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Mark Cavendish won the final stage of the 2014...

Cavendish, Kittel, Sagan to light up sprints at 10th Amgen Tour of California

The aluminum anniversary of the Tour of California offers fresh faces a chance to vie for GC, and a sprint playground for top speedsters

Now one of the longest-running international stage races in U.S. history, the Amgen Tour of California celebrates its 10th edition when it kicks off on Sunday in Sacramento.

Launched in 2005 and first held in February 2006, the UCI-ranked 2.HC race is one of the most important stage races in the history of American cycling. For context, the Red Zinger/Coors Classic of the 1970s-80s spanned 14 editions, while the Tour de Trump/Tour DuPont of the 1990s covered eight editions.

This year’s Amgen Tour route travels over 700 miles in eight stages, winding through 13 host cities, starting in the state capitol of Sacramento and ending a week later in Pasadena, at the Rose Bowl Stadium.

And while the Amgen Tour has hosted women’s events every year since 2008 — usually one-off downtown criteriums, or time trials — for the first time, the event will host a three-stage women’s race in 2015.

Men’s race: The GC riders

Last year’s winner, Bradley Wiggins, will not be returning to defend his title, however his former squad, Team Sky, comes to California poised to make it two-for-two, this time with climber Sergio Henao.

The 27-year-old Colombian recently finished seventh at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was second overall to Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) at the Tour of the Basque Country in early April.

The British squad is sending a stellar lineup to support Henao, including Philip Deignan, Xabier Zandio, Pete Kennaugh, Christian Knees, Danny Pate, and Ian Boswell. Injured sprinter Ben Swift, who was set to race in California, will require shoulder surgery after a crash on the opening stage of the Tour de Yorkshire.

In addition to Wiggins, several other former winners will not be in attendance — 2013 winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and 2010 winner Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) are still active in the pro peloton, but are not participating, while the upstart Airgas-Safeway team of 2011 winner Chris Horner was not invited to compete.

There will be just one former winner in this year’s race — 2012 California champion Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo). Gesink has struggled a bit since having heart surgery last year, but he has always performed well in California, winning the best young rider’s competition on three occasions.

And though anything can happen on any given day in pro bike racing, the key stages for the overall classification look to be the 15-mile time trial in Big Bear Lake on stage 6, and the summit finish on Mt. Baldy the following day, stage 7. Baldy returns after a two-year hiatus, and once again, it’s extremely likely that the winner of the Amgen Tour will be decided on the final 15 switchbacks to the finish line.

The Amgen Tour stacks the Baldy climb on top of the nine-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; in sum, 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.

Baldy was first introduced to the Amgen Tour in 2011. Levi Leipheimer won that stage, crossing the line alongside Horner, his RadioShack teammate, who secured the overall victory. The following year, Gesink won the stage, took the leader’s jersey, and held it through the finish.

American Joe Dombrowski holds the Strava KOM on the 7km climb from Baldy Village to the ski area, set during the 2012 Amgen Tour, in a time of 22:51 — though he finished that stage 18 seconds slower than Gesink and Colombian Darwin Atapuma. In 2014 Dombrowski rode in support of Wiggins on the pivotal climbs of the Tour of California; this year, he will ride as captain of his new Cannondale-Garmin squad.

Along with Henao, Gesink, and Dombrowski, other key GC contenders include Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Janez Brajkovic (UnitedHealthcare), recent Redlands Classic winner Phil Gaimon (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), and, perhaps, young Australian climber Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly).

Another rider to watch will be Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step). The 22-year-old Frenchman was the revelation of the Ardennes Classics, taking seventh in the Amstel Gold Race, second in Flèche Wallonne, and second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège — his first attempt at these races. Following the Ardennes, Alaphilippe also finished in the top-three on a pair of stages at the Tour de Romandie. This will be his first attempt at the California tour, but if his recent string of results is any indication, Alaphilippe could well pull off a major performance on Baldy.

Rider to watch: Canadian Michael Woods of Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies is enjoying a breakthrough season, with victories on mountainous days at the Tour of the Gila and the one-day Clássica Internacional Loulé in Portugal. He also finished fifth on the mountain stage of the Volta ao Algarve, just seconds behind riders like Richie Porte, Michal Kwiatkowski, Jon Izagirre, and Geraint Thomas.

Men’s race: The sprinters

On stages that aren’t pivotal to the GC, Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) will look to add to his total of five career stage wins in California, and based on his recent wins at the Tour of Turkey — and with Mark Renshaw, Gianni Meersman, and Stijn Vandenbergh providing a dominant lead-out train — the former world champion should be the man to beat in the field sprints.

