Get ready for a whole new Tour of Cali

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Three-time defending Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer hopes his fortunes won't shift in this year's race, where many other things have changed.

The most prestigious cycling event in North America will roll out Sunday in the gold-rush town of Nevada City, Calif., northeast of the state capital, and hopscotch south through many of the state's most iconic urban and rural landscapes before finishing May 23 in the hills above Los Angeles.

This fifth-anniversary edition of the event is being run in what will hopefully prove to be more hospitable weather than its previous iterations in February, but its dates directly conflict with the heart of the Giro d'Italia, the first of cycling's trio of three-week Grand Tours. The 2010 California course is longer and more difficult than past versions and features the first finish at significant altitude.

Given his druthers, the 36-year-old Leipheimer -- who has stood on three final podiums at Grand Tours -- would have made the route harder still. He predicted there could be as many as 20 riders within striking distance of the top three going into the time trial in Los Angeles on the second-to-last day of the race.

"Every day has a climb, but not a decisive one," he told ESPN.com last week. "No climb comes close enough to the finish, and there isn't a true uphill finish. You can't point to a stage where it's all going to happen. There's nowhere to assert yourself early. That might mean everyone [in overall contention] is going to stay together more, because everyone is fitter than they would be earlier in the season."

Don't take Leipheimer the wrong way. He's glad to be back for the race he has owned since 2007, and his RadioShack team -- unencumbered by any Giro obligations -- has surrounded him with reliable, well-drilled support. His right-hand rider, as was the case last year, will be seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has had a low-profile early season noticeably free of the public drama and contentiousness that marked his 2009 comeback.

Leipheimer has home-court advantage in Northern California as a resident of Santa Rosa -- the Stage 2 finish city -- and is intimately familiar with the roads in that region. That's not the case with the time trial, which Leipheimer previewed recently with the help of race officials who escorted him through the famously congested streets of downtown Los Angeles.

"Solvang was a really cool course," said Leipheimer, referring to the rolling terrain around the quaint hamlet near Santa Barbara where he dominated the race against the clock in previous years. "I'd rather be back there, but this is a challenge. Just have to figure out how I'm going to do it."

The most obvious reason for organizers to request new dates was to get out from under California's typical February climate. The race was blessed by unseasonably good weather in its first two years of existence, but torrential rain, cold temperatures and high winds have battered the peloton over the past two editions.

Ironically, the weather gods still found a way to intervene this year. Erosion caused by wildfires, strong winter storms and rock and mud slides punched out portions of the road organizers had earmarked for the Stage 6 climb to Big Bear Lake, and the state did not have the money to repair them in time. The queen stage start was relocated from Pasadena to Palmdale to allow an alternate approach that includes seven climbs and hits 8,000-feet altitude at its high point. Although it's no spin in the park, calling the stage's terminus at a ski resort an "uphill finish" is somewhat of a misnomer, as the road evens out for much of the final 10 miles.

There was also a commercial motive behind the calendar change. Rather than being an interesting early-season gadabout, the Tour of California is now a relevant tuneup for the Tour de France, which begins six weeks later. The parent company of the Tour de France, Amaury Sport Organisation, has intensified its end of the marketing partnership with race owner AEG Sports and now handles television production as well as distribution and rights agreements. Some of the same special camera equipment and crews that make the Tour de France so visually stunning for at-home viewers have been shipped across the Atlantic for the occasion.

Top Tour de France contenders now have an alternative to entering the Giro d'Italia in May, or training without a sufficiently challenging race to gauge their form for weeks on end. Some still prefer to log the mileage of a three-week Grand Tour, but it has become clear over the past decade that it's impractical, if not impossible, to peak for both races (the last Giro-Tour double winner was the late Marco Pantani of Italy in 1998).

Most Tour de France-bound team leaders competing in California will choose another weeklong race in June -- either the Dauphine Libere in the French Alps, which includes the iconic climb up Alpe d'Huez for the first time in its history this year, or the Tour of Switzerland -- to complete their preparation.

But the new conflict with the Giro (May 8-30) did pose some problems for the Pro Tour teams who wanted to field strong squads in both places for competitive reasons and to please their corporate partners. Some teams opted to field thinner lineups in each race; some clearly invested more human resources in one than another.

The U.S.-based BMC team -- which races at the second-tier Pro Continental level and was invited to its first Grand Tours this season -- sent Giro favorite Cadel Evans of Australia to Italy with a talented but inexperienced support crew and kept American stalwart George Hincapie at home to try to pick off stage wins.

Bjarne Riis' Denmark-based Saxo Bank team, which has always had a strong presence at this race, is seeking a new title sponsor for next season and views California as better exposure as well as better Tour de France prep for its big stars: Tour runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, three-time time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland and indefatigable lieutenant Jens Voigt of Germany.

Garmin-Transitions leader Christian Vande Velde, whose steady engine is best primed with heavy mileage, elected to go to Italy to continue building his Tour de France fitness base. The strategy backfired for the second year in a row when he crashed out of the Giro early in the first week, breaking his collarbone.

In an interview before the Giro, Vande Velde said his choice was never in doubt, although the Chicago-area native admitted he would miss racing at home. "It's kind of a treat you give yourself," said Vande Velde, who spends most of the year in Girona, Spain, with his wife and two daughters. "But our team [in Italy] wouldn't have been that different even if California wasn't at the same time. Maybe we would have had Dave Z."

In fact, David Zabriskie -- who has evolved from a pure time-trial specialist into a well-rounded stage race contender who won the Tour of Missouri last year -- is one of a handful of riders capable of challenging Leipheimer's dynastic run. He'll be joined by a nearly all-American ensemble cast, although Garmin made a last-minute decision to send South African veteran Robbie Hunter to mix things up with an extremely competitive sprint field.

In contrast to the split-squad approach taken by most of the Pro Tour outfits, the Continental-level teams -- five from the U.S., one from Canada and one from Australia -- that round out the California field are starting their A-list riders. This is unquestionably the most important race of the year for the North Americans.

Yet with the assembled international talent in sprinting and climbing, and a peloton that will be in better form in May than February, the smaller teams may have limited opportunities for podium finishes. Their best bets may be the midweek stages that could lend themselves to breakaways.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based HTC-Columbia, with the luxury of two top sprinters, sent Andre Greipel to Italy and rebooked Mark Cavendish for California, where he won two stages in 2009. Australian Michael Rogers will lead the team in California next week. HTC owner Bob Stapleton lamented that an injury to Konstantin Sivtsov of Belarus prevented him from fielding an overall contender in Italy, as well.

"Teams had to make tough decisions," Stapleton said, but added that he considers the trade-off presented by the new dates well worth it. "The race has come a heckuva long way in five years. For me, this cements the future of a major race in the United States. It's moved into a window of world attention. These athletes need big, dramatic events to perform in."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.