Danielson among favorites in Tour of California

05/12/2012 12:00 AM

05/13/2012 1:33 PM

SANTA ROSA – After riding and crashing and periodically winning bike races around the globe for a decade, Tom Danielson had had enough. He realized he'd likely do better if he could see where he was pedaling.

So about 11/2 years ago, Danielson had the lenses in his eyes replaced.

"I kept putting it off year after year, and while not really knowing how important it was," said Danielson, the Colorado rider who will be among the overall favorites in the Amgen Tour of California that begins Sunday. "Looking back on it, it's definitely a life-changing experience. It's enabled me to see really well in every condition. That's something I never really had before."

After featuring Sacramento as a starting or finishing stage city for five consecutive years, the Tour is bypassing the capital this year. The Lake Tahoe region, Nevada City, Auburn and Davis, all included in some previous races, also are being skipped.

Danielson, 34, the leader of the Garmin-Barracuda team, finished third last year, 2 minutes, 45 seconds behind winner Chris Horner. Danielson finished fourth and fifth in the Tour's two mountain stages.

Danielson's runner-up showing came just four months after his eye surgery, two 30-minute procedures. He was back training one day after his late-December 2010 operations.

"It's really a step above Lasik," Danielson said. "I can see 20/10 in any condition at any time of the day. It may sound silly, but in the Tour de France, when we've had 15 straight days of rain, I'm going to get out of the team bus and see crystal clear without any fatigue.

"Before, I had to pack extra contacts, and every time I took off my sunglasses, I'd say, 'Oh, boy, here comes the pain.' My eyesight was really bad, negative-5 in both eyes. My eyes were also red and irritated. If I couldn't wear my contacts, I couldn't race."

Danielson's performance in the Tour of California last year, his best stage-race finish since 2009, solidified what was already expected – his first participation in the Tour de France last July.

While his team won the team time trial and the overall team title at the Tour de France, Danielson steadily improved his individual performance. He had three top-10 stage finishes in the last week and placed eighth overall, highest among seven American finishers.

"It's definitely my biggest accomplishment, and it's definitely changed my career," said Danielson, whose early career victories include the Tour of Langkawi (Malaysia) in 2003 and Tour of Georgia in 2005. "It put my career in the right place, and it's given me a lot of confidence and a lot of motivation.

"When you taste what that feels like at that level, it really changes things for you. It's really changed my outlook. I'd like to build upon that result, which would then become my career-best result."

The Tour of California's seventh edition, covering more than 750 miles in eight days, begins with a 115.9-mile road race beginning and ending in Santa Rosa.

Monday's second stage is 117.1 miles from San Francisco to Aptos. Stages 3, 6 and 7 will include strenuous climbs as the race visits Mount Diablo, Big Bear Lake and Mount Baldy. The race wraps up in Los Angeles on May 20.

Horner, 40, of Bend, Ore., defeated Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa by 38 seconds last year. The former RadioShack teammates were the strongest climbers in the race and could be again.

Horner has overcome a multiple-injury crash, causing a concussion and subsequent blood clot, in last year's Tour de France and finished second overall in March in the Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico. But he hasn't been riding in peak form because of illness in more recent key European races.

"Overall, things look pretty good," Horner said. "I left Liege (Belgium) with a little bit of a cold, but after a round of antibiotics, things are looking pretty good for California.

"It is less ideal for me than last year, but it will be harder for most of the field because of the additional climbing in the early stages. But, just like last year, a lot will ride on the Mount Baldy stage."

Leipheimer, who now rides for Belgium-based Omega Pharma-Quick Step, had the best season of his career in 2011 with victories in the Tour of Utah, the Tour of Switzerland and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He also began this season with the overall title in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina in January.

But on April 1, while on a solo training ride in Spain, Leipheimer was hit from behind by a car and suffered several injuries, including a broken leg. Leipheimer's recovery has been slower than expected. The three-time Tour of California winner said Friday he would race but doesn't expect to contend for the overall title.

The 16-team field of 128 riders will feature seven of last year's top-10 overall finishers. Notably absent will be Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Barracuda). The Colorado rider was fourth overall last year and third in 2008, but he's competing in the Giro d'Italia, which overlaps the Tour of California.

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