Let's be honest. Although the Amgen Tour of California field is bursting with big name riders, there really are only a handful of legitimate contenders who make the event a top priority. But as Jacques Anquetil said, "There are no races. Only lotteries."
Considering this and the fact that weather may play a significant role in the event, it would not be surprising to see just about any one of 25 or 30 riders take the jersey into Escondido next Sunday. For the most part, the pre-race favorites will work their way to the top of the leaderboard but this could be the year that a big break stays away and gives a handful of dangerous guys a sizable cushion on the rest of the field.
Obviously we know the main protagonists - Levi, Floyd, VDV, Hincapie, Armstrong, Cancellara, Basso, Zabriskie, Hamilton, Sastre, yada, yada, yada. The odds are that one of these guys will win and out of this group, I would actually put my money on Hincapie...if gambling were legal. I just feel like George could scratch together enough seconds throughout the course of the week to hold off Levi and Floyd in the TT and Mt. Palomar. But LL and Flandis will not be easily denied.
However, for some reason my gut tells me that it will be one of the "Lieutenants" who gets in a break on a nasty weather stage (perhaps into Santa Rosa, Clovis or Paso Robles) then has a solid TT and doesn't get dropped on the climbs. In this case, I could envision probably 25 guys who may be capable of defending a 2-4 minute lead on the pre-race favorites.
Of these riders, I would personally like to see someone like Svein Tuft, Chris Baldwin or Ben Jacques-Maynes take the win. I could also see Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady, Michael Rogers or Rory Sutherland having the goods. But if I were a gambling man, I would put a couple bones on one Christopher Horner. It's been a while since C-Ho took a big W on American soil and it would not be surprising to me if we saw Astana riding for the "other" Yankee on the squad after he sniffs out the right move.
Oh...and I'm going to go WAY out on a limb and predict that some British guy named Cavendish will win a sprint or two. But while I'm out here, I'm thinking that there will be a few surprise stage winners in the AToC this year as well. Similar to Dominique Rollin's breakout victory in heinous conditions last year, the 2009 edition may present a great opportunity for another North American rider from a domestic team to tough out a career-defining win. Look for someone like Brad Huff, Tim Johnson, Steven Cozza or Tom Zirbel representing the USA to the fullest with a gritty stage win.
I will make stage predictions as the race goes on but my pick for the prologue is Thor Hushovd. I've never met a Norwegian I didn't like and the course and conditions may suit the big man to perfection. Plus, he's riding a Cervelo TT rig now - which can only be a vast improvement over his past machines. That could make the difference in a 3 mile prologue.
So there you have it. I've filled out my ticket...let the lottery begin.