Analysis: Can an American win the 2018 Amgen Tour of California?

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LONG BEACH, CA (CT)  — It’s the biggest bike race in the United States — but can an American rider win the Amgen Tour of California?

Short answer: Sure. Maybe.

Now in its 13th edition, the history of the Amgen Tour can be divided into two halves — the era dominated by American riders, and, as it has grown, the international era. American riders won six of the first eight editions, but have only won twice in the last eight years.

For all the talk of how the race’s expansion from 2.HC to WorldTour status will help grow the sport in the United States, what is truly needed for that to happen is an American champion — someone for the home crowd to get behind.

With two clear GC stages — the summit finish atop Gibraltar Road on Stage 2 and the 34km time trial in Morgan Hill on Stage 4 — the overall winner will need to be able to climb and time trial in equal measure.

The most likely candidate to break the streak is probably Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), the overall winner in California in 2013 and the last American to win the race. He returns in 2018 for the first time since that victory. His career has taken a circuitous route back to the Golden State as he has been forced to recalibrate his Grand Tour ambitions.

After finishing fifth at the 2014 Tour de France, Van Garderen failed to finish three out of four Grand Tours he started and ceded team leadership to Richie Porte; last year he found some redemption with a stage win at the Giro d’Italia and 10th at the Vuelta a España.

Van Garderen, 29, hopes to return to the Tour in July in support of Porte, and would very much like to have a stage-race victory under his belt for the first time since winning the 2014 USA Pro Challenge.

“I’m feeling very good and I’m focused on winning,” Van Garderen said. “It would be amazing to win this race again on my first attempt since I won in 2013. That’s the dream, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

Van Garderen’s bid for victory will be bolstered by teammate Brent Bookwalter. The American veteran finished third in 2016 and fourth last year, and is aiming for another podium finish — ideally on the top step. Now 34, Bookwalter has finished on the podium of all the major U.S. stage races — California, Colorado, and Utah — and is still seeking that elusive overall victory. His best result in 2018 thus far has been sixth in the 12.6km time trial at Abu Dhabi Tour.

“Looking back three years ago, reaching the podium here in California was the mission, and it’s how I’ve framed my mind,” Bookwalter said. “It worked out well two years ago, and I was close last year. So I want to keep building on that. I’m inspired to shoot that result, and go for it. It’s also a rare opportunity to be on this team and not on bottle duty right away. It changes a little with Tejay here, but I’m still in a bit of a protected role, so it gives me that opportunity.”

Two other American riders who can climb and time trial among the best are Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac) and Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo).

After a 2017 season he’d like to forget, Craddock, 26, has shown glimpses of the form that saw him third overall at the 2014 Amgen Tour, and fifth in 2016. He won the KOM jersey at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in March and finished ninth at Amstel Gold Race last month after riding in the day-long breakaway. Like Van Garderen and Bookwalter, Ef Education First-Drapac comes with two potential GC contenders, Craddock and Colombian Daniel Martinez.

“I’d like to think I can win this race,” Craddock said. “When I look back at the last seven years I’ve done this race, I always alternate between good and bad years. Last year was a bad year for me, so I’m due for a good one. I’ve felt pretty good for the last two weeks. It was pretty tough at the beginning of the season, because I really feel like I took last year completely off. I missed a Grand Tour, which is, I think, crucial to my development. It’s taken me a little time to ride into it this year. I did quite a heavy block in the spring, and then finally had some time before this race to train and fine-tune the fitness. I’m looking forward to this week, as always, it’s California and I’m highly motivated for it.”

Powless, 21, had a breakthrough performance at the 2016 Amgen Tour racing for Axeon Hagens Berman. He went into the final stage sitting fifth overall, however, a pileup midway through the final stage saw him lose time and finish the race ninth on GC. Though he didn’t race California last year — his team was not invited —Powless finished on the podium of the U.S. road and TT championships, and was signed to LottoNL-Jumbo. In his first year with a WorldTour team, Craddock has already raced Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Milan-San Remo, Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, and the Tour of the Basque Country.

