The 2009 Tour of California's deep field features several riders in various stages of renewing or restarting their careers.
Lance Armstrong (USA), Astana
Where he's coming from: Unless you've been living in a sealed bunker, you know that Armstrong, 37, spent the three years following his mid-2005 retirement in ardent pursuit of various forms of happiness, including ratcheting up his profile as an anticancer crusader, running marathons and dating red-carpet celebrities. That all changed in late July, when Armstrong rediscovered the joys of strenuous discipline while training for a mountain bike race in Colorado and decided to return to racing and use it as a vehicle for his cause. Based in Austin, Texas, along with his eponymous foundation and his upscale bike shop called Mellow Johnny's, Armstrong, who has three children with his ex-wife Kristin, is expecting a baby with girlfriend Anna Hansen in June.
What's at stake: Is the seven-time Tour de France winner still capable of nuking the competition in Europe this summer? The terrain and competition in this race may give us the first real clue as to whether there's meat to the mystique. The Tour of California will mark Armstrong's first major stage race in the United States since his pre-cancer years in the early and mid-1990s, and it's likely to be his only road racing appearance in his home country in 2009. In his curtain-raising race in Australia last month, Armstrong pledged to work for two-time defending champion and teammate Levi Leipheimer, but it's still hard to picture a nouveau Lance willing to sublimate his considerable drive in the service of another rider, especially in such a high-profile event with so many other top names. If Armstrong is in form, we wonder what might happen if he and Leipheimer head into what is usually the decisive time trial on the second-to-last day of the race within striking distance of each other.
Floyd Landis (USA), OUCH
Where he's coming from: Three days after Landis cruised down the Champs-Elysees as the third American winner of the Tour de France, in July 2006, his victory and his world began to crumble with the revelation of a positive doping test for synthetic testosterone. This former Armstrong support rider, raised in a Mennonite family in southeastern Pennsylvania, denied using performance-enhancing drugs. He fought the charges vigorously through two rounds of arbitration, challenging both the science and the politics of the adjudication system, but was stripped of his Tour title midway through the process in September 2007. He made a last-ditch challenge in federal court late last year before settling with anti-doping authorities. Landis spent an estimated $2 million on his unsuccessful defense, and he endured personal turmoil as well when his father-in-law committed suicide and his marriage foundered.
What's at stake: Legal machinations pushed the end date of Landis' suspension to Jan. 30 and extended his layoff six months beyond the mandatory two years. Jumping from that cold frying pan into the fire of the toughest race on the domestic circuit may seem challenging, but Landis says his body has traditionally responded well to long periods of intense, uninterrupted training. Landis, 33, could be the X factor in this field if he resembles his former self and if his team, a mix of young and experienced riders sponsored by a medical practice that includes his longtime personal physician, can provide assistance. In a footnote easily overlooked given the rest of Landis' backstory, he will be the first cyclist to try to compete at this level with a total hip replacement, performed in fall 2006.
Tyler Hamilton (USA), Rock Racing
Where he's coming from: A leading rider of his generation and another former Armstrong lieutenant, Hamilton's world began to unravel after his time trial gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Anti-doping authorities suspected a banned transfusion, but improper handling of his backup blood sample precluded prosecution. A positive test at the Tour of Spain the following month stuck. Hamilton vehemently denied the allegations, but failed to persuade arbitrators to overturn the results.
In 2006, documents linking him to the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation in Spain surfaced. Hamilton also denied any involvement in that scandal, but it continued to haunt him after his return to competition in 2007, first in the form of a suspension and contract dispute with a Russian team, then again last year when he and two Rock Racing teammates were barred from racing in the Tour of California because of alleged connections to the reopened Puerto file. Hamilton then shocked those who thought his career was over by sprinting to a photo finish victory in the one-day U.S. road championship race in August.
What's at stake: Hamilton's team and the Tour of California brain trust made peace this year, enabling him to wear the national champ's Stars and Stripes jersey embellished with Rock's distinctive motorcycle-gang logo. Known as an opportunist in his prime, it'll be interesting to see how Hamilton, who will turn 38 next month, responds to the most demanding race he has competed in since his comeback.
Ivan Basso (Italy), Liquigas
Where he's coming from: A Tour of Italy winner who was second to Armstrong in the 2005 Tour de France, Basso was the Texan's most obvious successor before the Operacion Puerto scandal exploded in May 2006. Basso denied any involvement, but under intense pressure from Tour de France organizers two months later, he was suspended by his then-team, CSC, on the eve of the race and ultimately released by the Danish squad.
Many Pro Tour teams swore off hiring riders implicated in Puerto, but Discovery Channel opted to sign him late that season and paid for the decision when mounting evidence prompted Basso to confess to Italian authorities the following spring. His admission was a partial one -- Basso claimed he had stored blood at the Madrid clinic raided by police but never went through with transfusions. He was slapped with a two-year suspension in June 2007 for "the intent to dope," but was granted credit for time served with CSC and began racing again late in 2008.
What's at stake: Basso just turned 31, and his relative youth and undisputed talent could enable him to reconstruct his promising career. He's clearly trying to rehabilitate his image along with his legs by blogging for a major English-language cycling Web site. Although Basso's primary goals lie ahead in the Grand Tours, we expect him to rise to the high level of this competition and not hide in the middle of the pack.
Other key riders
Levi Leipheimer (USA), Astana: Two-time defending champion and Santa Rosa resident wants to make it three, but will Astana's mighty engine work for him?
Carlos Sastre (Spain), Cervelo: Reigning Tour de France champion makes a rare appearance in the U.S. with his new team, which includes veteran sprinter and multiple Tour de France stage winner Thor Hushovd of Norway and young Canadian star Dominique Rollin.
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Saxo Bank: The 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist will lead the team formerly known as CSC. At the squad's core are Luxembourg's Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy, who came under scrutiny last year when Frank admitted to having sent money to the Spanish doctor at the heart of the Operacion Puerto case. Their father's car was searched by customs officials during the Tour de France. Neither incident resulted in charges.
Mark Cavendish (Great Britain), George Hincapie (USA) and Michael Rogers (Australia), Team Columbia: This California-based team's triple threat includes quadruple Tour de France sprint stage winner Cavendish and two veterans who could challenge for the overall. Rogers began riding in close to top form again late last year after two seasons interrupted by injury and illness. Hincapie, of course, was once Armstrong's inseparable sidekick on the road but has since forged his own identity and won a stage here last year.
Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Slipstream: The Chicago-area native, who began his 11-year pro career as one of Armstrong's support riders, will now go up against him as a team leader. Garmin's roster boasts an extraordinary lineup of time trialists, including 2005 Tour de France prologue winner David Zabriskie (USA) and world silver medalist Svein Tuft (Canada). Many will be watching to see if another former Postal rider, climbing specialist Tom Danielson, will be in form.
Tom Boonen (Belgium), Quick Step: The stellar sprinter is still trying to rehabilitate his image after an embarrassing and career-stalling positive test for cocaine -- allegedly because of recreational use -- last year.
Robert Gesink (Netherlands), Rabobank: Oscar Freire (Spain) is the ostensible leader of this Dutch team, but the up-and-coming Gesink -- California's Best Young Rider last year -- showed guts in the mountains and is a dark horse for the overall who will be marked from the start.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.