Frank Stranzl

The Tour de France is the most internationally-renowned cycling race to date. The likes of Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx became famous for their inspiring performances.

It’s a grueling race and a landmark event for cycling fans the world over – it’s exactly the type of event Tour of California organizers envision for the nearly 600-mile trek across the Golden State, and San Luis Obispo is a key component for this year’s cycling extravaganza.

On Thursday, 128 riders will begin a 130.9-mile race to San Luis Obispo, the longest stretch of the first Tour of California. The riders from 16 teams will wind up in the scenic downtown area of San Luis Obispo at the intersection of Monterey and Osos Street. After finishing the midway point of the Tour, the riders will depart on Friday from San Luis Obispo for Santa Barbara, a 105.3-mile journey, and will eventually end up in Redondo Beach after an 89.5-mile sixth-stage from Santa Barbara to Thousand Oaks. The winner will receive $150,000.

The estimated arrival in San Luis Obispo is 3:22 p.m. to 4:19 p.m., according to the events’ Web site (www.amgentourofcalifornia.com). The riders will ride onto Highland Drive and turn onto Ferrini Road before taking North Chorro Street to Monterey Street and finishing at the Osos Street intersection.

While the seven-stage event is significantly shorter and less grueling than the Tour de France, the event has drawn numerous big names to compete.

Levi Leiphemer was the top American finisher not named Armstrong in the 2002 and 2004 Tour de France’s. Leipheimer also competed for the United States Olympic team in Athens.

George Hincapie, a member of Team Discovery Channel and the current leader after three stages, was a key teammate of Armstrong’s, and is one of the top American riders. Hincapie overtook Leipheimer as the overall leader in the leg from Martinez to San Jose on Tuesday.

Foreign competitors include Michael Rogers of Australia, a former World Time Trial Champion and the top contender from a dangerous German-based T-Mobile team.

Paolo Savodelli is another talent from overseas. The Italian rider won the Giro d’Italia in 2005 and competes along with Hincapie for Team Discovery Channel.

Leipheimer also brings a local angle to the Tour. The Santa Rosa native won the 1.9 mile prologue from Sausalito to his hometown in the north Bay Area on Sunday.

Tomorrow’s stage begins at 10 a.m. and will traverse Highway 1 from Monterey to San Luis Obispo.

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