Packed field ready to contest hardest Tour of California yet - Preview

Peter Sagan won the 2015 race by seconds on the final day, can the 11th edition of America's biggest race match the drama?

The overall battle at the 2015 Tour of California came down to time bonuses on the final day, when Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan leaped ahead of Etixx-QuickStep’s Julian Alaphilippe by three seconds after finishing third in the last field sprint in Pasadena.

Sagan is back this year to defend his title, but the consensus is that the 2016 route, which begins Sunday in San Diego and concludes eight days later in Sacramento, may be too difficult for Sagan to repeat his 2015 feat.

The more likely general classification contenders this year will come from the race’s 2014 podium, which saw Bradley Wiggins take the overall win ahead of Rohan Dennis and Lawson Craddock.

While Wiggins is focused on winning another gold medal this summer at the Rio Olympics and may not have the climbing legs this year to fight for the overall, both Dennis (BMC) and Craddock (Cannondale) will be leading their respective teams’ general classification efforts. Alaphalippe is also back with a strong Etixx-Quickstep team that includes Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar.

Other riders for the general classification include Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky), Tiago Machado (Katusha), and American Peter Stetina taking the reins at Trek-Segafredo. Giant-Alpecin is pinning its overall chances on Laurens ten Dam.

Ironically, for a race that has billed itself as having put together the hardest edition yet, the field is rich with sprinters. If Sagan wants to trade his yellow jersey for green this year, he’ll have to outduel Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo) and recent 4 Days of Dunkirk winner Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie).

The Route

The 2016 race begins Sunday in downtown San Diego on the city's famous waterfront. The course includes one challenging climb in the middle, but the fast finish makes it a strong possibility for a sprint.

During Friday’s pre-race press conference, race ambassador Jens Voigt described the climb as one that will warm the legs a little bit.

“After the last climb there are 70km,” Voigt said, “so I expect everything to come back together.”

The second stage from South Pasadena to Santa Clarita will pass through the high mountains of the Angeles National Forest. Previous stage finishes in Santa Clarita have favoured the sprinters, but the course's difficult middle section could make this a year for a breakaway or a sprint from a reduced peloton.

Freddy Rodrigues, another raced ambassador who competed in nine of the past 10 editions of the race, said he expects a field sprint on stage 2.

“I think these are a climbs a lot of these world-class sprinters can make it over,” Rodrigues said. “I can see, especially Sagan, getting over the climbs and having an opportunity.”

The third stage from Thousand Oaks to Gibraltar Road is 2016's queen stage and should truly set the pecking order for the general classification fight. Voigt described the road to the summit of Gibraltar road as a “vicious, steep and serious climb" that will separate the general classification contenders front he pretenders.

The fourth stage travels from Morro Bay to Monterey, where it finishes on the legendary Laguna Seca racetrack. Rodrigues said the peloton should expect to be riding into a headwind all the way up the coast. Multiple short, steep climbs come in the closing kilometers, and the finish in the race track includes a 1.7km climb with a pitch of 10 percent.

Stage 5 is a long ascent from Lodi to Lake Tahoe, the race's second trip there since the area's plans for the grand depart were cancelled by snow in 2011. The climb to Tahoe is relentless, at altitude and includes a tough finishing tilt. Rodrigues said he expects this to be a day for the breakaway.

Folsom hosts the stage 6 time trial on the same course where Wiggins won in 2014 ahead of Dennis and Taylor Phinney. On Friday, Wiggins downplayed his chances to repeat the win there, saying he hadn’t ridden his time trial bike in 14 months. But the 2012 Olympic time trial champion and Tour de France winner remains the hands-down favourite.

A stage 7 circuit that starts and finishes in Santa Rosa has a few climbs and a saw-tooth profile mid-stage that could favour opportunists, but Rodrigues said he expects the 52km run to the finish line to set up another sprint. Voigt believes that, with the general classification firmly established after the time trial, this could be a good day for a successful breakaway.

The final day in Sacramento will be all about the high-end speed as the race finishes for the first time in the state capitol. The pan-flat course lends itself to a big bunch sprint, but crosswinds in the flatlands surrounding Sacramento could potentially shake things up for another surprise ending.

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