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CYCLING

Lance Armstrong is big draw for Tour of California

Armstrong isn't expected to be the best, but he headlines the Amgen Tour of California, which includes two-time champion Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, George Hincapie and Fabian Cancellara.

February 14, 2009|Diane Pucin

SACRAMENTO — "Lance Armstrong Rides Again."

That's the banner on the website for the Amgen Tour of California, which begins today with a 2.4-mile prologue around the state capitol building and ends Feb. 22 with a climb over Mount Palomar and a ride into Escondido.

For the first time, the Tour of California is being broadcast internationally. Last year, 651 media credentials were issued. So far this year it is 1,000, with more requests daily.

Veteran cycling broadcasters Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen both said this is the strongest cycling field assembled in the United States outside the 1986 World Championships in Boulder, Colo.

And if someone wants to argue that 400 journalists who packed a hotel ball room Thursday really wanted to speak to Amgen representative Phyllis Piano or race director Jim Birrell or even two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer it would be a losing argument.

"We understand why all the attention is here," said Bob Stapleton, a Riverside native and part-owner of the Columbia-Highroad team that is based in San Luis Obispo. "It's come with Lance. We're just hoping our team and the sport can get a niche this year, make a small impression off in the corner and keep the momentum going."

Armstrong, the record-setting cyclist who won seven consecutive Tour de France races before retiring in 2005, is making a comeback he says is based both on wanting to win and to bring more money and awareness to the cause of curing cancer. Armstrong is a cancer survivor whose Lance Armstrong Foundation and its Livestrong slogan began the tradition of using rubber bracelets -- yellow for Armstrong, in honor of the color jersey worn by Tour de France leaders -- in fund-raising.

Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson made sure he attended Thursday's news conference of 14 riders, team directors and race officials, then offered to exchange one of his "Kevin Johnson for Mayor" bracelets with Armstrong's.

Armstrong didn't grab for Johnson's bracelet.

Johnson sounded almost awe-struck as he said that Sacramento, as host to the opening stage, had sold an average of 2,500 hotel rooms for five nights.

"We're generating $8.5 million," Johnson said. "Last year that was $3.6 million."

Then Johnson looked around the crowded room, squinted into the flash of dozens of cameras and said, "I played in the NBA Finals in 1993 and I've never seen more reporters in a room than today. Thanks, Lance."

Along with Armstrong participating in his first competitive road race in the U.S. since 2005, the Tour of California will offer an extra day of racing this year -- eight stages and the prologue -- and travel 750 miles down the state. It will reach its highest point when the riders climb over 5,000 feet up to Mount Palomar on Feb. 22.

And scheduled to be in the field today are two former Tour de France champions -- Armstrong and 2008 winner Carlos Sastre of Spain -- 10 world champions, eight Olympic medalists and 25 past or current national champions.

Armstrong says he doesn't expect to win the race and that his team, Astana, will be riding in support of two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer. Armstrong also listed 2006 Tour of California winner Floyd Landis, his former teammate George Hincapie from Columbia Highroad, and defending Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank as overall threats.

But many of the other riders here understand the focus from both fans and media is on Armstrong.

Tyler Hamilton, who is riding for Rock Racing and who has won an Olympic gold medal and a Tour de France stage before serving a two-year doping suspension that ended in 2007, said everyone is aware of Armstrong's appeal.

"He's raced once, at the Tour Down Under, and already you can see the excitement," Hamilton said. "We all know the economy is going through a little bit of a rough patch. A lot of sponsors scratch their heads, wonder about supporting cycling because of the recession, and to have Lance Armstrong back, we're fortunate to have him.

"Nothing about him surprises me. He's an amazing talent, an amazing personality, an amazing presence."

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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