Paolo Bettini is just one of the big names that has abandoned the traditional European early season racing to travel across the Atlantic to ride the Tour of California between February 18-25.

The current world champion is riding the week-long race to please new bike sponsor Specialized but the likes of Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) have also chosen the warmth of California to get in 650 miles of early racing between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

American riders George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer will lead the Discovery Channel team as they begin to search for a new sponsor, while Bobby Julich and Dave Zabriskie will lead CSC with Voigt and Cancellara. California resident Leipheimer is favourite for overall victory with Voigt quietly tipped as CSC?s strongest rider.

Russell Downing and late entry Charly Wegelius will be flying the flag for Britain. Downing is one of the team leaders for his new US Healthnet team and is expected to fight out for stage wins, while Wegelius is part of the Liquigas team as he gets in some early racing. Mark Scanlon will also make his big-race debut with his new US team Toyota-United.

After his troubled 2006 season and implication in Operacion Puerto, Ivan Basso will race for the first time since winning the Giro d?Italia, starting the Tour of California in Discovery Channel colours after jumping ship from CSC. Basso has made it clear he will ride for Leipheimer in California as he tries to win over his new team mate and convince the US public he does not have any Puerto skeletons in the cupboard.

Unfortunately the US race has its own skeletons because last year?s winner Floyd Landis will not be able to defend his title following his Tour de France positive for testosterone. To help stop similar positives, race sponsor Amgen, the makers of EPO, have announced they will test every urine sample for their banned drug.

SEVEN STAGES

The seven-stage race starts on Sunday on the streets of San Francisco with a short individual prologue time trial up to the Coit Tower that overlooks the Alcatraz prison and the San Francisco bay area. The key stages are expected to be the hilly second day through Silicon Valley to San Jose and the 23.4km stage five time trial in Solvang next Friday. The race ends on Sunday with a criterium along the shores of Long Beach, near Los Angeles.

The sprint stages are expected to be aggressive and fast with Graeme Brown (Rabobank) back in action after taking out Tom Steels at the Tour of Qatar. He will face 2006 double stage winner JJ Haedo, who rides for CSC this year, Thor Hushovd and young German talent Gerald Ciolek of T-Mobile.

There will be full coverage and exclusive reports from California everyday on www.cyclingweekly.co.uk.

Tour of California stages:

February 18 – Prologue: San Francisco – Individual time trial 3.0km
February 19 – Stage 1: Sausalito – Santa Rosa 156.3 km
February 20 – Stage 2: Santa Rosa ? Sacramento 187.2 km
February 21 – Stage 3: Stockton – San José 152.2 km
February 22 – Stage 4: Seaside – San Luis Obispo 215.2 km
February 23 – Stage 5: Solvang TT 23.5 km
February 24 – Stage 6: Santa Barbara – Santa Clarita 169.6 km
February 25 – Stage 7: Long Beach 124.7 km
Total: 840.6 km

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