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Saturday, May 14, 2011
2011 Tour of California: Storylines to watch

By Bonnie D. Ford

The old guard: There will be a huge changing of the guard in American cycling in the not-too-distant future, but it hasn't happened yet. Among the over-35 crowd competing here are Radio Shack's three-time Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer (37) and Chris Horner (39); BMC leader George Hincapie (37) and Garmin Cervelo's Christian Vande Velde, whose 35th birthday is the last day of the race. Here's the salient point: all of them are podium and/or stage win contenders. Garmin's 31-year-old Dave Zabriskie, last year's runner-up, is also in the running, as well as the oldest rider in the peloton, Jens Voigt, who turns the big 4-0 this September.

The kids are more than all right: That being said, this Tour of California features a truly exceptional crop of precocious talent, headlined by HTC-Highroad's Tejay Van Garderen, 22, who will assume the leader's role in a bold move by this ultra-successful organization. U.S. time trial champion and 2008 track cycling Olympian Taylor Phinney, 20, of BMC, will start his first major American stage race as a full-fledged pro after being hampered by injuries earlier this season. There are too many young talents to list, but other notables include Radio Shack's Ben King, 22, the surprise winner of the U.S. road racing title last fall, and Garmin support rider Andrew Talansky, also 22. Liquigas will ride for 21-year-old Slovakian phenom Peter Sagan, a double stage winner, Best Young Rider and points jersey winner here last year.

Gauging Tour de France form: It'll be interesting to see how two-time Tour runner-up Andy Schleck of Team Leopard-Trek approaches this race. This is the first of several lead-up races for him, so does he want the mileage, a high placement or both? He said Friday he would take it as it comes, and the educated guess here is that he'll go for a stage win on either the Sierra Road or Mt. Baldy uphill finishes. Leopard's American bike sponsor obviously makes this race a priority, and the team split its best riders between here and the Giro d'Italia -- where its journey ended early due to the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt. Another potential contender for the overall classification is France HTC's Peter Velits of Slovakia, third in last year's Vuelta d'Espana, who will be working for Van Garderen here.

Home teams: While the Pro Tour teams understandably generate a lot of the buzz around this race, California has also been a great showcase for North American squads since the races inception in 2006. Look for those teams to animate the action, especially in breakaways. Bissell, Kelly Benefit Strategies, United HealthCare and the Canadian Spidertech squad have brought notably strong lineups.

Sharing the spoils: Thirteen of the top women in the world will race on the Solvang time trial course Friday, starting an hour before the men and going off at one-minute intervals. The field includes eight U.S. riders, including Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, freshly back from maternity leave, and current national champion Evelyn Stevens. Entrants from other countries include Great Britain's Emma Pooley, the reigning world champion. The race offers a sneak peek at next year's Olympics.