Craddock, Bookwalter, Stetina: USA’s best hopes to win Amgen Tour of California

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SANTA CLARITA, CA (CT) — For the first four years of the Amgen Tour of California, Americans owned the top step of the podium. The inaugural edition, in 2006, featured an all-American GC podium; the race didn’t have its first foreign winner until 2010, when Australian Michael Rogers took the title.

However, times have changed. Three of the past four overall winners — Robert Gesink, Bradley Wiggins, and Peter Sagan — have been foreign riders winning on U.S. soil, showing the race’s growing importance on the international calendar. The last American rider to win was BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen, in 2013.

In 2016, there is no clear-cut favorite. However, on paper, Aussie Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) looks to be the man to beat.

The route features two pivotal GC stages, a summit finish on Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, on Tuesday, and a 20km time trial in Folsom, on Friday.

Can an American win this year’s Amgen Tour? And if so, which riders are capable?

Three riders come to mind: Lawson Craddock (Cannondale), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo).

Bookwalter is a bit stronger in the time trial, relative to his climbing. Stetina is just the opposite. Craddock is equally skilled at both, but in the past, has struggled with consistency.

CyclingTips spoke with all three about their chances.

Lawson Craddock

Lawson Craddock: “’I’m really motivated”

Of the three, 24-year-old Lawson Craddock is probably the best suited to this year’s course. He finished third overall at this race in 2014, at age 22, and has only gotten better since, punctuated by an impressive ninth overall at the climb-heavy Tour of the Basque Country. He comes to California as Cannondale’s appointed leader, with the support of a strong team that includes Andrew Talansky, Phil Gaimon, Ben King, and Toms Skujins.

“It’s a good race for me,” Craddock told CyclingTips. “I’ve trained really hard for it. I’ve been out in Colorado Springs the last couple of weeks training, and I trained really well. I’ve definitely come in after a pretty good spring and want to come in here and do the best that I can.”

Craddock agreed that the GC will almost certainly come down to the summit finish on Gibraltar Road, and the time trial in Folsom.

“Gibraltar is a good little climb. It’s definitely going to blow the race apart,” Craddock said. “That said, there is not really a day here that you can let your guard down. Every stage is really crucial. They’re not days you can win the race on, but they are days you can lose the race on. And I know that may sound like a cliché, but it really holds true to this race. It’s definitely going to be a really challenging race. There are a lot of really strong competitors here.”

Asked who he considers a GC threat, Craddock pointed to young French rider Julian Alaphilippe (Ettix-QuickStep), who finished second overall last year, and Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky).

“Alaphilippe did well on the overall last year, and could do well here this year,” Craddock said. “Pete Kennaugh, too. It’s a little bit different this year than last year. You never know. One thing that California has shown in the past is that you can’t really… it’s just a really hard race to predict. And you have a lot of guys coming here trying to win, and maybe you have some guy kind of flying under the radar that can surprise everyone. It’s something that you’ve got to keep your eye on, and you have to make the most out of every stage.”

Dennis named Craddock as his biggest GC rival, but said his performance at Pais Vasco will have pushed the young American in one of two directions — either better than ever, or into a state of fatigue.

“Well, that’s the mystery,” Craddock smiled. “That’s legitimately how I am, I’m either really good, or really bad. I guess we’ll find out out on the road.

“I’ve done a lot of racing this spring, but I’ve had a great support system around me. I’ve really just been focusing on keeping fresh for these races and working to build and gain form during each race. I’m really motivated to come in here with the strong team that we have and do something.”

Brent Bookwalter

Brent Bookwalter: “I put myself on that list”

Second overall at the 2015 USA Pro Challenge, and third overall at the 2015 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Bookwalter has built a career as a reliable domestique, usually given the freedom to chase his own GC objectives on American soil.

Usually better against the clock than atop a summit finish, Bookwalter’s chances as a GC leader at this race are weighed by a double-edged sword: His BMC Racing team is the strongest in the race, yet that squad includes Dennis, who took the race leader’s jersey off Bookwalter’s shoulders in Breckenridge at the Pro Challenge last summer, and might be the best rider suited for this course.

The two men will share team leadership — for now.

In order for Bookwalter to take team leadership, he will need to summit Gibraltar ahead of Dennis on Tuesday afternoon in Santa Barbara.

“I would say we are both going in protected,” Bookwalter said. “I don’t think either one of us is going to have to go get bottles, or riding out in the wind. Gibraltar comes pretty early in the race, so that’ll be a big shake up.”

Bookwalter, 32, has had a strong showing thus far this season, including eight overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol and 12th at Strade Bianche.

“As we’ve seen in the past with some of these U.S. races, there are good opportunities for new GC guys to emerge, and sort of non-traditional guys to ride the GC,” Bookwalter said. “As we’ve seen last year, you wouldn’t have put Peter [Sagan] on that list in the beginning either, but yet he was there. I think at the end of the day there are a lot of world-class, great bike racers here, and that can yield to a lot of scenarios for GC.

