Going back to Cali: Deepest field ever for 13th Amgen Tour

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LONG BEACH, CA (CT) — The Golden State will see fierce race action beginning Sunday as the Amgen Tour of California hosts its most competitive field to date.

Now in its 13th year — and its second as a UCI WorldTour event — the Amgen Tour has drawn deep fields for both the overall classification and field sprints, as many riders are using the race to launch their preparation for the Tour de France in July.

Of the seven stages on the route from Long Beach to Sacramento, three are clearly marked for field sprints, and it’s the roster of world-class sprinters that stands out most in this year’s peloton.

Fernando Gaviria (right) and Caleb Ewan at the press conference for the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.

The sprinters

World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) returns to California, race he’s done every year of his pro career. He’s won at least one stage in every edition, and won the points classification seven times, but it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll take a sprint this time around.

Among those he’ll be fighting in the mass gallops are Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott). All have won multiple Grand Tour stages, and nearly all have beaten one another at some point.

Sagan holds the record for stage wins in California, with 16, while Cavendish sits second, with 10. Kittel and Kristoff have both won stages in the Golden State, while Gaviria and Ewan are both making their Amgen Tour debut.

“I always like to come to California,” Sagan said. “There is a pleasant atmosphere. Everyone is relaxed because the spring classics are behind us, and the Tour de France is still a bit away. It’s the perfect opportunity to get back in the right race mode without the pressure being too high. My goal is to win at least one stage, with Rafal Majka we also have a candidate for the general classification, and when it comes down to it, I will support him as well as possible.”

Cavendish downplayed his chances at the pre-race press conference, citing his difficult spring campaign that included crashing out of three consecutive races, though he said he’s not in California just to ride in the bunch. Cavendish returned to racing at the Tour de Yorkshire, though he did not factor in the sprints.

“After such a crash like Milan-San Remo it’s not easy, but for sure I’m not here to mill around,” Cavendish said. “You only get better by trying and getting involved. I’ll be involved on the sprint days.”

The Amgen Tour will mark the first time Cavendish and Sagan have a chance to sprint against one another since their fateful incident at the 2017 Tour de France, which left Cavendish with a broken shoulder and saw Sagan disqualified. They’ve started two races together this year, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, though Cavendish crashed out of both.

The Amgen Tour will mark a return to racing for Ewan, who has not competed since finishing second at Milan-San Remo on March 17.

“This is probably going to be the last chance for all the sprinters to test themselves against each other before the Tour de France,” Ewan said. “I’ve had a bit of time off, and it will be good to get back into racing and to be sprinting against such a good field.”

With three sprint stages and at least six world-class sprinters, one thing is guaranteed — a few of them will be heading home empty-handed.

Tejay van Garderen’s overall win at the 2013 Amgen Tour of California was his breakthrough GC victory.

The GC contenders

The start list also boasts an impressive list of GC contenders — though only two former winners.

Last year’s champion George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) will not be defending his title; he’s currently sitting ninth overall at the Giro d’Italia. Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), the 2016 winner, is also not competing; his next race will be the Criterium du Dauphine.

Sagan, the surprise winner in 2015 when the time-trial route was altered due to weather, is competing, though he’s not targeting the overall classification. Bradley Wiggins, California champion in 2014, is retired.

One has to go back to 2013 to find a former California winner who will be on the start line in Long Beach — Tejay van Garderen will be there with BMC Racing. Van Garderen is also the last American winner of the race. He returns for the first time since his 2013 win intent on picking up where he left off.

At the pre-race press conference, Van Garderen said BMC Racing would be racing for two leaders — himself and American Brent Bookwalter, who finished third in California in 2016 and fourth last year.

“We’ve got a two-pronged approach,” Van Garderen said. “Brent (Bookwalter) is very motivated, and so am I. We’re both very capable of podium results, even top-step podium results. It’s only going to help us having two cards to play, and a lot will be decided out on the road. It only makes us stronger to have two of us out there.”

