Tour of California contenders. A Twisted take.

Who is buying in California? Levi or Zabriskie?

First off, the King is dead, long live somebody else.

Last years’s winner Michael Rogers has switched teams from HTC-Highroad to Team Sky but before he could mount a serious defense a virus took him out. Gone, history, podium open.

In what is universally acknowledged as the toughest Tour of California in the six year history of the race, with two hilltop finishes and a mean Solvang time trial — and maybe even snow for the Tahoe stages — this edition will take a potent blend of awesome sauce to win.

The men who want the Golden Hincapie Sports jersey of overall winner are:

Dave Zabriskie, Garmin-Cervelo.

Second last year, second the year before, horrified of the possibility of second three times in a row. That’s just too damn bridesmaid. While there are more mountains than ever and Zabriskie is known mostly as a time trial specialist, he does have two climbing legs. As the argyle genius Jonathan Vaughters said, Z just seems to climb better in California — he lives in Malibu so it’s his steeply sloped backyard.

Last year, the media-shy Zabriskie did an uncharacteristic thing: he said he wanted to win in Cali. That he was ready to be da man, team leader, bone crusher. With a personality that even Vaughters finds mystifying, that was a huge step forward. He rode hard, won the stage in Santa Cruz but ultimately lost to Rogers by nine lousy seconds.

This time around, Garmin-Cervelo has brought the strongest team in the race. 4th place Tour de France guy Christian Vande Velde and 2010 tour revelation Ryder Hesjedal — a stage winner in California last year — along with the wildly brilliant or potentially mediocre Dan Martin and a pack of well-trained dogs ready to ride everyone into the ground.

Can Zabriskie win the Tour of California? That’s as hard to say as what you’ll get in a Zabriskie interview — the charming and goofy guy from SoCal or the disinterested and disengaged rider who finds contact with the outside world painful.

Garmin has many cards to play and that’s fantastic when you’re playing gin rummy and not racing bikes. Personally we like underdogs and outsiders and vegans from Malibu. Good luck, Mr, Zabriskie.

Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, Radio Shack.

Last year Levi rolled to the start line in Auburn with the most famous domestique in history, that formerly retired guy from Texas, Lance Armstrong. Talk about pressure — how’d you like to let down The Man and Johan Bruyneel?

Well, first the uninvited FLoyd Landis dropped an atomic bomb, then Lance crashed out in stage 5 outside Visalia and Levi finished a disappointed third. Bad news for the electronic gizmo squad.

Levi’s back, at the ripe age of 37, with Chris Horner at the even riper age of 39, and hoping to win again. Bruyneel keeps using the aged vino analogy — which goes over just fine in Napa and Sonoma wine country, but there’s no question there’s some dust on the bottles, maybe even a rotten cork.

Only time and eight stages will tell. The Mount Baldy mountain top finish and Solvang time trial — a clock event he’s won three times — all play into Levi’s favor He’s also said he’s had a great build-up to this tour.

In fact, Horner told Velonews his form is awesome and depending on how tactics play out, he could see Levi and himself going 1-2. Still, we say nope, just doesn’t feel right and our neighbor up the road in Santa Rosa will not win this year. But we’re in Horner’s corner all the way because us old guys stick together.

Linus Gerdemann and Andy Schleck, Leopard Trek.

When we see the name Linus as anybody’s favorite, we question sanity. Sure, he’s a lightweight climber but the emphasis is on lightweight. We have a hard time putting any substance to Gerdemann, especially when any pressure is dumped on his skinny shoulders. He has a cute boy-band face and occasionally pops up with a near result but please, not here in California.

Gerdemann wasn’t terrible in Paris-Nice and did okay in the Tour de Romandie where he finished eleventh overall. But try saying Linus wins Tour of California? It sounds awful and awfully unlikely. Now Leopard Trek press man Tim Vanderjeugd claims “Linus will indeed be our main card to play for the GC,” but he is paid to to be optimistic, wildly so.

As for Schleck the Younger, well, seriously, the Tour of California is just a solid block of training. He’s in California to enjoy the fact that main Tour de France rival Alberto Contador will kill himself trying to win the hardest Giro in memory, a 40 mountain climb death pedal.

Alberto will exhaust himself, then drag his dead body to Switzerland where the Court of Arbitration in Sport will decide about meat and plasticizers and his participation in La Grande Boucle. Meanwhile Andy will be chilling, making some hard efforts on the Mount Baldy stage, flashing his boyish grin  and generally, relaxing. He ain’t racing for the win.

Leopard Trek are here, in the classical cycling expression, to “animate” the race. Not win the damn thing.

Steve Maribito, BMC Racing

In some strange quarters Maribito qualifies as a solid contender. Assistant directeur sportif Michael Sayers insists the course suits Maribito perfectly. He got himself a top-five overall finish at the Tour de Suisse and some decent placings in races that kinda sound vaguely familiar. Still, we don’t know where exactly all the hype is coming from — Iceland, Borneo, Mesopotamia?

We’d like to give the man a few more paragraphs of hope but, in a small word, no. Not going to happen but we’re sure hoping big George Hincapie snaps up a stage win for the red and black boys. And besides we need to chat with George about reviewing his new Spring collection.

Tejay Van Garderen, HTC-Highroad.

The mop-headed 22 year old actually said his goal is to win the Tour of California. He said it in all seriousness but with that youthful nonchalance that made us double-take. Can the kid really do it — even with his new signature Pearl Izumi footwear?

His squad is well-drilled and experienced — they brought Rogers to the top of the podium without a hitch last year. We don’t rule out the wild possibility because Tejay is the real deal. Third overall at the 2010 Criterium Dauphine and second at this year’s Volta ao Algarve. That’s against top-notch, bad-ass riders who did everything they could to embarrass the kid from Washington state.

We say, yeah, why not? A win at the Tour of California feels like part of the logical progression. It’s possible, it feels good, a great story. Then again, we’ll believe it when we see it.

Rory Sutherland, Unitedhealthcare

Rory is the dark horse and at least everybody agrees he has a horse and the color is black. Some positive arguments right there. Seventh last year, experienced squad, highly motivated. Aiming high is always a smart move but when you’re battling for a week with major ProTour powerhouses like Garmin and Radio Shack, the game gets excruciating fast.

In one of his last pre-race interviews for cyclingnews, Rory made no bones about wanting a podium spot. He threw down the lyrca guantlet, he issued a challenge from his sylish Boardman race bike.

We’re pulling for Rory and paying extremely close attention because we’re embedded with the Unitedhealthcare squad and bike supplier Chris Boardman for the entire week. We’re in the team car, team bus, team meetings, team dinner but not in the team shower. Every professional freelance journalist has to draw the line somewhere. We are pulling hard for the Aussie Rory or the Rory Aussie.

How does this all shake out? As a professional cycling journalist, I can say with authority, no idea. But I’ll let you know right before they make the official presentation after stage eight.

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