The Tour of California starts with a 3.4km prologue time trial on Sunday afternoon, but the eve of the race was marred by a public spat between organisers and the Rock Racing team about who should be allowed to race.

The US race has again attracted a top quality field that includes Oscar Freire (Rabobank), world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and George Hincapie (High Road).

Britain?s David Millar leads the Slipstream team, while Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish will have key roles in Team High Road.

Astana may have been snubbed across Europe but here defending champion Levi Leipheimer and his Astana team have been given a hero’s welcome. The American is again the favourite to win the week long race and is favoured by Friday?s 24km time trial and the extra climbs included in the eight-day route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

His biggest rival could be fellow American David Zabriskie (Slipstream), while Jens Voigt (CSC) is again expected to challenge after finishing second in 2007. The powerful German crashed heavily in training recently but is backed by an impressive CSC squad.

David Millar said he was honoured to lead Slipstream in the biggest race in the USA and predicted Sunday?s prologue will be decided by a few hundredths of a second.

?The quality of the contenders is as good as the Tour de France. There?s people like Cancellara, Dave Zabriskie, Wiggins, me and others. It’s virtually the best in the world. I?m actually a bit nervous and that shows it?s important. It?s going to be very fast and very close,? Millar said on Saturday.

?I?m the only non-American in the team and so it?s an honour to be the leader. I think Slipstream and other teams like High Road are part of a new wave of teams in pro cycling and the States can be proud of that. This race is important for everybody and is chance to show what we can do. We?ve put it right up there as one of our big objectives of the season. It?s a big rendezvous for us.?

ROCK ?NOT? RACING

The 24 hours before the start of the race were marred by the public spat over the inclusion of Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero in the Rock Racing starting eight for the race.

They have all been implicated in Operacion Puerto in the past but have raced in other teams in 2007. However, here they have been clearly made ?persona non grata? by the race organisers and shown the door.

Mario Cipollini flew in on Friday night and rules were bent to get him on the official start list but the race organisers AEG are trying to take a firm stance against doping and scratched Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero from the final start list.

AEG?s Andrew Messick explained that all 17 teams in the race had accepted an extra rule of entry that made it clear that no riders implicated in Puerto would be allowed to start, and after consulting with the UCI, the three were removed from an initial entry list.

The UCI?s anti-doping chief Anne Gripper confirmed the extra rule to Cycling Weekly and said the UCI had confirmed to the race organisers that the three were implicated in Puerto. However it was the organisers decision and eventual legal responsibility to not let them start.

Controversial Rock Racing owner Michael Ball had held a press conference two hours before AEG’s announcement and insisted the ?Puerto three? would be in the team. Ball threatened to pull the whole team from the race if they did not ride and there may be further protests before the start of Sunday?s prologue.

Sadly, yet again the politics of the sport and the lack of clear rules for all, meant the dispute overshadowed the start of the race.

RELATED LINKS
Tour of California preview
Cipollini on road again in California

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