In the past couple of years California has quickly become the early-season preparation race of choice for the world’s biggest teams.

This year, Team CSC and High Road have travelled to the west coast of America for a training camp in the fortnight before the Tour of California gets underway (Sunday, February 17).

Quick Step, Rabobank and Astana have also sent powerful teams.

And there?s no doubt that the race has rapidly become one of the most prestigious of the early season, easily eclipsing the events that are going on in old Europe at the same time, such as the Ruta del Sol.

The fact Rabobank’s Oscar Freire is set to race in California rather than his native Spain is further endorsement.

And the excitement is really mounting this year. The big teams have sent strong line-ups, meaning there?s an array of stars ? Boonen, Bettini, Voigt, Cancellara (pictured), Leipheimer, Millar, Cavendish, Kirchen, Hincapie, Freire, Wegmann and Voeckler are all on the provisional startlist.

Then there?s the huge question mark over whether Mario Cipollini really will make an appearance for Rock Racing at the age of 40 and almost three years after retiring.

Controversy is never far away from Rock Racing and, according to our sources, Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla are all included in Michael Ball?s line-up for California.

Performing well in the Tour of California won’t mean a Classic or major tour later in the year will be any easier to come by.

But the Californian race has, in a very short space of time, come to be seen as an objective in itself, not just a warm-up. That, in itself, is a huge achievement.

THE STAGES

Sunday, February 17 Prologue: Palo Alto ? Stanford University, 3.4km
Cancellara storms prologue. Report & results
Video highlights: Prologue
Monday, February 18 Stage 1: Sausalito ? Santa Rosa, 156km
Tuesday, February 19 Stage 2: Santa Rosa ? Sacramento, 186km
Wednesday, February 20 Stage 3: Modesto ? San Jose, 165km
Thursday, February 21 Stage 4: Seaside ? San Luis Obispo, 218km
Friday, February 22 Stage 5: Solvang time trial, 24km
Saturday, February 23 Stage 6: Santa Barbara ? Santa Clarita, 169km
Sunday, February 24 Stage 7: Santa Clarita ? Pasadena, 150km

THE LOWDOWN

What makes the Tour of California so special then? This is only the third edition of the race but already it?s established as the early-season race for many of the big teams.

There are a lot of powerful squads with American interests and they want to show well. CSC is an American company, Team High Road?s boss Bob Stapleton lives in San Luis Obispo, Slipstream are American, Saunier Duval has an American co-sponsor, Scott. Then there?s Astana with its peculiar links with Albuquerque, and Quick Step and Rabobank have significant interest in making an impact on the US market.

The race itself is mature for its age too. A well thought-out route, with plenty of variety ? it?s modeled on the best aspects of an event like Paris-Nice. An even mix of time trials and chances for the sprinters, but with enough climbing to tempt the major stage racers into testing their legs.

The sponsor, Amgen, is a manufacturer of synthetic EPO isn?t it?
Er, yes. Epogen is an Amgen product. What of it?

Isn?t that a bit of a PR boo-boo?
You might think that, we couldn?t possibly comment. Only in the bizarre world of professional cycling could synergy exist between a drug company that manufacturers one of the most controversial and abused substances in sport and a bike race.

But it is absolutely not meant to be a glowing endorsement for such products as performance-enhancers.

Perhaps it?s more easily explained when you consider that the products Amgen make are huge in the treatment of cancer patients. And then when you consider that, thanks to Lance Armstrong, in the States cycling has become synonymous with the fight against terminal illness, particularly cancer.

What?s the route like?
It starts with a short, flat prologue that will probably suit Fabian Cancellara more than the likes of David Zabriskie and David Millar. Then it?s likely to be over to the sprinters ? Boonen, Mark Cavendish, Gerald Ciolek, Oscar Freire, Mario Cipollini (?) ? for a couple of days.

Is Cipollini riding then?
Last we heard no, but that could be a maybe or a yes by now. With Rock Racing and Cipo, who knows? We understand there?s some outstanding paperwork that needs to be completed before he can ride. We?ll probably be kept waiting until the prologue.

Rock Racing, they?re a crazy bunch aren?t they?
You could say that. Although I think you?ll find it?s pronounced ?kerrr-ay-zee? and it helps if you stick both thumbs up as you say it.

According to our sources Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla are in the Rock Racing team for California. Good old Tyler, Santi and Oscar. Great to see them back isn?t it.

Yes, great. Back to the racing then.. are there any hills?
Stage three to San Jose is the most difficult, with some testing climbs, including Mount Hamilton. The following day is a 24-kilometre time trial which could prove decisive ? particularly if the wind?s blowing and the helicopter?s in the right place.

What?s that?
Oh, nothing. Forget we mentioned it.

So who?s going to win overall?
Leipheimer will be really motivated. New team, same boss, equally keen to win in his own backyard again. Astana will take some beating with Janez Brajkovic and Vladimir Gusev also in the team.

CSC have Jens Voigt, High Road have George Hincapie and Kim Kirchen, Slipstream will look to Christian Vande Velde overall.

Oddly, though, it is the battle for stage wins that is really exciting. Just look at the names?

For the prologue and time trials it?s Levi, Fabian, Thomas Lovkvist, Millar, Zabriskie?

In the sprints, Boonen, Bettini, Cavendish, Ciolek, Freire, Haussler ? it?s almost as strong a field as a grand tour can offer.

Any Brits riding?
Double national champion Millar leads Slipstream and Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins line up for High Road.

What?s good and bad about the race?
Good ? Great field, great weather (hopefully), good roads and a testing route that is tough enough to determine a worthy winner but without cracking any legs.

Bad ? The Americans take it soooo seriously, as if it really is the second biggest race in the world.

PAST WINNERS

2007 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Discovery Channel
2006 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak

RELATED LINK
Tour of California 2008 official site