Other strong GC contenders include Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Egan Bernal (Team Sky), Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac), and Neilson Powless and Sepp Kuss (LottoNL-Jumbo).

Yates returns to racing after crashing out of Volta a Catalunya on March 22 with a fractured pelvis. That crash came 10 days after he soloed to a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico. While his twin brother, Simon, is currently wearing the maglia rosa as race leader at the Giro d’Italia, Yates downplayed his chances in California, saying he was simply aiming for a top-10 finish.

Majka returns to California after finishing second overall last year, 35 seconds down on Bennett. He’s yet to win a race in 2018, though he finished second to Mikel Landa (Movistar) on the summit finish of Sarnano Sassotetto on Stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico.

Team Sky’s Colombian phenom Egan Bernal is only 21, yet he’s taking the WorldTour by storm.

Bernal, the heralded 21-year-old Colombian climber, returned to racing in late April at the Tour de Romandie after a brutal crash on the final stage of Volta a Catalunya left him with multiple fractures to his clavicle and scapula.

In February, Bernal beat Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran to win the Colombia Oro y Paz stage race. At Romandie, he smoked the 10km uphill time trial, beating riders like Primoz Roglic and Richie Porte, vaulting into second overall behind Roglic. The young Team Sky rider is perhaps the name being whispered about as the heaviest pre-race favorite. He’ll be supported by Tao Geoghegan Hart, Sebastian Henao, Luke Rowe, Pavel Sivakov, Ian Stannard, and Lukasz Wisniowski. Geoghegan Hart, who can also climb and time trial well, could be the team’s other GC option; he finished eighth overall in 2017.

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.

Morton finished seventh overall in California last year; in 2016 he crashed out after finishing seventh on Gibraltar Road. He’s not yet cracked the top 20 through 25 days of racing in 2018, though he has stated that California is his main goal for the first part of the season.

“I feel really good, as it’s been my goal since the start of the year and I think preparations will all come together at the right time,” Morton said. “I’m just looking forward to getting out there and hopefully just putting out the sort of performance that I think I’m capable of at the moment. The GC here is always close because there’s a couple of selective stages but not so many that huge differences make so it’s often a race between three or four guys right until the end. I’m sure that this year will be no different.”

Craddock finished third overall at the 2014 Amgen Tour and fifth in 2016. This year he won the KOM jersey at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and finished ninth at Amstel Gold Race after riding in the day-long breakaway.

“Racing back in the States is always something I’m highly motivated for,” Craddock said. “I’m also excited to redeem myself after last year’s poor showing. This year’s route will reward aggressive racing, and I’m looking forward to contributing to that.”

With Bennett in Italy, Americans Powless and Kuss will lead LottoNL-Jumbo, winners of the race last year. Powless was the best young rider in his California debut two years ago, while Kuss finished 10th on Mt. Baldy last year. While Powless is a strong time trialist who can climb, Kuss is more of a pure climber who struggles against the clock.

Though he didn’t race California last year, Powless finished on the podium of the national road and TT championships, and took fourth at the Tour of Utah, while racing with Axeon Hagens Berman. Kuss finished in the top 10 at Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah, Colorado Classic, and Tour of Alberta while racing with Rally Cycling.

“I’m coming off of three months of racing in Europe, my first season in the WorldTour, and that’s been a really cool experience, racing in bigger races,” Powless said. “I’m super happy to be back in California, as I have only good memories of this race.”

Evan Huffman and Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) finished 1-2 on Stage 4 of the 2017 Amgen Tour of California 2017. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

The Underdogs

While some WorldTour teams are using the race as a return to competition, or preparation for the Tour de France, for the four American Pro Continental teams in attendance, the Amgen Tour of California marks a major season objective.

Three of these teams — Rally Cycling, Hagens Berman Axeon, and Holowesko-Citadel — made the jump up to Pro Continental in part to assure an invitation to the biggest stage race in the U.S. While Rally was invited in 2017, along with UnitedHealthcare, Axeon and Holowesko-Citadel were not.

