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Tour of California 2013: Top 10 riders to watch

The 2013 Amgen Tour of California will roll out of Escondido at the southern tip of the state Sunday for its eighth run through the Golden State. The country's premiere eight-day stage race will be packed with riders from across the pro cycling spectrum, as WorldTour teams bump elbows with Pro Continental squads and several US domestic Continental teams. Although anything can happen – and usually does – in a bike race, below are a few riders to watch next week.

Peter Sagan – Cannondale

Saying Sagan, the 23-year-old Slovakian phenom, is a rider to watch at California is like going out on a limb to proclaim Eddy Merckx the greatest cyclist of all time. Really? You don't say. The all-time Tour of California stage-win leader has crossed the line first eight times over the past three years. Sagan won five stages at last year's Tour of California, and he came within 200 meters of adding another win at the end of the romp to Big Bear. Sagan faltered only in the individual time trial and the stage that ended atop Mt. Baldy.

Sagan's ability to push himself over climbs that crush most sprinter's hopes makes him a threat to win any stage that lacks a summit finish. His win during the famously difficult Porto Sant'Elpidio stage of Tirreno-Adriatico should provide an ominous warning for the rest of the California peloton. Sagan has hit the podium's top step eight times already this season, including wins at Ghent-Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl and G.P. Citta di Camaiore. He finished second at Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke, Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche. Can he pass the 10-stage-win mark this year? Stages 1, 3, 4, 5 and 8 look possible for the young rider, although he could be a threat on stage 2 as well.

Tejay van Garderen – BMC Pro Cycling

Is 2013 the year van Garderen can break onto the top step of the podium in a major UCI stage race? The 24-year-old finished fifth in last year's Tour de France to take the Best Young Rider's jersey, but he hasn't been able to crack the winner's circle here, despite coming close several times. He was fourth overall in California last year after a disappointing finish at the top of Mt. Baldy, and this year he's back with a team dedicated to bringing home the overall win.

Already this year, van Garderen has been runner-up at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina. He also finished third at Critérium International and fourth at Paris-Nice. Van Garderen, who is originally from Bozeman, Montana, also finished second last year at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado after losing the race lead to Garmin-Sharp's Christian Vande Velde by just 21 seconds during the final time trial.

Van Garderen has recently been training near his Boulder, Colorado, home while helping his wife, Jessica, care for their newborn daughter, Rylan, born April 7. “I have had to be flexible with the weather and with the new addition to our family,” he said earlier this week. “But I feel like I have gotten good work in and I am ready to race.”

Haimar Zubeldia – RadioShack-Leopard

Chris Horner's withdrawal from the RadioShack roster because of a lingering knee injury could put more focus on another of the team's veterans. Zubeldia, a 36-year-old Spanish rider who started his career at Euskaltel-Euskadi before moving to Astana and then RadioShack in 2010, has a plethora of Grand Tour experience. He has competed at the Tour of California just once, however, in 2011 in support of Horner and Levi Leipheimer's one-two finish. Without a clear team leader this year, Zubeldia, who has been fifth twice in the Tour de France, could get a free hand to use his considerable climbing skills to fight for a stage win or perhaps the overall.

Philippe Gilbert – BMC Pro Cycling

Reigning world champion Gilbert will be making his first appearance at the Tour of California and would no doubt like to make a splash in the States during his 12th professional season. Gilbert has yet to win a race this year in the rainbow jersey and would be happy to open his account this week in advance of the Tour de France's start in July.

Over his career Gilbert has won four stages at the Vuelta a Espana. He's won the Giro di Lombardia, Amstel Gold and Omloop Het Volk twice each, and he added Liege-Bastogne-Liege and la Fleche Wallonne to his palmares in 2011 when he was all but untouchable in the one-day races. Look for Gilbert in breakaways or at the front mixing it up in the sprints on the some of the tougher days when a select group of riders comes to the line. His best results so far this season have been second-place finishes at Brabantse Pijl behind Sagan and during stage 6 of Paris-Nice, when he finished second to Sylvan Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). Both of those riders will be competing in this year's California race as well.