“I would like to put myself in there, for sure. I have had a good season so far. I feel fit, and I’m obviously motivated to be racing in the U.S. We have an awesome team here, and I’m looking to do a good eight days.”

Bookwalter said he’s ridden both Gibraltar and the Folson time trial, though he hasn’t raced either.

“I did the run-in and the climb,” he said. “It’s good to see it. It’s a legit climb. It’s definitely the hardest climb I will have ever done in the Tour of California.

“I have not raced the Folsom TT, but I did ride it. It should be pretty good for me. I would like to see a few more tricky turns, and narrow roads, and up/downs, but it’s a little more dynamic than what the profile shows. The profile makes it look flat, and it’s actually pretty rolling. It still favors guys with absolute power like Taylor [Phinney] and Rohan and [Bradley] Wiggins obviously. And of course Kriyienka, the world champ.

“As far as the GC hunt, if a little explosive climber guy gets up the road on Gibraltar a little bit, the TT course probably doesn’t favor him as much as more of an all-rounder guy.”

Asked who he sees as the big GC threats, Bookwalter pointed to Craddock, as well as Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky), and Laurens Ten Dam and George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo.

“There’s definitely a handful of them,” he said. “Cannondale being the other American team, with Craddock and Talansky, they’re an important team to watch. Sky, they have a super deep team no matter where they go. Peter [Kennaugh] is definitely a GC threat. I ran into Ten Dam up in Truckee last week, so I think he’s ready. I think George Bennett from Lotto will be good, too.”

Peter Stetina

Peter Stetina: “My form is a question mark”

Of the three Americans looking to stand on the podium in Sacramento come Sunday, Trek’s Peter Stetina carries the biggest question mark over his head.

It’s been just over a year since his career-altering crash on the opening stage of the 2015 Pais Vasco, the result of a poorly marked course obstacle inside the final 500 metres, which left him with a shattered kneecap. He bears the scars of several surgeries, and still walks with a slight limp.

Stetina returned to racing four months later, at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and followed that with the USA Pro Challenge. He was able to ride in the bunch, a victory in itself, but not much more.

For 2016, Stetina switched teams, leaving BMC Racing, his team for two years, to join Trek-Segafredo. Thus far, his 2016 race schedule has been extensive: Santos Tour Down Under, Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, Flèche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Tour de Romandie.

And it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

“My form’s a question mark right now,” Stetina said. “I’m always better than the previous week. I did pretty much the hardest spring you can do in European racing. It was a lot, but my knee never swelled. I never had an issue with it. It held through that, so I think it can hold through a grand tour, no problem. And I was getting stronger every race.

“I was seriously contemplating hanging it up in the earlier races. I was just bashing my head against the wall, and I was struggling to be pack filler, and you realize that, in modern cycling now, just to get by you have to play the marginal gains game. Just to maintain status quo, you have to do gluten-free, and altitude training, and all the little things that normally guys would do to get that last percent, but now everyone does it. You don’t even take an off season anymore, and it’s cutthroat. So when you’re trying to come back from an injury like mine, where all the doctors say it’s at least a year before you’re back to your old self, then you’re just playing catch up the whole time.

“Then all of a sudden, at Flèche, something clicked, and all of a sudden I was with the leaders until the final sprint on the Mur de Huy with 400 meters to go, and I was like, ‘Shit, I’m kind of back in it,’ and that was just a little bit like, stoke the fire, you know? Then at Romandie, I was able to position Bauke [Mollema] on the important climbs before they attacked, and to actually be a part of the race again at the front. So it was glimmers.

“My big goal was California, for the team. They gave me this goal, and I want this goal — it’s my home race now. Before it was just hope, like, ‘Oh yeah, we said in October I’ll just be ready for Cali, focus on Cali.’ But now it’s kind of turned to optimism a bit, like, ‘Okay, this could actually maybe happen.’ So we’ll see where the other guys are at, but I’m definitely better than I was at Romandie.”

Stetina spent the past two weeks training with compatriot and teammate Kiel Reijnen, in Lake Tahoe, at his cabin in Homewood.

“We just hung out in the woods, hiked the dogs in the morning and then did some big rides and tried to eat soup and get skinny, and kept picking each other up when the motivation was dwindling,” Stetina said. “And then we came down to Santa Rosa for just two more days, and did some sharpening, and we’re here. I think we’re both pretty optimistic. We’ve done everything we can for this race, so, for me it’s just a case of, ‘is May too soon yet or not?’ And I’m quietly optimistic now.”

Stetina acknowledged that Dennis and Craddock are likely the two riders in the peloton who can both climb and time trial with the best in the field.

“The goal is a podium, and then you have to shoot high. You have to race for the win, and then you re-calibrate as the race unfolds. Because if you just shoot for top five, or whatever, you’re already shortchanging yourself. You’re saying there’s four guys who are probably going to be ahead of you. So you aim to win the race, and then you re-calibrate. That’s just the next step in my recovery too, is now I have to try and race for myself, for a result. I haven’t done that for over a year.”

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