The 14th edition of the Amgen Tour of California is set to be a wide-open race, with a first stage just for the sprinters, two early high mountain stages and a short, punchy mountain stage to Mt. Baldy the key features of a time-trial free event.
It's impossible to predict who will be on top form after breaks from the Spring Classics and early season stage races, but Cyclingnews has chosen five riders to keep an eye on in the race.
There are many worthy riders who didn't make the short list - John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is looking to re-establish himself as top dog in the bunch sprints, as are Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida), but they'll be up against the dominant Deceuninck-QuickStep train piloting Fabio Jakobsen and fearless upstarts like Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates), Cees Bol (Sunweb), Kristoffer Halvorsen (Team Ineos) and Edwin Avila (Israel Cycling Academy).
Similarly, strong climbers like Bora-Hansgrohe's Maximilian Schachmann, Ineos' Gianni Moscon and David de la Cruz, 2017 Tour of California winner George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) all deserve to be on the list, but there can be only five.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
With the first stage a pan-flat 143km circuit in and around Sacramento, barring extreme weather or in-fighting between the teams it will be one for the sprinters and who else to watch aside from the King of California, Peter Sagan?
Since having the rainbow bands wrested from his shoulders by Alejandro Valverde, Sagan has put just one win onto his palmares at the Tour Down Under. Perhaps his globetrotting January where he went from Australia to Argentina contributed to an early-season illness that hurt his Classics campaign, but the Slovakian will be looking to regain his spark in a race where he's already enjoyed incredible success, with 15 career stage wins, five points titles and one overall victory in 2015.
Sagan took an early exit from the Ardennes Classics to head to the Golden State to train and relax away from the pressures of Europe and will have an advantage in the first stage over other riders who have just traveled across nine time zones. Look for Sagan to be front and center on the wide-open stretch of L-Street on stage 1, but more importantly at the end of the Classics-length stages to Morro Bay and Ventura.
While fresh legs may mean plenty of competition in Sacramento, by the time the next bunch sprint rolls around the situation will be profoundly different. Stage 4 comes on the heels of two mountainous stages over 200km in length, and itself heads down the Pacific coast a full 214.5km to Morro Bay from the Laguna Seca raceway. The sheer length of these early stages will benefit Sagan, who as a six-time Tour de France green jersey winner, has the ability to keep his sprint power after the toughest stages.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
The 20-year-old Slovenian put in an astounding performance at the Volta ao Algarve in February, besting Sky's Wout Poels on the steep ascent to Fóia on stage 2 to take the race lead which he never relented.
Pogacar put in a similarly impressive ride at the Tour of the Basque Country, where he worked for teammate Dan Martin and still managed to finish sixth overall and win the best young rider's competition.
A winner of the Tour de l'Avenir, Pogacar's quality is undeniable. Look for him to be at the head of affairs on the ascent to South Lake Tahoe on stage 2, the opportunist's stage over Mt. Hamilton to Morgan Hill on stage 3 and on the aggressive stage from Ontario to Mt. Baldy.
(P.S. It's pronounced po-GAH-tchar)
Brandon McNulty (Rally UHC Cycling)
The Tour of California is the jewel of the season for the American riders, and while EF Education First's Tejay van Garderen has more experience standing atop the podium in this race, perhaps no compatriot is more intriguing than Rally UHC Cycling's Brandon McNulty.
McNulty is a former junior time trial world champion but suffered a few setbacks over the intervening years since his 2016 rainbow jersey. He showed great progress last season with a dogged performance in the Tour of California to finish seventh overall behind Egan Bernal and five other WorldTour riders.
While last year's steep ascent on Gibraltar Road did not suit McNulty, this year's course offers the same kind of long grinds that he parlayed into overall success in the Giro di Sicilia this season. It will be interesting to see how he stacks up in California.
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo)
Australian Grand Tour contender Richie Porte has opted to make his debut in the Tour of California as part of his Tour de France preparation after his early season was interrupted by a bout of bronchitis. The 34-year-old has not raced since a lackluster Volta a Catalunya in March, so the second stage to the high altitude of Lake Tahoe will be a rude awakening.
But the king of Willunga Hill on home soil might find the route just the place to show that he's doing his homework for the Tour de France, and find the consistency he's looking for. The real test will be on Mt. Baldy where Porte will hope to send some warning signals to his Tour rivals.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
The Tour of California will be a prime opportunity for Cavendish to show that he's not going to go the way of Marcel Kittel, that he can recover his speed after fighting mononucleosis and show the kind of sprint prowess that delivered him to 30 stage victories in the Tour de France and 10 in the Tour of California.
In Tour de Yorkshire, Cavendish was led to the front of the first stage sprint, but in a sketchy, cold and rainy stage, he seemed to lose his nerve in the final 200m. The opening stage in Sacramento might not be Cavendish's cup of tea, then, as the long kick from the final turn often sees riders pinballing off each other in a mad dash to the line.
Once the freshness has been beaten out of the riders' legs with a 214km stage to Lake Tahoe and another testing 208km stage over Mt. Hamilton on stage 3 to Morgan Hill, the 214.5km of undulating riding down the coast from Monterrey to Morro Bay might be just the stage for Cavendish to shine.
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