Ready to Ride Tour of California starts today in Sacramento

Perhaps the best testament to the Amgen Tour of California's growth from startup race to marquee event is the quality of its field.

Consider the caliber of riders hitting the streets of Sacramento for today's prologue: 11 world champions, two Tour de France winners, eight Olympic medalists and 25 national champions.

Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion, gives the fourth annual race a bigger buzz.

But his supporting cast includes some of the world's top cyclists.

There's Floyd Landis, the

2006 Amgen winner, three-time world champion Oscar Freire, superb time trialist Fabian Cancellara, two-time defending Amgen champion Levi Leipheimer,

2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre and sprint giant Mark Cavendish, among many others in a talented field of

136 riders from 24 countries.

"The best field of professional riders ever assembled in the United States," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which puts on the tour.

Others tip their hat to the

1986 world championships held in Colorado Springs, Colo., with longtime cycling commentator

Phil Liggett calling the Tour of California "the best field that's ever raced in the United States outside of a world championship."

Said U.S. Pro champion Tyler Hamilton: "There's an amazing amount of talent that's going to be within the peloton." But spectators won't see head-to-head racing in the prologue. Instead, they'll see riders starting in one-minute intervals at Ninth Street and Capitol Mall, trying to cover the 2.4-mile circuit that ends at 11th and L streets as quickly as possible.

From the start, the course heads west on Capitol Mall, makes a U-turn and heads east before turning right on

Ninth Street, left on N Street, left on 19th Street and left on L Street

to the finish.

Each rider will be done in about five minutes, with the prologue ending around 4 p.m. The top riders will start toward the end, with Leipheimer the final cyclist on the course.

"There's not much strategy to a prologue," said George Hincapie, a two-time U.S. national road race champion. "You always need to study the corners pretty intensely. The corners are a big deal.

"As far as the effort, it's full gear all the way." So full speed ahead. Unless it rains, of course. The AccuWeather forecast calls for cool, cloudy conditions today, with some rain tonight.

Christian Vande Velde, who finished third in the 2008 Tour of California,

said wet conditions wouldn't change his approach more than a bit.

"I won't back down, too much,"

he said.

Race organizers hope for a crowd of 75,000 to 100,000. The tour visited Sacramento last year for its second stage, drawing an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people.

The race has grown from an eight-day, 600-mile event to a nine-day, 750-mile competition. The first stage, from Davis to Santa Rosa, begins at noon Sunday.

Race officials hope the ensuing stages -- Sausalito-Santa Cruz, San Jose-Modesto, Merced-Clovis, Visalia-Paso Robles, Solvang, Santa Clarita-Pasadena and Rancho Bernardo-Escondido -- help this year's race draw more than the estimated

1.6 million[ ] who watched the

2008 Tour of California.

Several top riders said they expect the tour to continue growing and improving.

"It's very near and dear to my heart," said Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa. "At the end of 2005, when they first announced the Tour of California, I recognized right away what it was going to become, that it was going to be one of the best races in the world in a short time." The tour's future looks even brighter.

"It's a very young race," Cavendish said. "Look at the monuments of cycling, the grand tours. They're decades, a century old. This thing is massive. Already it's one of the top races on the calendar. It's only going to get better."

START TIME: 11 a.m.

START LOCATION: City Hall at the intersection of N Street and 18th Street in Merced

FINISH LOCATION: Intersection of Bullard Avenue and Pollasky Avenue in Clovis.