Tour of Missouri kicks off Tuesday

The inaugural six-stage Tour of Missouri, the third and final of America’s three “grand tours,” kicks off Tuesday in Kansas City. The 600-mile course will travel a counter-clockwise route, ending on Sunday, September 16, in St. Louis. In between the state’s largest cities are stops in Clinton, Springfield, Branson, Lebanon, Columbia, Jefferson City, and St. Charles.

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By Neal Rogers

The inaugural six-stage Tour of Missouri, the third and final of America’s three “grand tours,” kicks off Tuesday in Kansas City. The 600-mile course will travel a counter-clockwise route, ending on Sunday, September 16, in St. Louis. In between the state’s largest cities are stops in Clinton, Springfield, Branson, Lebanon, Columbia, Jefferson City, and St. Charles.

Though the course lacks any major climbs, the rolling roads of Missouri are expected to take a cumulative toll. In a flat race where field sprints and bunch kicks are expected, the out-and-back stage-3 time trial, held in the entertainment-destination city of Branson, serves up the most concentrated climbs of the six-day tour, with 2500 feet of elevation gain in 18 miles.

The race’s finale will be staged in the heart of St. Louis, with a 75-mile circuit race that will start and finish at historic Union Station. The race will be held nearby the stadiums of Major League Baseball’s world-champion St. Louis Cardinals and the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams, both of which play home games earlier in the day. Spectators will have a chance to migrate to Union Station to see the finish of the Tour of Missouri, which could mean massive crowds.

Perhaps the biggest draw of the race will be the swansong appearance by the Discovery Channel team, which disbands at season’s end. From its triumphant Tour de France squad Discovery brings Tour winner Alberto Contador, podium finisher and recently crowned national road champion Levi Leipheimer, two-time national road champ and 2005 Tour stage winner George Hincapie, and the always-attacking Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, winner of a Tour stage in 2006. Both Hincapie and Popoych have gone on to sign contracts for 2008, Hincapie with T-Mobile and Popovych with Predictor-Lotto; Contador and Leipheimer are still in discussions with various ProTour teams.

“I have had an amazing 2007 season which started out when I won the Amgen Tour of California, followed by a successful showing at the Tour de Georgia and then finishing on the podium at the Tour de France. It is only fitting to close it out my season with a U.S. homecoming at the Tour of Missouri,” said Leipheimer.

“I have always said that there is nothing that compares to racing at home, and it will be very special for me to have guys like Alberto, Popo’ and George riding next to me in my final race as a Discovery Channel team member.”

Also on the Discovery roster are Tony Cruz, Amgen Tour of California podium finisher Jason McCartney, up-and-coming U.S. star John Devine and Fuyu Li, the first Chinese athlete to compete at the ProTour level.

Discovery won the Amgen Tour of California with Leipheimer and the Tour de Georgia, with Janez Brajkovic. Team CSC, whose riders finished second to Discovery riders at both of those events, is not sending a squad to Missouri. Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel, who has led his riders to eight Tour wins in nine years, will finish his tenure at the helm of U.S. Postal Service/Discovery Channel when the race reaches St. Louis.

“Our team has always had great success racing in the U.S., and we are looking forward to another solid performance in Missouri,” said Bruyneel. “Having recently announced my retirement from cycling I am pleased that one of my last races as a director will be at the Tour of Missouri.

“I have always enjoyed directing in the U.S. because of our success and an amazing group of fans that come to see us race. It is sad to think that this will be one of the last times I will be directing, but I am glad it will be in front of a such great fans.”

Because it is a UCI 2.1 stage race, second in ranking to only the Tour de Georgia and Amgen Tour of California in North American cycling, the Tour of Missouri is required to draw a minimum of five international teams.

Saunier Duval-Prodir, the only other ProTour team in the event, returns to the U.S. with third- and fourth-place Tour de Georgia overall finishers David Canada and Rubens Bertogliati.

British continental pro team comes fresh off its success at China’s Tour of Qinghai Lake, where Cameron Jennings wore the king-of-the-mountains jersey.

