Preview: Wiggins takes on the Golden State as top Amgen Tour favorite

Olympic and former Tour de France champion is the man to beat when the Amgen Tour sets off in Sacramento on Sunday

SAN FRANCISCO (VN) — On paper, the Amgen Tour of California looks to belong to three riders — Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, for stage wins, and Bradley Wiggins, for the overall.

Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France champion who relinquished his leadership at Sky last year with the emergence of Chris Froome, stated as early as February that the Amgen Tour was a season’s objective. As Wiggins proved most recently at Paris-Roubaix, with a ninth-place finish, when the seven-time Olympic medalist sets his mind on a goal, he’s a formidable opponent.

The eight-stage, 720-mile race begins Sunday, May 11, in Sacramento, and will conclude on May 18 in Thousand Oaks, west of Los Angeles. The weather forecast calls for warm, sunny days for the field of 128 riders from 16 teams.

This year’s course well suits Wiggins’ objectives, as does the caliber of his GC rivals. Though he’ll see competition in the 20-kilometer individual time trial on stage 2 in the form of Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefits), the depth of GC threats in the field is limited.

If Wiggins can emerge from the summit finish on Mount Diablo on stage 3 with the race leader’s jersey, it’s not hard to imagine that he might well hold it through the finish in Thousand Oaks on Sunday, with attacks from a handful of talented climbers on the Mountain High summit finish, on stage 6, his biggest obstacle.

Supporting Wiggins on Sky are Americans Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski, and Danny Pate, as well as Nathan Earle, Josh Edmondson, Christian Knees, and Luke Rowe.

“I’m really looking forward to riding the Tour of California. It’s an important event for the team and we want to put in a good performance in front of the American fans and our co-owners 21st Century Fox,” Wiggins said via the team’s website this week. “Riding in California is definitely something different and a nice alternative to the traditional racing program in Europe. There are a lot of passionate cycling fans in the States and this is one of the only chances we get to ride in front of them, on their roads. We’re all looking forward to it.”

California-based BMC Racing will not be riding for last year’s winner, Tejay van Garderen, but rather for American Peter Stetina, a strong climber who can ride a very respectable time trial. (Van Garderen chose not to defend his title, instead skipping the race during his build-up for the Tour de France.) Stetina will be supported by strongmen such as Phinney, Thor Hushovd, Michael Schär, and Greg Van Avermaet.

“I have never actually been in a protected role like this, so this will be a new opportunity that I have been champing at the bit for and one that I am excited for,” Stetina said in a team release. “Stepping into a leadership role is a completely different responsibility. There is an added pressure. I hope I can thrive under it and I am excited to take it head-on.”

Young British rider Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) was the overall winner at the recent Presidential Tour of Turkey, by virtue of a solo summit-finish stage win, though the race did not feature a time trial.

Another rider to watch is American rookie Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano). Craddock is no slouch against the clock, and is a talented climber as well. Team sponsor Giant USA is based in Thousand Oaks, the finishing town of the race, and Craddock would love to deliver a podium finish on home soil in his first year in team colors. Craddock finished eighth overall in California last year as the best young rider, and went on to finish seventh at the USA Pro Challenge last August.

Sagan, who won five stages at the 2012 race and two stages last year, is custom-built for the course profiles the California race organizers tend to produce, with difficult final climbs that lead into finishing cities. The Slovakian holds the record for the most California stage victories, at 10. His Cannondale team, which includes American Ted King, is built entirely on padding that record, hoping to impress its U.S.-based title sponsor.

The strongest team in the race is, without question, Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Sponsored by California-based Specialized, the team brought a squad of heavy hitters, including Cavendish, former world champion Tom Boonen, Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, set-up man Mark Renshaw, and Stijn Vandenbergh. Cavendish is fresh off four stage wins at the Tour of Turkey and continues to dial in his leadout train with eight weeks remaining until the start of the Tour de France.

Cavendish is the most consistent winner in a field of sprinters that also includes Sagan, Moreno Hofland (Belkin), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and J.J. Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman).

Whether or not Omega Pharma is capable of stopping Sagan will be the key question on stages 5, 7, and 8.

Cavendish, Sagan sit before a feast of stages

Stage 1, starting and finishing in Sacramento, delivers a series of climbs in the middle, but with the final peak some 50 miles from the finish, Cavendish will have no shortage of time, and support, to make up for any time gaps that might open up. Look for the former world champion to take the stage win and don the first race leader’s jersey, a feat he dearly hopes to repeat in Harrogate, the finish town for the first stage of this year’s Tour de France, in July.

With no significant elevation gains, the 12.5-mile stage 2 time trial appears to be “Taylor-made” for Phinney. Though Wiggins has a superior record against the clock, including Olympic gold in 2012 and silver in last year’s world TT championship, the shorter distance time trials are Phinney’s specialty. The American BMC rider could well take the stage win and the race lead in Folsom. Though he missed victory in last week’s time trial at the Silver City Tour of the Gila, Zirbel could finally pull off the major upset he’s been threatening to take for years. And Chad Haga, formerly at Optum and now at Giant-Shimano, will also be an outsider to watch on the race’s second day.

Just as it did in 2013, the Mount Diablo summit finish on stage 3 will prove decisive. Garmin-Sharp Colombian Janier Acevedo finished second on Diablo in 2013, and will aim for victory this year. Last year’s Diablo stage winner, Leopold König (NetApp-Endura) should also factor as the German team ramps up for its first Tour appearance in July. It’s a day that could see one man win the stage, and another take over the golden leader’s jersey.

Whoever takes the overall lead, the major question will surround his tame gap, and if it will be enough to withstand the summit finish at Mountain High on stage 6.

The stage 4 ride from Monterey to Cambria will traverse the rugged Big Sur coastline, providing the postcard images that have defined the nine-year-old race. Headwinds, and a lack of real climbs, mean this stage will likely end in a field sprint. If so, a sprint battle between Cavendish, Sagan, Hofland, and Degenkolb is likely.

The following day, stage 5 from Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara, marks the race’s entry into Southern California. The stage will bypass the coast, instead sending riders inland, and over San Marcos Pass, which tops out 18 miles from the finish line. Depending on the pace over the climb, this could be Sagan’s first opportunity to strike.

Stage 6, from Santa Clarita to the ski area at Mountain High, should be the last major GC test. Look to Wiggins, Stetina, and Acevedo battling for the overall victory; other climbers vying for the stage win could include König, Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare), Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Lachlan Morton (Garmin-Sharp), and Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin), who will stay in the U.S. for a training camp after the race.

“I’m really glad to ride this race. After the Tour de France, it’s my main goal. I finished sixth once, so that gives me some confidence. As a team, we’d like to give the sponsor a present,” Ten Dam said in a team release. “It’s [the United States] a country I love. After the Amgen Tour of California, I’ll stay for an altitude training camp and some vacation time. I’m going to train my butt off, but I’ll fish as well. I’m even going to visit some national parks.”

Stages 7 and 8 both deliver hilly circuits that should make for exciting racing, as the race leader will no doubt come under pressure. In particular, the Angeles Crest climb on the stage 7 circuit could cause some damage. Both days ultimately look perfect for riders like Sagan, or Degenkolb, to take the stage win.

Our prediction: Sagan wins three stages, Cavendish wins two, Acevedo wins one of the two summit finishes, and Wiggins wins the overall, ahead of Stetina and Craddock.

Of course, this is professional bike racing, where anything can, and does, happen. And it will again, no doubt, in the Golden State next week.