Rally made the most of its invite last year, winning two stages with Evan Huffman, who finished second to Sagan in the points classification. The Rally team returns in 2018 with Tour of Utah champion Rob Britton, former Tour of Alberta winner Robin Carpenter, and former junior world time trial champion Brandon McNulty.

Hagens Axeon Berman is led by Mikkel Bjerg, the Danish phenom who won the u23 world time trial championship ahead of McNulty in Norway in September.

Holowesko-Citadel brings a strong GC rider in TJ Eisenhart, a top-1o finisher at Colorado Classic and the Tour of Utah, and a former WorldTour sprinter in John Murphy.

UnitedHealthcare brings GC hopefuls in Gavin Mannion and Serghei Tvetcov, and opportunist potential in Sebastian Haedo, Tanner Putt, and Travis McCabe.

Peter Sagan has raced at the Amgen Tour of California every year he’s been a professional, amassing 16 stage wins, one overall win, and seven points classification titles.

The route

Of the 7 stages — two are clearly decisive GC stages, three are clear sprint stages, and there are two wildcard stages that may or may not impact the general classification.

The opening stage, which starts and finishes in Long Beach, as well as the final stage, which starts and finishes in Sacramento, are slotted for sprints. Stage 5, from Stockton to Elk Grove, also looks like a sure bet for the fast men.

The strongest climber of the race will be established early, on Stage 2, at the summit of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara. The 12km climb, averaging 8% gradient, has been used once before, in 2016, where Alaphilippe finished 15 seconds ahead of Stetina and held the race lead to the finish.

Stage 3, finishing at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, is not exactly a sprint stage — there are six categorized climbs, including a short, steep climb into the raceway at the finish. When this finish was used in 2016, a group of about 20 guys came to the line, with Sagan winning ahead of Greg Van Avermaet and Nathan Haas.

The GC will again be reshuffled on Stage 4, a 35km time trial held in Morgan Hill, home of Specialized Bicycles, near San Jose. There’s no clear favorite for the TT, though Americans Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac), national TT champ Joey Rosskopf (BMC Racing), Powless, McNulty, and Huffman will all be targeting that stage. Another to watch will be Bjerg, Axeon’s U23 world TT champion.

After the Stage 5 sprint in Elk Grove, Stage 6, from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe, is another wildcard stage with seven categorized climbs, at altitude, and a Cat. 1 climb topping out just 10km from the finish. It’s a new twist on the route used in 2016. What’s certain is that it will be a race of attrition; what’s uncertain is whether any rider fighting for the overall victory after Gibraltar and the time trial will lose contact here. If the rider in the leader’s jersey has a strong team, they should be able to control things; if not, it could be a chaotic day as it will be the last real chance to impact the general classification.

Stage details — and predictions

Sunday, May 13
Stage 1, Long Beach: 83.6 miles/134.5 kilometers
Terrain: Flat/bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)

Monday, May 14
Stage 2, Ventura to Gibraltar Road: 97.5 miles/157 kilometers
Terrain: Climbing stage, uphill finish
Predicted winner: Egan Bernal (Team Sky)

Tuesday, May 15
Stage 3, King City to Laguna Seca Recreation Area: 122.4 miles/197 kilometers
Terrain: Hilly
Predicted winner: Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Wednesday, May 16
Stage 4, San Jose to Morgan Hill Time Trial: 21.6 miles/34.7 kilometers
Terrain: Flat
Predicted winner: Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac)

Thursday, May 17
Stage 5, Stockton to Elk Grove: 109.4 miles/176 kilometers
Terrain: Flat/bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors)

Friday, May 18
Stage 6, Folsom to South Lake Tahoe: 122.1 miles/196.5 kilometers
Terrain: Mountainous, high-altitude
Predicted winner: Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo)

Saturday, May 19
Stage 7, Sacramento: 88.8 miles/143 kilometers
Terrain: Flat/bunch sprint
Predicted winner: Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott)

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