Team Sparkasse from Germany brings Timo Honstein and Christian Lademann to Missouri. Honstein scored an impressive 11th place finish at this year’s German national championship, while Lademann was a world champion in the 1999 team pursuit and finished just off the podium as a member of Germany’s fourth-place team pursuit squad at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Mexican team Tecos de la Universidad Autonama de Guadalajara brings Gregorio Ladino, who wore the leader’s jersey for a day at the Tour de Beauce and went on to finish first in the mountains competition and fourth overall, while the team posted an impressive third place overall. John Freddy Parra, who recently won stage eight in the Tour of Columbia, will also be on the start line in Kansas City.

The final international team is the Canadian Symmetrics squad of UCI Americas Tour leader Svein Tuft and three-time Olympian Eric Wohlberg, who won eight consecutive Canadian national time-trial championships between 1996 and 2003.

Top domestic teams include Health Net-Maxxis, which recently clinched its fourth consecutive NRC team ranking as well as the top individual ranking via Australian Rory Sutherland; the Slipstream-Chipotle team of recent national time trial championship podium finishers Danny Pate and Timmy Duggan; the Toyota-United squad of sprint star Ivan Dominguez and perennial threat Chris Baldwin; and the Navigators Insurance squad of Phil Zajicek, Ben Day, Glen Chadwick and Sergei Lagutin. Navigators Insurance is closing out its 14 years of involvement in cycling in Missouri.

Rounding out the 15-team roster is the Jelly Belly squad of an on-form Andy Bajadali; the Kodak Gallery-Sierra Nevada squad of rising young rider Jesse Anthony; the BMC squad of veterans Scott Moninger, Mike Sayers and St. Louis native Dan Schmatz; the Colavita-Olive Oil squad of two-time San Francisco Grand Prix winner Charles Dionne; and the USA Cycling national development team, which brings recent national elite criterium champion Daniel Holloway.

“Professional cycling in the United States continues to grow, and it’s reflected in the strength of the American-based teams racing mostly in the Western Hemisphere,” said race director Jim Birrell of Georgia-based Medalist Sports, organizers of the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia and the USA Cycling Professional National Road Championships. “Most of these teams field a strong contingent of the best American riders, as well as top international guys. For a first year event, we feel very proud to host this elite world-class field.”

Because the time trial is expected to prove so pivotal for the general classification, TT specialists are considered the race’s primary overall contenders. Those riders include Discovery’s Leipheimer, Contador and Hincapie, Health Net’s eight-time national Australian time-trial champ Nathan O’Neill, Navigators’ Day and Zajicek, Symmetrics’ Tuft and Wohlberg, Slipstream’s Pate and Duggan and Baldwin, Toyota’s two-time national time-trial champion.

Like the Vuelta a España, the third and final UCI ProTour grand tour, the most decisive factor in Missouri may prove to be motivation. Many of the riders racing began their seasons at the Amgen Tour of California in February, seven months prior to the Tour of Missouri, and close out their seasons when stage 6 ends in St. Louis. For those riders still seeking employment for 2008, however, the Tour of Missouri is a final opportunity to shine on the sport’s biggest stage in America.

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The 2007 Tour of Missouri
Stage 1, Tuesday, September 11

Kansas City to Kansas City, road race (85 miles/137km)
Start: 1 p.m. Estimated finish: 4:30 p.m.

Stage 2, Wednesday, September 12
Clinton to Springfield, road race (125.6 miles/202km)
Start: 11 a.m. Estimated finish: 3:30 p.m.

Stage 3, Thursday, September 13
Branson, individual time trial (18 miles/29km)
Start: 11 a.m. Estimated finish: 1:55 p.m.

Stage 4, Friday, September 14
Lebanon to Columbia, road race (133 miles/214km)
Start: 10:30 a.m. Estimated finish: 3:25 p.m.

Stage 5, Saturday, September 15
Jefferson City to St. Charles, road race (126.6 miles/204km)
Start: 11:30 a.m. Estimated finish: 3:40 p.m.

Sunday, September 16
St. Louis, circuit race (74 miles/119km)
Start: 1 p.m. Estimated finish: 3:40 p.m.

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