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A few of the big names on the startlist attended...

California press conference confirms: No clear favorite, except in the sprints

The likes of Cavendish and Sagan should light up the bunch kicks, but there is no clear GC favorite heading into the 2015 Tour of California

SACRAMENTO (VN) — The mood was a bit unusual at the pre-race press conference for the Amgen Tour of California, held Friday in Sacramento.

For perhaps the first time in the race’s 10 editions, there is no overwhelming favorite for the overall win. There is a list of a dozen potential podium finishers, but none that truly stands out above the others, and only a few from that list were in attendance at the press conference.

The sole former champion at this year’s race, 2012 winner Robert Gesink of LottoNL-Jumbo, was coy about his chances to take a second GC vcitory, citing a knee injury that derailed the first half of his season.

The same could be said for American Lawson Craddock of Giant-Alpecin, who finished third overall in 2014 but is still finding his form after major injuries suffered in a crash at the Tour Down Under.

The one rider whose name does seem to percolate to the top of the list of potential winners, Sky’s Sergio Henao, was not in attendance at Friday’s press conference.

Neither was Peter Kennaugh or Ian Boswell (Sky), Jani Brajkovic (UnitedHealthcare), Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Phil Gaimon or Mike Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly), or Rob Britton ¬(SmartStop) — all solid GC riders with a good chance of ending up in the top 10 overall when the race finishes in Pasadena on May 17.

Of course it’s unrealistic to invite a dozen GC contenders to a pre-race press conference, but the lack of any clear favorite set an unconventional tone for this year’s Amgen Tour, which kicks off Sunday in Sacramento. The GC race is wide open, without a rider of reference.

Cannondale-Garmin’s Andrew Talansky was one of the riders up on the dais, although the Amgen Tour wasn’t initially on his 2015 race calendar. His team implied that young climber Joe Dombrowski would be their GC leader in a press release earlier in the week (privately, Dombrowksi deflected any pressure or expectations, telling VeloNews that he would take things day by day, with an eye on the Mt. Baldy summit finish on stage 7).

The other decisive stage, the stage 6 time trial at Big Bear Lake, is not long (15 miles), nor hilly, but it is held at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, bringing the altitude factor into the equation. The flat and fast course has not been used before, and is not expected to create significant time gaps on the general classification heading into Mt. Baldy.

Asked about their GC chances, Gesink, Craddock, and Talanksy all punted, saying they were unsure about their form, and that they intended to race for a high overall finish.

“I hope to do my best, whether that’s on the podium, or the top step,” Craddock said. “It’s a prestigious race, and I hope to be racing for the win, but for me it’s a mystery. I just don’t know. Lately I have had some good days, and I’ve had some bad days. Hopefully this week I’ll have some good days.”

Gesink struck a similar tone. “I did pretty well in the Tour of Romandie,” he said of his recent 15th overall finish in Switzerland. “It’s a bit of question where I’ll be at this race. I might be good enough to be there in front. I’m pretty confident I’m headed in the right direction.”

Gesink said that he views Henao as the big favorite. The 27-year-old Colombian recently finished seventh at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was second overall to Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) at the Tour of the Basque Country in early April. With Henao, whether or not that form will continue into mid-May is the big unknown.

Gesink added that Talansky would be a rider to watch. However Talansky’s spring campaign was a bit of a disappointment. At Paris-Nice, a race where he finished second overall in 2013, he finished 50th. At the Volta a Catalunya, a race that included a stage finish in his adopted hometown of Girona, Spain, he finished 31st. And at País Vasco, he finished 49th. No stage wins, no podium places, no shots across the bow to his rivals — three weeklong races, with little to show for it.

Of all the potential GC threats, Alaphilippe put together some of the best spring performances, finishing second to Alejandro Valverde at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the first attempts at either race for the 22-year-old French phenom. Though he’s a bit unproven on longer climbs, such Mt. Baldy, Alaphilippe is, on paper, one of the biggest GC threats.

On the other side of the coin, with the withdrawal of key sprint rivals Marcel Kittel and Ben Swift, Etixx rider Mark Cavendish has become the overwhelming favorite to win the mad dashes to the line.

Other sprinters are at the Amgen Tour — MTN Qhubeka alone brings a squad with the trio of Gerald Ciolek, Theo Bos, and Tyler Farrar — but Cavendish is the sprinter par excellence in California, fresh off the Tour of Turkey, where he took three stage wins.

At Friday’s press conference, Cavendish laced his answers with veiled barbs, taking a shot at Kittel — “he’s MIA again, so Giant aren’t going to be pulling for the sprint” — and expressing frustration that his Etixx team would be expected to control the breakaways on stages likely to end in bunch gallops.

Asked if the absence of Kittel and Swift meant that his team would be expected to do the bulk of the work on sprint stages, Cavendish first looked over to Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), before answering and said, half-jokingly, “So, are you guys going to ride?”

“A lot of teams bring sprinters and they don’t ride for the sprint,” Cavendish said. “If I was on a team and they didn’t want to ride for the sprint, I’d ask ‘what did you bring me here for?’ That’s how it is, in the last years, the breakaway could go up to 10 or 15 minutes, and everyone plays games. I don’t know, maybe the team directors don’t want to put their balls on the line. But we have teams of eight riders for a reason, so that some people can pull. I guess that’s how it goes … I know I like having my team commit. It puts pressure on me to win, and more often that not, we come out on top.”

And then there was the enigmatic Sagan, who holds the record for stage wins in California, at 11, and has won the points competition five years in a row.

Sagan is part-sprinter, part-classics rider, currently in the midst of the worst slump in his short but esteemed career — he’s won only twice since June 16 of last year, once at his Slovakian national championship. His lack of results was the subject of scrutiny in a recent Cyclingnews.com post by his team owner Oleg TInkov, who wrote, “[I’m] paying him a big check and he’s not performing. That’s not good.”

Asked to respond to Tinkov’s post, which included the suggestion that more pressure on his riders would produce better results, Sagan took the high road, saying, “If I want to say something about it, I will speak to him [directly], not at a press conference.”

Sagan then added, “I’m riding for myself and for the team. I ride the bike because I like riding,” to which Cavendish quipped, “He’s also rich.”

And there you have it. This year’s Amgen Tour of California is wide open — except where it’s not.

Peter Sagan is frustrated. He’s under scrutiny (and also wealthy), but back on Californian soil, where he has enjoyed some of the best success of his career.

Mark Cavendish will likely win several sprints, and his team will likely be expected to control the breakaways. They will succeed, except if they don’t.

Sergio Henao is the pre-race favorite … probably. Most likely. Maybe.

Joe Dombrowski will be the rider to watch on Mt. Baldy, although some may be instead looking to his Cannondale teammate, Andrew Talansky.

And a whole slew of GC contenders have the chance to prove the race organization wrong for not inviting them to the pre-race press conference.

This year’s Amgen Tour is wide open — more so than ever. And this is why we watch. Let the games begin.