“I think Tejay is probably the biggest favorite,” Powless said. “He can climb really well and he can turn out a time trial as well. He’s won this race before, and I think he’s really amped to be back racing in America. Bookwalter as well, BMC has two good cards to play. There are two main GC stages, Gibraltar and the time trial. I’ll go as fast as I can up Gibraltar, and if I’m in a good spot, that will give me some confidence for the TT.”

Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) is one of the strongest climbers in the race but admits that the time trial will make it difficult. And while Gibraltar Road is the obvious opportunity for climbers to gain time, Stetina believes that Stage 6, from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe could also prove pivotal. There are 4,000 metres of elevation gain on the day; the final climb, up Kingsbury Grade to Daggett Summit, is 13km long at 6% gradient, topping out at 7,300 feet (2,225 metres) elevation.

“There is an hors categorie climb that’s at high elevation, after you have a whole day of climbing in your legs,” Stetina said. “It’s going to be a race of attrition. The last climb [Kingsbury Grade] is a behemoth, and the top is near the finish line. Anyone who has unfinished business with the race, that’s your last shot. For me, this is the queen stage. It’s the hardest one. It will be a big kilojoules day. Tahoe is my backyard. I’m a part-time resident there. I get a lot of local love up there. That’s the stage that I’m most in love with here.”

Oregon native Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin) is in a similar position to Stetina — a strong climber who will need to take time on Gibraltar, and perhaps again in Lake Tahoe on Stage 6, in order to counteract his time-trial. Boswell finished fifth overall in California last year while riding with Team Sky, and will look to the Gibraltar summit on Stage 2 as an opportunity for both the stage win and leader’s jersey with his new Katusha-Alpecin squad.

One GC outsider is one of the youngest riders in the peloton — Brandon McNulty, the 20-year-old Rally Cycling rider who won the 2016 junior world time-trial championship and took silver at the U23 TT worlds last year. McNulty raised eyebrows at the sport’s highest level in February at Dubai Tour, when he nearly won Stage 4 at Hatta Dam from the daylong breakaway, caught inside the final, steep 50 metres.

There’s little question McNulty can time trial, and he may well be able to climb with the best, but question marks surround his experience — this is his first WorldTour stage race — and his ability to navigate a stage like the technical 200km route from King City to Laguna Seca, with several short, punchy climbs.

“I’m feeling good. I’ve had a good start to the season. Coming off a hard European block, I came home and grabbed some rest, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be going well,” McNulty said. “I’m not coming in with pressure or any expectations, but I think it’s a good shot for me to show how I can climb. I’ve honestly never had the opportunity to. I’ve proven myself in the TTs, but I think I’m at an advantage. I’m not a big, muscular time-trial rider. I can do the watts, but I’m also on the lighter side. That bodes pretty well for going uphill. We’ll see.”

And though he’s not from the United States, McNulty’s Canadian teammate Rob Britton is another rider capable of reaching the podium. A strong climber with a very good time trial, Britton recently won the Tour of Gila for the second time, adding to his Tour of Utah title from 2017. He stood on the final podium of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge, but has never finished higher than tenth in California.

Two other Rally Cycling Americans, Evan Huffman and Robin Carpenter, are strong in the time trial and very capable climbers, but will likely battle for stage wins from breakaways rather than pursue the general classification.

American Gavin Mannion (UnitedHealthcare) is also chasing a top 10 finish on the general classification. He finished second overall to Britton at Gila, and second to Britton at Utah last year.

First, however, these riders will need to get through an international field of GC rivals.

Atop that list is Egan Bernal, the Colombian phenom from Team Sky who is being named as the most likely to win atop Gibraltar Road — and probably the overall.

Other major international GC contenders include Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), second overall last year; Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), fourth overall at the 2016 Tour de France; and Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), overall winner at the 2016 Tour of Utah.

Can an American rider break the streak and win the 2018 Amgen Tour of California?

Sure. Maybe.

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