The return to competitive cycling by Americans Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis has helped generate more interest than ever in this month's Tour of California.
|Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong going head to head back in 2005 [GALLO/GETTY]
Seven-times Tour de France winner Armstrong competed for the first time in three-and-a-half years at last month's Tour Down Under in Australia while Landis has just completed a two-year doping ban.
Both men will command huge media interest, Armstrong as one of the sport's greatest riders and Landis as the 2006 champion in California who went on to win that year's Tour de France before being stripped of his title after failing a dope test.
Several other big names will be contesting the 750-mile, nine-day race, including twice defending champion Levi Leipheimer, 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre and last year's Olympic time trial gold medallist Fabian Cancellara.
"Every year the field has got better and I think you can attribute that to the importance of this race," Michael Roth said on behalf of race organisers.
"It has picked up every year since the inaugural edition in 2006 and the race's reputation keeps building with the leading riders around the world."
Roth said Armstrong's presence would give the race a higher profile.
"Few athletes in any sport have ever dominated like Lance Armstrong has done in cycling and his participation will raise the awareness dramatically.
"I also believe the financial environment will sort of play into our hands," added Roth, referring to the global economic crisis.
"This is a free race of world-class standing and last year we set a record by drawing 1.6 million fans.
"It would certainly not surprise anybody if we attract two million or more this year, given the (ninth) extra day to the race and what Lance and the entire field bring to the casual sports fan."
|Astana riders Levi Leipheimer and Armstrong at training in Santa Rosa, California this month. [GALLO/GETTY]
Armstrong, who quit professional cycling after the 2005 Tour de France but announced late last year he was making a comeback at age 37, is eagerly awaiting the February 14-22 race.
"The level of competition, the challenge of the course and the highly professional atmosphere make it the ideal situation for me to continue my training," he said in a statement.
"I look forward to racing once again in the United States in what we consider the best race outside of Europe."
Landis, whose two-year ban ended on January 30, agreed.
"This is a good opportunity for me as I haven't raced in the US since back in 1999," he said.
"I do enjoy competing here and this is a high quality race.
"It feels good to be back in shape and have something to focus on again.
"I've certainly missed all of this in the last few years and I almost feel a little bit nervous because it's been so long since I raced."
Modelled on the Tour de France, the Tour of California has been won for the last two years by American Levi Leipheimer, who will be joined on the Astana team by Armstrong.
"Winning the Amgen Tour of California has been a goal of mine from the beginning, no matter which races I compete in," Leipheimer said.
"This has always been a top priority for me."
The Tour of California, which is also expected to feature 2006 Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso and 2005 world road race champion Tom Boonen of Belgium, starts in Sacramento and finishes in Escondido.