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Preview: Van Garderen returns to California along with all-star sprint field

The Amgen Tour of California should favor balanced GC riders with TT chops, and the field of sprinter is out of sight.

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While the season’s first grand tour is already well underway in Italy, a sizable selection of stars are gearing up for North America’s biggest stage race, the Amgen Tour of California, May 13-19.

The California race has become more prestigious in recent years, especially with its move to UCI WorldTour status in 2017. George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) won the overall title last season, and although he won’t be back to defend his title, plenty of big names will be in attendance in 2018. Notably, 2013 winner Tejay van Garderen returns to California after a five-year hiatus and may be one of the top favorites for the overall.

As well as the top GC riders, a who’s who of sprinters will line up for the 13th edition of the race, which gets underway in Long Beach on Sunday.

A seven-day trek from Long Beach to Sacramento

The weeklong event typically switches directions every year. After a north-south race in 2017, the 2018 edition of the race starts in the southern part of the state and heads north.

The Tour of California kicks off with a circuit race in downtown Long Beach. It’s a flat affair, 12 laps of 11.2 kilometers (seven miles), that will take place in view of the Pacific Ocean. A few tight corners could make things interesting, but it’s almost assuredly a day for the sprinters.

The general classification hopefuls won’t have long to wait, however, to put their talents on display. Stage 2 takes the peloton from Ventura up into Santa Barbara County, with a finish atop the imposing Gibraltar Road climb — 12 kilometers at an eight percent average gradient. Gibraltar should be a decisive battleground for the yellow jersey contenders.

Neilson Powless had a breakthrough ride at the 2016 Amgen Tour of California, animating on the Gibraltar climb. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Stage 3 probably won’t see any huge gaps in the GC fight, but riders gunning for the overall will need to stay on their toes. An extremely steep, short climb to Laguna Seca will guarantee an exciting finale.

The GC hopefuls will face yet another critical stage the following day. The stage 4 time trial in Morgan Hill will have a huge impact on the overall leaderboard. The first half of the TT includes a few rollers, and the second half involves some fast downhill sections, but it’s a mostly flat course, favoring the big engines. At 34.7 kilometers (21.6 miles), the race against the clock will have major ramifications for the weeklong affair.

Stage 5 will have the sprinters licking their chops for a shot at a high-speed win. The 176.5-kilometer (109.7-mile) ride from Stockton to Elk Grove only includes one official climb, a third-category ascent in the first half of the day. The second half of the stage is flat.

Stage 6 will be the final chance for the general classification contenders to make their mark on the race. It’s the only stage of the Amgen Tour of California that reaches serious altitude, climbing from Folsom up to Lake Tahoe with a whopping seven categorized climbs on the day. Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina, who lives in California and often trains in the Tahoe area, expects fireworks.

“Tahoe is a lot of climbing, about 5,000 meters. You’re climbing all day,” he told VeloNews. “Instead of two years ago when you dropped down to South Lake Tahoe, you now have to tackle Kingsbury grade, which is one of the hardest passes that I train on. Its high elevation and high alpine. It’s a long HC climb after three hours of climbing already in your legs. It going to be a race of attrition, and anybody who isn’t used to altitude is going to be playing a big, big price.”

The fast finishers will get a final shot at glory on the last day of the race with a 143-kilometer (88.9-mile) flat stage in Sacramento.

The GC favorites

Tejay van Garderen returns to the Tour of California for the first time after he won the race in 2013. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

With California yellow jersey hopefuls facing more than 30 kilometers against the clock, it’s going to take a rider who is adept at both climbs and TTs to win. There are a few of those on the startlist.

Tour of California 2013 winner van Garderen (BMC Racing) certainly fits the bill. He returns to the race this season for the first time since his victory. His combination of climbings legs and a big engine has always been his biggest asset. That will serve him very well on this route. Van Garderen put together a fine 2017 — collecting a Giro stage win and a Vuelta top 10 – after a few frustrating years. He’ll head a motivated BMC team that can also count on Brent Bookwalter, always a threat on home roads.

Sky’s Egan Bernal is another all-rounder likely to be in the mix. A highly touted prospect for the past few years, the 21-year-old Colombian has enjoyed a breakout 2018 season, winning the Colombia Oro y Paz and then claiming a stage win and runner-up honors high up in the Alps at the Tour de Romandie. He’s a terrific climber who is also capable against the clock. Sky teammate and fellow youngster Tao Geoghegan Hart may also factor; he was eighth overall last year.

Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) got off to a hot start this season with a stage win and a strong overall ride at Tirreno-Adriatico, but he hasn’t raced since breaking his pelvis in a crash at the Volta a Catalunya. If he’s healthy and in shape, he’s a big threat for the overall. He counts two grand tour top-10s on his palmares, including fourth overall at the 2016 Tour de France, and is an elite climber who should thrive on Gibraltar.

Bora-Hansgrohe’s Rafal Majka, runner-up in 2017, is another all-rounder who should be in the mix. He’s a two-time king of the mountains at the Tour de France, but he’s no slouch against the clock. He has always enjoyed racing on American roads and will be a big threat for the mountain stages. Teammate Jay McCarthy is a wildcard who can climb well but also might be on the hunt for stage wins.

LottoNL-Jumbo won’t have defending champion Bennett to fight for another overall victory, but a one-two punch of Americans Neilson Powless and Sepp Kuss will give the team a fighting chance at a repeat.

Lawson Craddock and Daniel Martinez of EF Education First-Drapac comprise another strong two-pronged attack.

Stetina, Dimension Data’s Lachlan Morton, UnitedHealthcare’s Serghei Tvetcov and Gavin Mannion, Ag2r La Mondiale’s Mathias Frank, Holowesko-Citadel’s Taylor Eisenhart, Rally’s Rob Britton, and Katusha-Alpecin’s Ian Boswell are others to keep an eye on for the overall title in California.

The fierce battle for stage wins

Peter Sagan is expected to make more appearances on the Tour of California podium in 2018. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

The Tour of California may have the finest roster of sprinters we’ve seen at a WorldTour race so far this year. The event has begun to establish itself as the premier one-week event for Tour de France sprint hopefuls to tune-up in fine weather ahead of La Grande Boucle.

Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, and Fernando Gaviria headline the roster pure speedsters. Every one of them is a multiple grand tour stage winner, with Cavendish second all-time to legend Eddy Merckx in career victories at the Tour de France. Americans Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) and John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel) will try to get in on the action as well.

And then there’s Peter Sagan, who has won more stages than any rider in Tour of California history. He claimed the overall title a few years back, although he’s a much better bet as a stage-hunter with Gibraltar on the parcours. He headlines a list of more versatile fast finishers that also includes Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).

Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo), Evan Huffman (Rally), and Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) are other top talents who will look to nab stage wins when neither the pure sprinters nor the pure climbers are factoring in the equation.

VeloNews will be on the ground to cover all the action in California, including the women’s race, which gets underway next Thursday. Stay tuned to for race reports, interviews, podcasts, and more.