Tour of California can't get a break

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. -- Snow, the welcome lifeblood of this jewel-like mountain resort during ski season, threatens to disrupt the Sunday start of the Tour of California. If temperatures drop below freezing overnight Saturday and stay there, several inches could accumulate on the hilly loop around the lake where many of the best cyclists in the world are set to test themselves. Organizers are scrambling to put together contingency plans with fingers crossed that this will all literally blow over.

"We specially designed this weather forecast to remind people why we moved the race from February to May," joked Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the race.

But within that quip is a kernel of exasperation: Doesn't this race deserve a break?

After a couple of years of unseasonably balmy winter conditions, ferocious rains lashed the peloton in 2008 and 2009. That, plus a desire to put the event in a spot on the calendar where it would mean more, prompted the shift to springtime. But events conspired to make last year just as challenging. Forest fires and mudslides took out part of the course for the queen stage to Big Bear, forcing a re-routing. Then, Floyd Landis went public with his confession and allegations of systematic doping by Lance Armstrong and other prominent riders four days into the race. The ensuing media conflagration overshadowed the remaining action on the road.

Armstrong initially had the Tour of California penciled in on his 2011 itinerary. In February, he elected to retire as the federal investigation triggered by Landis' account drilled deeper into the past. Years ago, his absence might have had a ripple effect on a big domestic race, but those days are gone.

The eight-day event can stand on its own two wheels now, even in direct conflict with the venerated Giro d'Italia. California's positioning on the calendar -- while not a guarantee of sunny skies -- has made it an appealing alternative Tour de France leadup for contenders like Team Leopard-Trek's Andy Schleck.

The Giro "is getting harder and more stressful every year," the two-time Tour runner-up said Friday, a comment made more poignant by the fatal crash of his teammate Wouter Weylandt in the Giro this past Monday.

To truly play in the big leagues, Tour of California organizers needed to ratchet up the difficulty of their course. This sixth edition starts at sapping altitude and is indisputably the hardest ever. The two uphill finishes -- Sierra Road in Stage 4 and Mt. Baldy in Stage 7 -- are grueling enough that they provide a good gauge of form for riders of Schleck's caliber. The uphill finishes are also easily accessible to San Jose and Los Angeles, respectively, so the crowds promise to be big and raucous. There are sprint finishes, breakaway win opportunities and the pleasant ritual of the Solvang time trial. But climbs are the signature events of stage races, and California has now arrived in that sense.

Schleck said he wasn't going to "sit back in the peloton and relax," but would take the race as it comes rather than set a specific goal. There are several other familiar names shooting unabashedly for the podium, including three-time champion Levi Leipheimer of Radio Shack and Garmin-Cervelo's Dave Zabriskie.

Leipheimer also touted the chances of his ageless teammate Chris Horner, who at 39 retains a boyish brashness. Horner was willing to concede that 22-year-old Tejay Van Garderen was a dark horse for the top three, but labeled himself, Leipheimer and Zabriskie as "five-star favorites."

"Is the future gonna start Sunday? I don't think so," Horner said.

The preternaturally composed Van Garderen, who will lead HTC-Highroad, appeared perfectly comfortable with a new set of expectations.

"The goal could be to do well or win, so I'm going to try to win," he said. "If I fail, I fail. I know it's going to be hard, but it's what I'm going to try to do."

He is part of a wave of talented, well-spoken young American riders poised to bridge the gap to the generation born in the early 70s. Garmin's Andrew Talansky is fresh off a Best Young Rider designation in the Tour of Romandie, and Radio Shack's Ben King will wear the Stars and Stripes jersey of the road national champion this week. Both are 22. Taylor Phinney, still a month away from legal drinking age, had a slow start in his first full season as a pro but is clearly itching for a good showing in Solvang two weeks before defending his national time trial championship.

"I don't like to say that we enjoy beating up on the older guys, but we have a few private smiles afterwards if we do better than the guys who have been dominating the sport for a while," Phinney said.

There are other micro-climates beyond the control of race organizers. As so often seems to occur before big races, two doping-related stories surfaced. Neither threatens to subsume the race like the Landis revelations did last year, but they are not helpful to teams pitching new sponsors at the time of year when those deals are traditionally closed.

AEG, supported by race title sponsor Amgen pushed to have the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency take over in-race and pre-competition testing, but the UCI backed out of an agreement with USADA at the nth hour. The UCI has consistently resisted relinquishing control -- its feuds with French anti-doping officials are well-documented -- but it's hard not to wonder whether the backdrop of the U.S. federal investigation is influencing attitudes in this instance.

USADA connected Landis with the feds. Landis' accusations about favoritism and corruption in the UCI, which have infuriated its past and former president to the point of taking legal action, are surely part of the greater narrative investigators are looking into.

Friday's more sensational story concerned the UCI's pre-Tour de France "index of suspicion" leaked to the French sports daily L'Equipe. Riders were tagged with numbers on a scale of 0 to 10 for target testing based on blood values in the weeks leading up to the Tour. Leipheimer and Schleck both declined to comment on the story Friday, saying it was a matter for the riders' union.

At the moment, real-life snow is more of a concern to the Tour of California entourage than any bureaucratic black ice. Everyone's sensitivity to safety is on DefCon 5 following Weylandt's death; organizers have even more reason than usual to be prudent and consider shortening Stage 1. Signalling another change in atmospheric conditions, the most ubiquitous wristband in this race will be a black one with a tag bearing Weylandt's name and the name of the rider wearing it.

"It was hard for me to stay focused on training in these last days, but I'm sure he would have wanted me to stay in the race and do my best," Schleck said. "The team is here and we ride for Wouter."

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