxo Bank, who closed out the 2009 AToC in style with a brash escape in the waning kilometers of the final stage. Schleck bested a hard luck runner-up Nibali once again, and like many of the AToC stars Schleck would go on to shine again at the Tour de France in July, taking a stage win and a top ten overall placing before shutting his season down to address a knee injury. He'll be a protagonist throughout the spring in 2010, and a dark horse in July for the Tour.
Now that the Tour of California has shifted to May, there will no longer be the option to use it as a barometer for who will be the fastest later in the year. However, the positive is that many of the top favorites for the Tour de France will ride California, giving American fans the chance to see some of the biggest names ahead of their biggest objectives. Like any change it will take some getting used to, but in the end the Amgen Tour of California will still provide fans with a nice perspective on who will shine the brightest in July at the Tour de France.