Pre-race press conferences can be notoriously stale as riders answer questions similar to those they’ve answered at numerous previous gatherings with reporters. The names and kits change, but the questions about form, rivals, targets and ambitions rarely do.
Riders’ attitudes can sometimes reflect the monotonous nature of the events, and those answers can be less than revealing or insightful. That was the tone at the Tour of California press conference on Friday, with a few notable exceptions.
The team hotel on Sacramento’s west side was buzzing with activity on Friday as teams, riders and staff mingled with agents, race personnel, media and the hundreds and hundreds of people who hold the infrastructure of the race together. Tucked into a banquet room on the hotel’s ground floor, Friday’s press conference was a true California event, as it came in waves.
The first round featured the usual pre-race speakers, including representatives from Amgen and Visit Sacramento, along with race Executive Director Kristin Klein and USA Cycling Chairman of the Board Bob Stapleton. They were joined on the dais by Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Alex Hoehn (USA) and Kendall Ryan (Tibco-SVB).
Round two brought out Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Evan Huffman (Rally UHC). Below is a look at some of the highlights and takeaways from Friday’s presser.
George Bennett is not as confident as Simon Yates
The 2017 Tour of California winner made this abundantly clear on Friday. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) perked up some ears when he responded to a reporter’s question about the top favourite for the Giro d’Italia with, “Me”, adding that his rivals should be “scared” and “shitting” themselves.
Asked if he’d like to deliver a similar message to his California rivals, Bennett quickly declined.
“If I was as good as Yatesy I would, but I don’t have the legs that Simon does, so I won’t,” he said.
That being said, Bennett is in California to try and claim the Lexus that goes to the winner, and he believes that, unlike his win in 2017 when he and three others got away on Mt. Hamilton and ended a lot of their rivals’ GC hopes, this year’s race will come down to the big climb up Mt. Baldy on the final day despite Hamilton’s return this year on stage 3.
“I think pretty much whoever wins on Baldy gets a Lexus,” Bennett said. “Mt. Hamilton is hard, but it’s not like two years ago when we could light it up and then survive to the finish. It’s still quite a long way to go. It will be really hard and a lot of altitude to get, but I don’t think it’s going to be decisive, so I think it all comes down to Baldy and staying out of trouble the other days.”
Bennett will have to try for his second California win without the services of teammate Sepp Kuss, the 24-year-old climbing sensation who won the Tour of Utah last year. Kuss was scheduled to ride California this year, but an injury to Robert Gesink meant he was called up to Jumbo-Visma’s Giro team.
“I’ve been training a lot with Sepp, and the day Robert crashed I sent him a message telling him one of us would need to pack our suitcase for Italy. He drew the short straw. That’s a big loss because he’s an altitude specialist and he’s a good friend and I love racing my bike with him.”
Another American, 22-year-old Neilson Powless, stepped up to take Kuss’ place.
“They might not have the same ability on the climbs, but we gain something in other areas,” Bennett said. “We’re not going to be like a few years ago when we lit it up and made the race, but we have a nice team to look after me, and we have Danny [van Poppel] and Timo [Roosen] for the sprints. We have some options. They’re all young and they’re all motivated, so I’m sure we’ll make it work.
No pressure for Peter Sagan
One of the more relaxed riders at the press conference was Peter Sagan, the three-time world champion who is treated like – and referred to as – the ‘King of California’ because of his record 16 stage wins.
Sagan hasn’t had his best spring this year, still suffering the effects of a hard crash at the Tour de France in July. As he did in 2015, the year he won the overall in California, Sagan is coming into the race with just one victory so far. In 2015, Sagan was under immense pressure to win from team owner Oleg Tinkov. Sagan responded with a “surprising” victory after a heroic ride up Mt. Baldy to keep him in contention.
If Sagan’s win in 2015 eased some of the pressure, everything he has accomplished since then seems to have removed any stress at all. Three consecutive world championships cut a person just a bit of slack, and Sagan’s relaxed nature reflects his past successes even when things aren’t rolling his way on the road.
That’s why you won’t see Sagan fighting for another GC win this year.
“I think  was a big surprise for me,” an unusually talkative Sagan said. “I took the yellow jersey and it was pretty hard. I just won because of bonus seconds. Well, I enjoyed it, but actually that year I lost the green jersey, but I had yellow. It was OK.”
Sagan decided to pull the plug on his Classics campaign early this year, and after withdrawing from Liège-Bastogne-Liège he spent some time at home and then travelled to California in early May.
“It was not really only for Tour of California,” Sagan said of his decision to skip Liège. “It was more to take time to rest, because after is another long part until the Tour de France that I have to be ready for: Tour of California, Tour de Suisse, nationals, Tour de France. I was resting.”
In the context of fellow sprinter Marcel Kittel’s recent decision to terminate his contract with Katusha-Alpecin and take a break from the sport, Sagan was asked if there is too much pressure for riders who are expected to perform all the time at the top level.
“Everything is how you set your mind,” he said. “I don’t feel some pressure. The journalists always want to speak about something. They have to write something. That’s your job, yeah.”
Nacer Bouhanni gets in on Sagan’s act
Nacer Bouhanni is known for many things, but his sense of humour is not chief among them. Nevertheless, the Cofidis sprinter drew the biggest laughs of the day with his succinct answers to questions about targets and rivals.
Asked what stages he would be targeting, Bouhanni, who speaks French, said through a translator that he planned to target “the sprint stages,” as he flashed a cheeky grin. Asked who he thought his rivals at the race were, Bouhanni said simply “the sprinters,” an impish smile once again lighting up his face.
The Frenchman was having a little fun with the questions. To be fair, however, it should be noted that Bouhanni’s performance was not entirely original. Sagan has been working this act on-and-off at press conferences for awhile. When he was asked before MIlan-San Remo what the Monument was to him, he said “a bike race.”
Obviously, not all the questions get such flippant answers, but a little humour goes a long way during a press event that drags on.
On a more serious note, Bouhanni said he would love to go home to France after having notched his first win of the season in California.
Tour of California “is always in discussions” about its calendar spot
In November, UCI President David Lappartient suggested that the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia could change dates in 2020 to avoid the current May calendar clash of the two WorldTour races. The Frenchman said that the 2020 the Tour of California has been pencilled in for an earlier date of May 3-9, while the 2020 Giro would start a week later, running from May 16 through June 7. The week’s separation would give riders the opportunity to ride both events, Lappartient speculated.
Kristin Klein, the race director, said the Tour of California is “always in ongoing discussions, not only with USA Cycling, but also the UCI.”
“They’re ongoing discussions that we have, but I’ve stated in the past, we don’t look at the Giro as a conflict,” she said. “I think the Amgen Tour of California has a proven track record, and you see the riders who are up here today. We don’t look at it as a conflict.”
Asked if he would consider doing both races if the dates changed, Richie Porte didn’t mince words.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “I mean it’s part of the sport, isn’t it, traveling? I think that would be quite a hard one. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing having two big races going at the same time. I remember last year watching the Giro during the day in Europe and then the Tour of California at night. It’s not a big deal.”