California Analysis: Let the (mind) games begin

With Leipheimer claiming he's not a factor and Horner suspicious, the opening stage of the Amgen Tour was a tactical grudge match

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SANTA ROSA, California (VN) — It didn’t take long for the mind games to begin at the Amgen Tour of California.

Prior to the race’s start, defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) told NBC Sports Network that he wasn’t convinced that Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who broke his leg on April 1, was incapable of mounting a GC battle, saying, “We all know Levi’s been playing a bit of possum. You don’t show up looking that lean and fit by laying around on the couch.”

It was a shot across the bow — or at least across the windshield of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step bus — that Horner will not underestimate the three-time California champion.

Just a few kilometers into the first stage, an eight-man group slipped away, and while the race’s GC contenders looked to each other to determine which team, or teams, might chase it back, the escape group’s gap stretched to over 11 minutes.

Just an hour into the opening stage of the race it was clear that this would be a week where the overall will be won, or lost, through a battle of both force and will.

Perhaps that’s because the 2011 Amgen Tour of California wasn’t the harmonious RadioShack one-two victory the team tried to project after Horner rode away from then-teammate Leipheimer on Sierra Road.

Horner came to California last year riding in support of Leipheimer, and with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) carrying a substantial lead at the base of Sierra Road, Horner had done his team duty to chase down Hesjedal and whittle the field down to nothing — all while providing a wheel for Leipheimer.

Once the RadioShack pair had caught Hesjedal, Horner kept on upping the pace in order to shed the Canadian. In the process he also dropped Leipheimer, who could only keep pace with Hesjedal, and was therefore stuck — he could not try to bridge to Horner, as he would simply be dragging the Garmin rider back up to his own teammate. Though the time trial and Mount Baldy were still to come, Horner had effectively taken the race from right under his teammate’s nose, all while staying within his role as a domestique. Leipheimer was visibly irritated at the top of Sierra Road, aware that Horner had likely assumed the race lead for good.

Fast forward 12 months and Horner and Leipheimer are back in California as rivals wearing different team jerseys. And they’re far from the only overall favorites in the race, with Garmin’s Tom Danielson and Andrew Talanksy, Liquigas-Cannondale rider Vincenzo Nibali and BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen also vying for the overall win.

Yet when that eight-man breakaway went clear in the opening kilometers on stage 1, it was Omega Pharma that Horner was most annoyed with. When Leipheimer refused to put a man on the front to drive the chase, Horner did the same, and the gap quickly ballooned over 10 minutes.

“You have to remember that [Omega Pharma] has the number-one rider in the world with Tom Boonen, and they have a three-time winner of the overall. They have the package here for everything — they can win the sprints, the time trial and possibly the GC,” Horner said. “I’m aware that Tom dominated the classics. He may just be back on the bike after a few weeks off, but he’s going to want to win. And you look at Levi, his leg might be good, it might be no good, but they’re gonna do something. All the big teams have to do some work.”

After crossing the finish line with the front group, Leipheimer said he’d suffered on the final climb up Coleman Valley Road. “I’m not going to win this race, I can tell you that,” he said. “I just hope to get better every day.”

Asked if there’d been a game of poker during the early hours of the race, Leipheimer answered, “Oh yeah, for sure. RadioShack is paranoid that I’m playing some masterful game, but I told them, ‘We’re not pulling.’ That should be your answer right there.”

Even with RadioShack, Liquigas, Garmin and Argos-Shimano contributing one rider each to the chase, the break hit the Coleman Valley Road climb with 25km remaining and a four-minute advantage, and it looked as though the race leader would emerge from the front group.

“I realize I am the defending champion, and that we have to do some work,” Horner said. “But I was not getting any help [early], so I pulled the guys off the front. I was like, ‘Come on guys, that was last year.’ Certainly the form is good, but it’s maybe not the best in the race. To tell you the truth I was surprised that the break was caught. I thought it would stay away and get two minutes. And if that’s what we have to do, we’ll do it. We can’t tow around a quality team like Quick Step and then have them win everything.”

Asked about Horner’s “possum” comment, Leipheimer shook his head, but had nothing to say. “What is there to say?” he said. “I mean… what are you going to say?”

Leipheimer added that he’d spotted Nibali suffering on Coleman Valley — implying that when Liquigas was chasing, it was for the stage win, with Peter Sagan, rather than for the GC. The GC riders that Leipheimer said did look strong were Danielson, Horner and van Garderen. “I think those are the three [for the overall],” he said.

Horner, however, maintained that it’s too early to scratch his former teammate from that list.

“You just don’t know what to believe,” Horner said. “Levi looks fit, he looks lean. He’s always professional, and he always has been, on and off the bike, with his training and his diet. His form might not be perfect today, but it could be in five or six days. And you have to remember that even if his form is good or not good, they still have Boonen, and there’s a reason he’s number one in the world. They’re playing a game, saying, ‘We’re not going to contribute,’ but with two quality riders like that, you have to assume they’re going to put a guy on the front.”

With Sagan now leading the race and three more stages until the stage 5 time trial in Bakersfield, it’s likely Liquigas will control the race, in an attempt to both keep the jersey and set up Sagan for additional stage wins. But behind Liquigas, the battle of wills will no doubt continue, and more than ever, the time trial will live up to its role as the race of truth.

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