Preview: Everything you need to know about the 2017 Amgen Tour of California

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For the 12th consecutive year, the Amgen Tour of California, which begins Sunday in the state capital of Sacramento, will be the highest-profile stage race held in North America.

And for the first time ever, the Amgen Tour will be part of the UCI’s WorldTour calendar.

In all, 17 teams of eight riders will be competing over seven stages, covering 575 miles (925km) and visiting 12 host cities. In addition to 13 WorldTour teams, the peloton will consist of three Pro Continental teams and two Continental teams.

Two stages are expected to prove most decisive for the general classification — Stage 5, which finishes atop the steep slopes of Mt. Baldy, and Stage 6, a flat 14.9-mile (24km) time trial at Big Bear Lake, elevation 6,752 feet (2,058m).

(For comprehensive coverage of the 2017 Amgen Amgen Breakaway from Heart Disease Women’s WorldTour Race, click here.)

The sprinters

As he has been for several years now, world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be the biggest star in the Golden State.

Sagan has raced — and won — in California every year since he turned professional in 2010, with a record 15 stage wins, including five in 2012, and the overall victory in 2015.

The world champion will again be hunting for stage wins, but this year’s WorldTour field means a bunch-sprint victory is far from guaranteed. Among the many world-class sprinters looking to win one of at least four sprint opportunities include Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Wouter Wippert (Cannondale-Drapac), and Danny Van Poppel and Elia Viviani (Team Sky).

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) beat Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) in the sprint into Santa Rosa during the 2016 Amgen Tour of California.

Two sprinters who had planned on racing, but will instead stay home, are Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), due to illness, and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), due to injury. Cavendish has 10 career stage wins in California, including one last year, in Sacramento.

The GC contenders

As with the sprints, the general classification is equally wide open, with only two former California winners in attendance, Sagan, and 2012 champion Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo). Last year’s winner Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) will not attend due to a knee injury.

Two years ago, Sagan pulled off a surprise GC victory when the Big Bear time trial was rerouted to Santa Clarita due to bad weather, delivering a short, explosive and technical course in the parking lot of Magic Mountain that seemed almost tailor-made for the Slovakian star.

Gesink won in 2012 on the strength of his stage-winning performance on Mt. Baldy. The Dutch climber has been hit-or-miss over the past few years; he finished fifth overall at California in 2015, and won a stage of the Vuelta a España last year.

The Mt. Baldy stage, which also runs along the hills of Glendora Mountain Road, finishes atop the most iconic and decisive climb used by the Amgen Tour of California.

Team Sky has perhaps the most threatening GC team on paper, with Ian Boswell, Peter Kennaugh, David Lopez, and Tao Geoghegan Hart all capable of excelling on the climbs and holding their own against the clock.

In 2015, Boswell finished third on Baldy behind Alaphilippe and teammate Sergio Henao after riding the final kilometers in a support role, however he’s currently recovering from a heavy crash on the final stage of the Tour of the Alps that forced him to abandon with bruising and road rash.

Last year, Kennaugh crashed on the lead-in to Gibraltar Road and broke his collarbone, an injury that ultimately led to him withdrawing himself from Olympic selection. Geoghegan Hart finished 12th at California last year riding for Axeon Hagens Berman. Lopez has already finished six stage races this season, without a major result.

Team Sky won the race in 2014 with Bradley Wiggins, and finished second overall in 2015 with Henao; Boswell finished seventh overall riding in support of Henao.

“In a sense, we do have split aspirations with the sprints and GC,” Boswell said. “But at Team Sky we always tend to have deep rosters, we try to run into that problem. For our team at a race like this, with shorter days and several sprint opportunities, a GC rider can help Viviani without taxing ourselves.

“It gives us focus, so that we’re not waiting around until Stage 5 up Mt. Baldy. We can race every day and have a goal, and that creates a positive morale. And if we win a stage or two before the key GC days, it takes a bit of pressure off.”

Another team aimed at winning the overall is American squad Cannondale-Drapac, which brings Andrew Talansky and Lawson Craddock, both eager to perform in front of home crowds. Craddock has been in the top 10 three times at California, while Talansky finished fourth last year. A win would come as welcome relief to team manager Jonathan Vaughters; though his Slipstream Sports program has participated in every event since 2006, they have never won, finishing second overall four times, with three third-place finishes as well.

Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) won the climbing stage to Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort at the 2016 Larry H.Miller Tour of Utah en route to finishing fifth overall at the Vuelta a España.

“The goal for me is to get the best GC placing possible,” Talansky said. “That said, with the team we have going, much like last year, we aren’t going to sit around and wait for the last few days. We have numerous riders who can win stages and maybe take the jersey in doing so early on. We won’t be sitting back and waiting. You will definitely see the team racing aggressively from the beginning of the week.”

Cannondale-Drapac also brings Taylor Phinney, racing for the first time since he exited the Ronde van Vlaanderen with a concussion, and rising Latvian star Toms Skujins, who has won stages in California the past two years, including three days in the leader’s jersey in 2015. More recently, Skujins won a stage at Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, finishing second overall.

The other U.S.-registered WorldTour squad, BMC Racing, will pin its GC hopes on Samuel Sanchez. Sanchez is now fully recovered from his crash at Vuelta al Pais Vasco, said team director Jackson Stewart.

“For me, we have a great leader for the GC in Samuel Sánchez,” Stewart said. “He has had a great block of training in preparation for this race, and I am confident in his abilities. We will also be looking to race for stage wins in California. With Jempy Drucker, who has been good here in the past, on our roster we have a strong leader for the sprints.”