However Cavendish is far from guaranteed victories in the fast finishes. Also looking for sprint wins will be Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), who holds the record of California stage wins, with 11 wins — and five consecutive green sprint jerseys — in five participations. And Tinkoff will be far from a one-trick pony, as the team is bringing flatland horsepower in Daniele Bennati, Matti Breschel, and Michael Morkov, as well as promising young Australian Jay McCarthy.

Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) may have been the sprinter of reference at the last two editions of the Tour de France, but the big German has struggled with illness in 2015, and was winless at the Santos Tour Down Under and Tour of Qatar, his only race participations before he headed to the Tour of Yorkshire, where he abandoned midway through the opening stage. (Kittel will not race the Tour of California, per an announcement on Thursday -Ed.)

Other world-class sprinters include Gerald Ciolek and Matthew Goss (MTN-Qhubeka) and Graeme Brown (Drapac).

Rider to watch: U.S. national road and criterium champion Eric Marcotte will look to show the stars-and-stripes jersey in the field sprints for Team SmartStop, which comes to California riding a high off of Rob Britton’s overall win at the Tour of the Gila.

Men’s race: Americans to watch

Several European-based American riders will be returning to home soil to race in California.

Matthew Busche, who finished sixth overall in California in 2013, will lead the Trek Factory Racing squad.

Carter Jones makes his North American debut in Giant-Alpecin colors, while his teammate Lawson Craddock — third overall in California last year — may have a chance to lead the team after a terrible crash in Australia derailed the first half of his 2015 season.

Joey Rosskopf also makes his North American debut in WorldTour kit, riding for BMC Racing. Rosskopf earned that spot after finishing second to Cadel Evans on the queen stage of the 2014 Tour of Utah, and backing it up with a sixth overall finish at the USA Pro Challenge, while riding for Hincapie Sportswear.

Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky, winner of the 2014 Criterium du Dauphiné, was a late addition to the team’s roster, but may not be a contender for the overall. At his last participation in the Amgen Tour, in 2012, Talansky suffered from allergy-induced asthma, and has stated that allergic reactions to California’s spring blooms have kept him from returning in previous years. And Talansky’s 2015 season has not been off to a stellar start, as he’s failed to crack the top 30 in his first three stage races of the year.

Rider to watch: Sprinter Tyler Farrar, a stage winner in California in 2013, will be looking to take his first win wearing new MTN-Qhubeka team colors.

Women’s racing: A stage race and an invitational time trial

The women’s stage race starts in South Lake Tahoe on Friday and ends in Sacramento on Sunday, May 10. The pro women will also race an individual time trial on Friday, May 15, using the same Big Bear Lake venue as the pro men; that race, an invitational, will not factor into the women’s stage race classification.

The women’s stage race is “empowered” by SRAM, rather than title sponsor Amgen, though Amgen is the presenting sponsor of stage 2, a circuit race starting and finishing at Heavenly Mountain Resort. No stages of the men’s race will be held in South Lake Tahoe or Heavenly.

The 75-mile opening stage offers a clockwise loop around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe, with three major climbs — one early, one late, and then finishing with a tough climb up the 15-percent grades back to Heavenly. Stage 2 is 50 miles (two laps) on a demanding 25-mile circuit, while the final stage, in Sacramento, is essentially a downtown criterium, finishing in front of the California State Capitol building.

Those expected to race for overall victory include Lex Albrecht (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Hannah Barnes (UnitedHealthcare), and Lisa Brennauer and Trixi Worrack, both of Velocio-SRAM.

The weather forecast for South Lake Tahoe is currently calling for rain/snow on Thursday, with a high of 54 degrees Fahrenheit and an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms on Friday’s opening stage, and sunshine returning on Saturday.

The roster of the fifth annual women’s invitational time trial includes Brennauer, the world TT champion, as well as two-time Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-Sho-Air), 2013 U.S. national TT champ Carmen Small (Twenty16-Sho-Air), 2008 world TT champ Amber Neben, two-time U.S. national TT champion Evelyn Stevens (Boels Dolmans), and para-cycling star Sarah Storey (Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International).

Rider to watch: Jackie Crowell, an Amgen Tour of California ambassador, will be competing under the Breakaway from Cancer banner in her first professional race since she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2013.

TV coverage

For the fourth year, NBC Sports Group and Tour de France owners ASO will collaborate to produce the race telecast, including daily live HD coverage of the last two hours of each stage, with the eighth and final day of racing on May 17 airing live on NBC.

The Amgen Tour of California app will feature daily live coverage of the final two hours of each stage, full start-to-finish coverage via GPS, race situation and up-to-the-minute text commentary throughout the race, as well as live streaming of the women’s time trial. Highlights of the women’s stage race will also be available on-demand on the app.