Cam Meyer – Orica-GreenEdge

The 25-year-old Orica-GreenEdge rider won the overall at the Tour Down Under in 2011 and finished second during stage 13 of last year's Vuelta. So far this season Meyer has won the Oceania Cycling Championships and the mountains classification at Circuit Cycliste Sarthe. He also recently finished sixth overall at the Presidential Tour of Turkey. The sixth-year pro started with Garmin before moving to Orica-GreenEdge last season, when he finished 11th overall in California during his first attempt at the race.

Meyer, who has ridden four Grand Tours so far in his six-year pro career, climbs well and is good against the clock, making him a threat to win the stage 6 time trial in San Jose. He finished 2nd in the 2009 Giro stage 1 individual time trial and was eighth in the final time trial at the 2010 Giro. He also added an eighth-place time trial finish to his second-place stage finish at the 2012 Vuelta.

Michael Rogers – Team Saxo-Tinkoff

The 13-year veteran of QuickStep, T-Mobile, HTC-HighRoad, Sky and currently Saxo-Tinkoff won this race in 2010 for the HTC squad, finishing just nine seconds ahead of Garmin's David Zabriskie. Rogers, 33, has skipped the race the past two years but returns with the Saxo team to make another run at the overall. Although the team has yet to name the squad that will surround Rogers during the race, expect to see US road champion Timmy Duggan flying his red-white-and-blue kit for Bjarne Riis' Danish-based team as well.

Thomas De Gendt – Vacansoleil-DCM

With a slow start this season – De Gendt's stage win at the Volta a Catalunya in March is the Vacansoleil's only victory so far – and with a sponsorship deal ending later this summer, there's no doubt the Dutch team will be looking for a top result in California. De Gendt has been training in California for the past several weeks in hopes he can duplicate the form he took to last year's Giro d'Italia, where he won the final road stage and placed third overall. De Gendt, 26, has also won two stages at Paris-Nice in 2012 and 2011, along with stage wins at the Tour de Suisse and Tour de Wallonie.

De Gendt will be supported in California by Kris Boeckmans, Juan Antonio Flecha, Tomasz Marczynski, Lieuwe Westra, Bert-Jan Lindeman, Boy van Poppel and Wesley Kreder.

Francisco Mancebo – 5-hour Energy/Kenda

Former Spanish national champion and Grand Tour podium rider Francisco Mancebo has been tearing up the US domestic scene since signing with Competitive Cyclist in 2011. And the 37-year-old, who started his career with Banesto in 1998, shows no signs of slowing down. He recently won the difficult Gila Monster stage at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and finished third overall at that UCI race. He also finished second overall at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in Spain earlier this year after winning the Redlands Bicycle Classic in April. Mancebo has recently said he would like to race in Europe again, and performing well in California against WorldTour competition could be his ticket back to the big show.

Phil Deignan – UnitedHealthcare

Recent Tour of the Gila winner Phil Deignan got a huge boost of confidence last week in New Mexico after riding into the overall win on the final day. “Now I come into California and I have really good condition,” he told Cyclingnews moments after the final Gila stage. “For the team, obviously as well, we've had a really successful race and this has capped it all off.”

The 29-year-old Irishman started his career with AG2R before moving on to Cervelo TestTeam, RadioShack and finally UnitedHealthcare last year. His career highlights include a stage win at the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, where he finished ninth overall. Deignan, who has ridden six Grand Tours, has previously competed in the Tour of California in 2010 and 2012. he could be a threat for a stage win when the terrain turns up.

Janier Acevedo – Jamis-Hagens Berman

Acevedo, a talented 27-year-old Colombian climber, won the difficult opening Mogollon stage at last week's Tour of the Gila and wore the race leader's jersey through the final day before Deignan took it from him on the last climb. Although not a threat for the overall, the way Acevedo rode away from the field on the climb up to the southwestern ghost town of Mogollon should send a shiver down the spines of his competitors.

Acevedo started his pro career in 2011 with Gobernacion Indeportes, a Colombian team that also featured Oscar Sevilla. He won stage 5 at the Tour of Utah that year and was 16th overall at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He raced mostly in South America last year before signing with Jamis-Hagens Berman for 2013.

Acevedo spent the weeks leading up to the Tour of the Gila training at altitude in Colombia, and he topped that off with the five days of racing at altitude in New Mexico. He should be primed to tackle whatever climbs California can throw at him.

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