Amgen schedule forces riders to make tough decision

California or Italy?

Thanks to the Amgen Tour of California's move from February to May, that's the choice the world's top pro cyclists and teams faced this year for the first time.

The Tour of California offers eight days and 810.4 miles of racing, providing a test but not draining anyone training for the Tour de France in July.

Those riding in the Giro savor competing in one of cycling's three grand tours. They also face three weeks and 2,123.8 miles of racing, the last week's stages demanding enough to make it difficult to peak again at the Tour de France.

So individual desires and the needs of the team come into play. Team directors ask their leading riders what races they want to focus on, then move other riders around to support them.

Take BMC Racing Team, one of several squads sending teams to both events. Top rider Cadel Evans is in the Giro. George Hincapie, another team leader, is entered in the Tour of California.

"Cadel, his goal is to win the Giro d' Italia, so there's no reason to take him to the Tour of California," said BMC assistant team director Michael Sayers, who lives in Sacramento.

"We have a young guy, Brent Bookwalter, his future is in grand tour stage races. He's never done one before. He needs to start. It's his time.

"Then you need to weigh, do you want to put him in the Giro d' Italia? The Giro d'Italia tends to be a little easier on a first-time grand tour rider. There's not as much at stake for non-Italian teams."

Evans, from Australia, faces competition from 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre of Spain, 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso of Italy and Britain's Bradley Wiggins in the Giro, which began Saturday in Amsterdam and finishes May 30 in Verona, Italy.

Hincapie, a three-time U.S. road champion, faces the top riders such as three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and Olympic gold medalist Fabian Cancellara.

Anyone pointing toward the Tour de France faces a daunting double if they opt to ride in the Giro d' Italia.

"Younger riders will often suffer a grand tour to do the Tour (de France) back to back," said Kiel Reijnen, who rides for Jelly Belly Presented by Kenda. "It takes an immense toll.

"This is shorter. The Tour of California makes sense in that manner."

Chris Jones, a Team Type 1 rider who lives in Auburn, also sees the California race as better preparation for the Tour de France.

"The Giro is three weeks; it takes a lot out of you," Jones said. "The Tour of California, it's seven or eight days. It's really good preparation. It's not going to totally exhaust you like the Giro would."

Sayers said the Giro fits his team well but makes it tough to bounce back in France.

"There are truly not that many riders that can peak for both the Giro and the Tour (de France)," he said. "It takes a really special rider to do both races. Guys have tried it every single way.

"Cadel, over his history, he's shown he tends to ride best at the Tour when he does the Giro. But that is a really rare case."

Leipheimer said last year that there's plenty of talent to fill both fields. He tends to ride in a series of shorter stage races such as the Tour of California to prepare for the Tour de France.

"That's what works best for him, and he knows that," Sayers said.

Sponsorships also factor in. If a California company backs a team financially, it wants that team riding in the Tour of California.

"That plays a big part," Jones said. "They sponsored a team, they have specific events they want to do well in."

Going head-to-head with the Giro was something at which Tour of California officials took a long look before opting to switch this year's race from February's chill and rain to May's warmth and promise.

"Our big insight was our American cycling fans. The race they care about the most is the Tour de France," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California.

"There's a lot of exceptional athletes for whom a really hard three-week stage race in Italy in May is not what they're looking for in terms of preparation."

Jelly Belly rider Mike Friedman said in an e-mail the time change and travel can affect the choice.

"Both races have their positive and negative components," Friedman said. "It can come down to individual preferred preparation. Most of the pro teams are large enough and have the means to run two programs simultaneously. It's just a matter of who to send where."