California dreaming: Guess who's back?

The Lion King roars in Palo Alto

If nothing else, Mario Cipollini wins the title of the leanest rider in the Tour of California. Michael Rasmussen is never an easy guy to track down, but to look at Cipollini's torso as he paused to speak journalists after the Tour of California prologue this afternoon, you'd think that the skeletal Rasmussen was here in the United States. Alas, not for the first time, we didn't know the Dane's whereabouts today, but Cipollini was present and correct and back in the competitive arena for the first time in almost three years.

The rest of the week will tell whether or out, as we suspect, Rock Racing are one of the weakest teams in an excellent field here, but for the moment they're generating more column inches than anyone. While Cipollini was warming up for his two o'clock start time on rollers, the four R&R riders backballed yesterday by race organisers AEG were besieged by autograph hunters at an impromptu signing session in front of the team battle bus. Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla, Santiago Botero and Kayle Leogrande will be here all week, agents provocateurs put on parade by the vaudeville ringmaster that is team boss Michael Ball.

But back to Cipollini. The Italian clocked a more than respectable time 4:08, just to prove that stories of prodigious feats in training recently may not be suburban myths. No doubt more importantly, though, the crowd's reaction was a good gauge of just how effective Ball's publicity stunt has already been. The applause even had Super Mario blushing...

"It was a beautiful experience," Cipo cooed. "It's been three years since I've done such an intense effort and to be still get that sort of acclaim is fantastic... I've already seen this special affection the Americans have for me in Atlanta [at the 1996 Olympics] and at the Tour of Georgia and today saw I it again. I think the Americans have a special bond with Italians, and they really have a special relationship with me."

The Lion King was then asked what he'd thought about in those four minutes and eight seconds. Perhaps surprisingly, his answer contained no reference to women: "I thought that life is strange, and that you should never say never," he mused.

A few minutes later a wheezing Bradley Wiggins crossed line. The Briton's time of 3:55 was good enough to edge him clear of Slipstream's Tyler Farrar and into provisional pole, but Wiggins wasn't getting his hopes up: Fabian Cancellara was soon to steamroller Wiggins and the rest of a field with a performance which most motorbikes would have been proud of.

"I just had a rubbish ride," was Wiggins's downbeat comment. "I felt good but I just don't think I got it all out. That said, Fabian's the best in the world at this at the moment, and my ride was only one or two per cent out. At least I'm getting more consistent in prologues: two years ago, I couldn't even scratch my arse in these races."

As well as the best soundbite, Wiggins supplied the British contingent's best result. Mark Cavendish was pleased with his ride to finish eighth, though also good-naturedly peeved to see High Road team-mate Edvald Boassen Hagen beat him to the best young rider's jersey. Hagen's superb display caused quite a stir - as, incidentally, did the presence of his rather fetching blonde girlfriend in the crowd today.

Dave Millar, the third member of the British envoy, was mystified by his result - ninth and just a fraction slower than Cavendish.

"I felt really good, so I'm a bit surprised and disappointed," was the Scot's verdict. Millar wants to make amends with a strong overall ride, beginning on Monday's first stage to Santa Rosa.

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