Also gunning for results is Brent Bookwalter, a strong all-around veteran who finished third last year to add to overall podium finishes at the USA Pro Challenge, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and Tour of Alberta over the past two seasons.

“I needed more time than I initially imagined after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but my recovery has been going in the right direction,” Sanchez said. “Brent Bookwalter, Miles Scotson, and I have put in a good block of hard work at a training camp in Big Bear Lake to successfully prepare for the race ahead. Brent is also highly motivated as he will be racing on home soil and I think he can be up there at the end of the week.”

Sagan will not be the only Bora-Hansgrohe rider looking for victories; Polish climber Rafal Majka, who finished third at the 2015 Vuelta a España, is in California with an eye on Mt. Baldy.

Another climber with an eye on the podium is Australian Lachlan Morton, who returns to California with Dimension Data after two seasons riding for the Continental Jelly Belly-Maxxis team. Last year Morton finished seventh atop the summit of Gibraltar Road, but crashed heavily a few days later and was forced to abandon. Morton has done four stage races this season with Dimension Data, with seventh atop Green Mountain at the Tour of Oman in February as his best result.

The underdogs

The five teams that are not part of the UCI WorldTour will most likely aim for stage wins and race classifications such as King of the Mountains and Most Aggressive Rider.

Only once has a Continental rider reached the final podium in California, when Colombian Janier Acevedo finished third overall in 2013 riding for Jamis–Hagens Berman. The only time Pro Continental riders reached the final podium was in 2008, when David Millar and Christian Vande Velde finished second and third riding for Slipstream-Chipotle.

That said, UnitedHealthcare and Rally Cycling are sending interesting teams capable of lighting up breakaways.

Rally’s roster includes climbing sensation Sepp Kuss, all-arounders Evan Huffman, Danny Pate and Matteo Dal-Cin, GC man Rob Britton, and fast finishers Colin Joyce and Eric Young. Huffman, who won the KOM jersey at California last year, recently took the GC win at the Tour of the Gila.

Ben King (Cannondale) out-sprinted Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) to win Stage 2 of the 2016 Amgen Tour of California.

UnitedHealthcare is sending strongman Travis McCabe, who finished in the top 10 on three stages last year riding for Holowesko-Citadel, as well as rouleurs Greg Henderson and Tanner Putt.

“This is the first year I’ve really focused on sprint work, and timing, so I’m pretty excited,” McCabe said. “I think I have a good chance of reaching the podium. Of course I’m dreaming of winning, I’m visualizing it every night. I can tell from the way I have been training and racing that I’m in better shape than last year.

“I know I’m stronger, and more confident. This will be my year doing California, and obviously stages are different, but I know what to expect, and I know I’m stronger than I was last year. I’m nervous but excited.”

From the bottom of Glendora Mountain Road, across Glendora Ridge and up to the Mt. Baldy Ski Area, it’s a 26-mile slog, with 5,300 feet of elevation gain and very little flat or downhill.

In the end, however, the WorldTour teams will likely dominate, with Mt. Baldy expected to determine the GC winner. The Amgen Tour stacks the Baldy climb on top of the 9-mile climb up Glendora Mountain Road — a climb that is used as an uphill time trial for the San Dimas Stage Race — followed by 12 miles of twisting, uphill traverse back up Glendora Ridge Road.

There’s only a brief respite before hitting the switchbacks of Mt. Baldy Road, which delivers 1,000 feet of elevation in just two miles. Some of the 10 switchbacks are so steep that cars struggle and recreational riders are forced to walk. All totalled, from the bottom of Glendora Mountain Road, across Glendora Ridge, and up to the Mt. Baldy Ski Area, it’s a 26-mile (42km) slog, with 5,300 feet (1,615m) of elevation gain and very little flat or downhill.

In the three editions Baldy has been included, the stage winner has gone on to win the overall just once — Gesink, in 2012 — but that doesn’t tell the full story. In 2011, the first year Baldy was included, GC leader Chris Horner gifted the stage win to his RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer and the pair finished on the same time. In 2015, Alaphilippe won on Baldy, but finished the race second overall to Sagan by just three seconds, due to time bonuses Sagan earned in the final sprint of the race, in Pasadena.

Like the 2015 edition, this year’s race again finishes in Pasadena, on May 20.

Grimes Canyon, Stage 5 of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California. Photo: Darrell Parks.

Stage details — and predictions

Sunday, May 14
Stage 1, Sacramento: 104 miles/167.5 kilometers
Terrain: Flat/bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors)

Monday, May 15
Stage 2, Modesto to San Jose: 88.8 miles/143 kilometers
Terrain: Climbing stage, uphill finish
Predicted winner: Toms Skujins (Cannondale-Drapac)

Tuesday, May 16
Stage 3, Pismo Beach to Morro Bay: 113.7 miles/183 kilometers
Terrain: Flat, uphill finish, bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Wednesday, May 17
Stage 4, Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita: 100.3 miles/161.5 kilometers
Terrain: Medium mountains, bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

Thursday, May 18
Stage 5, Ontario to Mt. Baldy: 77.9 miles/125.5 kilometers
Terrain: Mountain stage, steep summit finish
Predicted winner: Ian Boswell (Team Sky)

Friday, May 19
Stage 6, Big Bear Lake Time Trial: 14.9 miles/24 kilometers
Terrain: Flat and fast, high elevation
Predicted winner: Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac)

Saturday, May 20
Stage 7, Mountain High to Pasadena: 77 miles/124 kilometers
Terrain: Downhill, bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Elia Viviani (Team Sky)

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