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With 13 career stage wins and a GC title, Peter...

Sagan, king of California, back for seventh tour

Peter Sagan is the Amgen Tour of California's most successful racer, but the Gibraltar queen stage will challenge the defending champ.

Peter Sagan made his United States debut seven seasons ago as a first-year ProTour rider — less than a year after he nearly quit cycling. He’s now the sport’s reigning showman, reigning world champion, and capable of winning nearly any race he enters.

Sagan’s tenure at the Amgen Tour of California is an ideal example of his dominance. After winning two stages of Paris-Nice and another stage at the Tour de Romandie, the 20-year-old arrived at the 2010 Tour of California in an uncertain role — he was a late entry on the squad. But he won on a flat, windy day in Bakersfield in stage 5 and followed the next day with a win in the first mountain finish in the race’s history at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Sagan and Italian teammate Francesco Bellotti, who was riding in the last year of his career, were the only two Liquigas riders to finish the race, with Sagan’s two wins vaulting him to eighth overall, trailing winner and future Tinkoff teammate Michael Rogers by 2:06.

This came only a year after Quick-Step declined to offer him a contract after a try-out in 2009. Fortunately, his parents encouraged the 2008 junior mountain bike world champion to persevere, and he landed with the Italian team, where he raced for five seasons.

“The first time for me at the Tour of California was a very nice race,” Sagan, 26, said in a recent telephone interview from Europe, while traveling to the second of his recent mountain bike races. “It was the first time for me to be cycling in America. I had come with a very big objective at the time. I had already had won two stages at Paris-Nice and a stage of the Tour of Romandie. I wanted to make some victories in America, and I did it.”

Now in his second year with Tinkoff, Sagan will compete in his seventh Tour of California when the race’s 11th edition begins Sunday in San Diego. The Slovak has a record 13 of his 77 pro career wins in California and is the defending champion after his dramatic last-day effort in 2015.

“Now, for me, the Tour of California it’s more of a routine, no?” Sagan said. “I have the first part of the season and then the Tour of California to prepare for the Tour de France. I am very happy to come back. There are great people around the roads, and it’s a very nice race, with a very good organization. And for me, it’s nice to come back always.”

Sagan’s improbable title run last year began in stage 6, a shortened time trial in Santa Clarita. The originally planned longer time trial at Big Bear Lake was halted by inclement weather. Sagan blistered the revised course and then showcased his versatility the following day with a sixth place on the mountaintop finish at Mt. Baldy, 47 seconds behind winner Julian Alaphilippe, the French rider from Etixx – Quick-Step. Sagan collapsed just after the finish line.

Sagan’s title culminated with a final day, third-place, photo finish over American sprinter Tyler Farrar at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in stage 8. Sagan’s four bonus seconds in the final sprint and one-second sprint bonus earlier in the stage gave him a three-second winning margin over Alaphilippe.

“I didn’t know I had taken the points,” Sagan recalled. “I was waiting for the jury. I want to win the GC for sure. But I was sprinting for the bonus seconds. But in the final, I didn’t know if I was third or fourth.”

With the inclusion this year of the steep Gibraltar Road summit finish in stage 3, just outside of Santa Barbara, Sagan is not favored to defend his title. Then again, he wasn’t a title favorite last year until the uncertain nature of bicycle racing presented an opportunity.

“I don’t why I have been so successful [in California], really,” Sagan said. “I guess I have different characteristics maybe in the climbs and in the sprints.”