With an all-star sprint roster that includes world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), the 2018 Amgen Tour of California has been properly billed as a preview of the coming Tour de France showdown in July.
The seven-day WorldTour race, starting Sunday in Long Beach, provides three clear opportunities for the sprinters on stages 1, 5 and 7. A stage 3 finish at Laguna Seca Raceway, where Sagan beat BMC Racing's Greg Van Avermaet in 2016, should be another opportunity for the punchier fastmen who can make it over the series of short-but-steep climbs near the finish.
No doubt, the sprinters will have their opportunities to shine in the Golden State, but the overall race is shaping up nicely as well, and the peloton won't have to wait long to start marking up a general outline of who's in with a chance to take the 2018 title.
The first shakeout of the general classification will come on stage 2, which starts in Ventura and finishes with the climb up Gibraltar Road. The 12km climb launched Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) to overall victory in 2016 and should provide a clear indication of who's going well next week.
The next GC battle will come on stage 4 with a relatively lengthy 34.7km individual time trial in San Jose. The route has a small climb in the middle and two technical descents, but aero bikes should be the choice of the day.
After another day for the sprinters, the stage 6 route from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe is a day in the mountains that includes six KOMs, including a category 1 stinger that tops out just 10.5km from the finish. It should provide a last gasp for the overall hopefuls.
With the GC almost certainly sewed up in the mountains, the final stage on Saturday, May 19, in Sacramento is a pan-flat gift for the fastmen, and Cavendish in particular has made a habit of winning on the finishing circuit around the California State Capitol.
Once again, the Tour of California finds itself without a defending champion after 2017 winner George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) chose to race at the ongoing Giro d'Italia instead. His team will be at the race with two young Americans, however, in the form of Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless, who was an early animator on Gibraltar Road in 2016 and has a good time trial as well.
Rafal Majka, second last year, will be back with his Bora-Hansgrohe team looking to add the California trophy to his mantle as he prepares for the Tour de France. Fortunately for Majka, teammate Peter Sagan doesn't really require a lead-out train, so he'll have a squad dedicated to his GC efforts.
One rider Majka didn't have to face last year in California is 2013 winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who returns to the race for the first time since he won the overall title. Van Garderen has a good mix of young talent and experienced hands to back him, including Brent Bookwalter, Michael Schar, Joey Rosskopf, and Miles Scotson.
Team Sky is back at the race with a strong team led by Tour de Romandie runner-up and Colombia Oro Y Paz winner Egan Bernal, who has proven in his first year with the British team that he's a man to be reckoned with in the one-week races. Bernal will have the services of Tao Geoghegan Hart, eighth overall last year, and a strong line-up that includes Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. The team appears to be serious about adding another California title to the one Bradley Wiggins took in 2014.
Other riders in the GC hunt include Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), and EF Education First-Drapac's Lawson Craddock and Dani Martinez.
Mitchelton-Scott's Adam Yates is returning to action after crashing out of Volta a Catalunya in March and will be a rider to watch, as will the exploits of Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman, a double stage winner last year, and Rob Britton, who played a big role in both of Huffman's wins and has had a good start to his season with an overall win last month at the Tour of the Gila.
The race starts Sunday along the Pacific Coast in Long Beach with a 12-lap circuit race that takes place partially on Ocean Boulevard and Shoreline Drive, just to name a couple streets that give away the route's proximity to the Pacific. The 134.5km stage is pan flat and should end in a bunch sprint.
Stage 2 is the 'Queen Stage' of the race, ending as it does with the 12km climb of Gibraltar Road, which averages 8 per cent grade. This year's route differs from the 2016 version, with more KOMs stacked closer to the middle of the route and toward the finish, but the day's main course will be Gibraltar and the leader's jersey that will likely go to the winner at the top.
The stage 3 route from King City to Laguna Seca starts out sedately enough, with the first categorised climb coming 66km into the day. The next doesn't come until kilometre 143.5, but it starts a series of punchy ascents that should take the snap out of most the pure sprinters' legs. The climb into the famous racetrack and the descent down the corkscrew curves provide a final blast of excitement.
Stage 4 ventures to Morgan Hill, the land of Specialized, for a 34.7km individual time trial that should be more than a test of power. The route climbs to a high point at 16.2km and then features two technical descents before a slow, gentle rise to the finish.
Stage 5 is another gift for the sprinters. The 176km route from Stockton to Elk Grove has just one category 3 climb that comes a third of the way through the day. From there it's a no-holds-barred rush to the sprint in Elk grove, where the Amgen Women's Race will have just finished its first of three stages.
Stage 6 will be the last chance for the overall contenders to try and shake things up. The 2016 race also featured a finish at South Lake Tahoe after leaving from Lodi. Toms Skujins, riding for Cannondale at the time, won the stage from a breakaway in a two-up sprint with Rally's Adam de Vos.
This year's stage leaves from Folsom, and rather than just two categorised climbs before the finish as in 2016, the stage now goes over the category 3 Cedar Ravine, the category 1 Sly Park, the category 2 Mormon Emigrant Trail, the category 2 Kirkwood Summit, and the category 2 Carson Pass. The real dagger comes with the addition of the category 1 climb up Daggett Summit just 10.5km from the finish. It should be a day of challenges and defending.
Stage 7, a flat route that finishes with several circuits around the Capitol complex in downtown Sacramento, is the exclamation point for the end of the week.