COLUMBIA — Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer, the top American in the race, will compete in the inaugural Tour of Missouri, which passes through Columbia on Sept. 14.
Both riders are members of the Discovery Channel team, which will disband after this year. The Tour of Missouri is the team’s last race in the U.S.
Local officials say the involvement of the Discovery team will increase the prestige of the race.
“I think it will absolutely help draw attention and up the excitement level of the event,” Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said.
The Discovery team has won eight of the past nine Tours de France, including seven consecutive Lance Armstrong victories. Discovery Channel staff member P.J. Rabice credited the organization and the quality of competition of the Tour of Missouri as reasons for the team entering the race.
This summer, Contador won a Tour de France hampered by drug controversies. Contador inherited the lead in the race after race leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race for failing to make himself available for drug tests.
Steiner said there are three factors that add attention to the Tour of Missouri.
“There is the winner of the Tour de France,” Steiner said, “the controversy of the Tour, and it is the last race for the Discovery team in the United States.”
Leipheimer, who won the Amgen Tour of California in February, said in a press release he enjoys riding elite races on American soil.
“It is only fitting to close out my season with a U.S. homecoming at the Tour of Missouri,” Leipheimer said in the release. “I have always said that nothing compares to racing at home and it will be very special for me to have guys like Alberto, Popo (Yaroslav Popovych), and George (Hincapie) riding next to me in my final race as a Discovery Channel Team member.”
Hincapie, a native of Greenville, S.C., is the 2006 U.S. National Champion and has raced in 12 editions of the Tour de France. Popovych finished eighth in this year’s Tour de France.
Barry Bennett, communications director for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, the race’s executive committee chair, said the race has been getting attention both in America and overseas.
“The international exposure this race is getting is phenomenal,” Bennett said. “We been pleasantly surprised here in Missouri. It’s not just American cycling fans, but also European cycling fans.”
The Tour of Missouri joins the Tour of Georgia and the Amgen Tour of California as America’s most prestigious cycling races. The 600-mile, six-day race is sanctioned by the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, and USA Cycling, the national governing body for cycling. The race will be Sept. 11 through 16. Stage 4, the longest stage, begins in Lebanon and concludes in Columbia in front of the Boone County courthouse.
Rabice said it was an easy decision for the Discovery team to be in the Tour of Missouri.
“We’ve always been sponsored by American companies, the U.S. Postal Service and the Discovery Channel, and we’ve always had an American component,” Rabice said. “When the Tour of Missouri was put on the calendar it was a no-brainer to be in it.”