Tour of California Showcases Flourishing U.S. Cycling Scene

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Chris Horner took control of the 2011 ATOC on Stage 4. Photo: Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious/Flickr

The seventh edition of the Amgen Tour of California started yesterday in Santa Rosa with a thrilling stage that saw the remnants of the day's breakaway caught just seven kilometers from the finish line and a final sprint won by 22-year-old phenom Peter Sagan. And while the young Slovak siezed the leader's jersey, the race has me thinking more about the breadth and success of today's American cycling scene.

Since it's debut in 2006, the Amgen Tour of California (ATOC) has become the biggest stage race in the United States and continues to attract an increasingly impressive roster of international talent. Half of the 16 teams that lined up this year are UCI Pro Tour teams, including three of the world's currently top four ranked cyclists: Tom Boonen (1), Vincenzo Nibali (2), and Sagan (4). And California is just one of three international-caliber stage races in the U.S. these days, with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the Tour of Utah, both in August, also luring lots of the biggest pros from Europe. Never in the history of American cycling has there been so many high-caliber races held on these shores in a single season.

Just as impressive is the depth of American cycling talent. Though Lance is gone, many of his contemporaries are still riding at the highest level. Radioshack-Nissan-Trek's Chris Horner might be 40 years old, but as the defending champ from the 2011 edition of the ATOC, he has to be considered one of the top favorites. Horner hasn't shown quite the dominant form he did last spring, but he still scored a formidable second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico in March.

Three-time ATOC winner Levi Leipheimer, who was runner-up to teammate Horner last year, looked on track to vie for a fourth California title until he was run down by a car during a training ride on the eve of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, an accident that left him with a broken fibula. Though it's been only six weeks since the crash, Leipheimer has recovered enough to ride in California, but he says he won't be a factor in the overall. BMC Racing Team's George Hincapie, 38, proved that he's still a force when he figured in the final sprint on Stage One, eventually finishing sixth. Younger but still very experienced, Garmin-Barracuda's two-time runner-up Dave Zabriskie is back, though the team says its best chance of winning this year lies with ace climber Tom Danielson.

Then there's the new guard of American talent. Like Taylor Phinney, who won the prologue of the Giro d'Italia last week at his first appearance in the race, a host of young racers are asserting themselves as successors to the U.S. Postal Service generation. BMC Racing Team's Tejay Van Garderen, 23, comes to California with a fifth place at this year's Paris-Nice to his name and has said he's in the hunt for an ATOC podium slot, if not the outright victory. And though few mentioned 23-year-old Andrew Talanksy as a possible winner a month ago, the Garmin-Barracuda rider forced the competition to consider him as a contender by finishing second overall to Tour de France favorite Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de Romandie two weeks ago. Other American up-and-comers racing California include 26-year-old U.S. Road Racing Champion Matthew Busche and BMC Racing Team's Brent Bookwalter, who narrowly missed winning stage one at the 2010 Giro d'Italia. And that doesn't even account for all the fine racers on the domestic squads at the ATOC.

The other great development for U.S. cycling is that you can finally catch a lot of the action on American television. Unlike in the past, when the only real cycling coverage was of the Tour de France in July, NBC Sports is airing a wide range of events, including the Spring Classics, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de Suisse, and both the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the Amgen Tour of California.

Of course there are a few non-American racers who could spoil the ATOC party for the home team, including Italian Vuelta a España winner Vincenzo Nibali and Dutchman Laurens Ten Dam, sixth overall at the 2011 event. Whether an American wins or not, however, it's great to see so much homegrown talent. In the words of Team America: World Police creator Trey Parker: “America!! F— YEAH!!”

—Aaron Gulley