One of the country’s best cycling teams joined officials from the new Amgen Tour of California last evening to set the wheels in motion for a 600-mile bicycle race traveling through Santa Barbara Feb. 24 and 25.

The eight-day Amgen Tour of California, a bicycle race from San Francisco to Redondo Beach, features 16 international and domestic teams – including the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, which rode with Lance Armstrong in the 2005 Tour de France. The tour, which travels through 10 cities, is in its first year and runs from Feb. 19 to Feb. 26.

At last night’s press conference, a group of the event’s sponsors, promoters and participants spoke about the race and answered questions about the tour, which is modeled after the Tour de France.

According to a press release from the Health Net Pro Cycling Team, which attended the press conference and will compete in the race, the event is sponsored by a variety of companies, including Cliff Bar and Herbalife.

Tim Johnson, a Carpinteria resident and cyclist on the Health Net team, said his team is currently the top cycling team in North America, according to the National Racing Calendar. The Health Net team is home to several members who have also competed in the Olympics, including Nathan O’Neill and Gord Fraser.

“I’m really the worker bee – guys like Fraser and O’Neill are specifically sprinters or time trials,” Johnson said. “I’m mostly out there to take the lead when they need it and give the guys some good draft to ride in.” The event is expected to draw large crowds of spectators to Santa Barbara, said Shannon Brooks, Communications Manager for the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.

“With the race staff and competitors alone, there are already 600 rooms checked out for that week,” Brooks said. “It will have a tremendous impact on the economies of the areas we’re visiting. Based on numbers from the Tour of Georgia – a similar event – we are expecting between 25,000 and 30,000 people at the finish and around 10,000 at the start.”

Brooks said the tour will set up several designated viewing areas throughout the race course, including one at the corner of Hwy. 154 and Los Olivos Road. The finish line will also be set up so that spectators can see what is going on.

“We plan on having a big screen T.V. at the finish line as well as tons of amusing and entertaining things for people to do,” Brooks said. “It really will be a family affair – these things are amazing [and] fun. Also, people are encouraged to view the race from several other convenient areas along the course; you don’t have to be at the finish.” Johnson, the co-captain of the Health Net team, said his team practices all year for competitions like the Amgen Tour and he thinks they have a good chance of winning the upcoming race.

“My main goal and my expectation for the team this year is to show the big European teams that they’re going to have a hard time beating us this year,” Johnson said. “I think it’s totally possible that we’ll come out on top in this race.” Jeff Corbett, director of the Health Net team, said he and his racers have been surveying the area for several days and feel confident about the race.

“We always put a lot of pressure on ourselves; I mean we never go into a race looking to [do] anything other than win and this is no exception,” Corbett said. “We’ve been in the area, checking all the different climbs and hazards that may surprise some of the teams in the middle of the race. We’ll be ready for this race.”