Leipheimer defends title at Tour of California

Defending champ & team bounce back from Tour ban

American Levi Leipheimer launches his defence of the Tour of California title on Sunday as he and his Astana teammates try to rebound from the shock of their ban from the 2008 Tour de France.

Astana, including reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, were Wednesday barred from competing in this year's race as a result of doping scandals over the past two years.

Leipheimer, who said Thursday he was "shocked" by the ban, vowed that he and his teammtes will "continue to fight," with the eight-day California race offering a chance to show the mettle of the outfit handled by Johan Bruyneel.

The race starts with Sunday's prologue, an individual time trial in Palo Alto, California, just south of San Francisco. It will conclude February 24 in Pasadena, just northeast of Los Angeles.

This year, the Quick Step team will include world road racing champion Paolo Bettini of Italy and Belgian Tom Boonen.

CSC's lineup includes German Jens Voigt, who was second last year, American Bobby Julich (fourth), Australian Stuart O'Grady (fifth), and world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.

In 2007, Leipheimer, then riding for Discovery Channel, took the lead in the prologue and never relinquished it.

For an in-depth preview of the 2008 Tour of California, check out our sister site cyclingnews.com for Mark Zalewski's report.

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