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Riders anticipate toughest Amgen yet

Safety, fanfare discussed at press conference
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Some of professional cycling’s most heralded riders and race organizers, gathered for a press conference on Friday to preview the start of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California on Sunday. Race director Jim Birrell said this would be the most difficult Tour of California yet. “This is what I think will go down as the toughest rendition of the Amgen Tour of California,” Birrell said. Between the highest start altitude to date and two mountaintop finishes, even some of the world’s best agree it will be a tough race. Three-time Amgen winner, Levi Leipheimer of Team Radio Shack has already ridden a new addition to the course this year, Mount Baldy. “This is the hardest edition of Amgen in six years. When I rode it, I thought, ‘this is worthy of the Tour de France,’” Leipheimer said. “It’s going to be historic and legendary.” Amgen provides Leipheimer extra motivation on tough training days. “The Tour of California has always been a big goal of mine every year. I always seem to find that extra motivation in training,” Leipheimer said. “Rain or shine I had that race in my mind and that really helped me.” Leipheimer was not the only rider to compare Amgen to the Tour de France. Leopard Trek cyclist Andy Schleck, has placed second at the Tour de France twice. He said he races Amgen to prepare for his overall goal, the Tour de France. Schleck and Leipheimer are just two of the world’s best riders who chose to race the Tour of California rather than the notorious Giro de Italia last week. Among concerns about inclement weather, including snow and ice, was the issue of cycling safety. Schleck’s friend and teammate Wouter Weylandt of Belgian crashed and died at last week’s Giro de Italia. Leipheimer said safety is an issue that concerns every cyclist. “We’re not doing that to gain sympathy or dramatize our sport. We are serious about it,” Leipheimer said. “I’ve been scared on downhills. There is not a lot of room for a lot of error at all. It’s a real issue.” Schleck said all of the riders in Amgen would pay tribute to Weiylandt. “The loss of Wouter last week was personally for me a big shock because he was a good friend of mine and became a teammate this year. There is no words to describe the feelings that were going through me, my brother and our team,” Schleck said. “All of the riders have a wristband and are personalized with your name and in memory of Wouter Weylandt.” In addition to the wristband, Birrell said there would be a moment of silence at the start of the race before Weylandt’s team, Leopard Trek set out first at the start. Birrell also said that safety was paramount to race organizers, who would use all available resources to warn riders of potential hazards. Leipheimer said he is looking forward to eight days of racing in his home state. He also hopes Californians come out to show their support in full force. Team Garmin-Cervelo racer Johan Van Summeren said his native Belgium attracts nearly the entire country during classic race season. “It’s like a party going to the race,” Summeren said. “People go two days before and have a barbeque set with them. It’s like a holiday. It’s real craziness.” The cycling craze in Europe also includes costumes and fanatical fans running alongside cyclists. Leipheimer said as long as fans don’t get too close to the racing action, he enjoys the excitement. Cowbells were on sale at yesterday’s Gold Country Century and Family Festival, meaning Auburn may not be the type of town to clap politely. “The crazier the costume, the better.” Leipheimer said. “We like the party atmosphere.” Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com.