Sagan faces stiff sprint competition in Tour of California

A funny thing happened on the way to Peter Sagan's next stage win at the Tour of California. Over the past five years, the 24-year-old Cannondale rider has notched a record 10 stage wins in the UCI 2.HC race on his way to winning the green points jersey four times. But this year Sagan will face his toughest competition yet if he wants to add to his palmares in the Golden State.

The 2014 start list includes previous Tour of California stage winners Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Juan Jose Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman), along with potential sprint winners John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing).

Possible contenders from the Pro Continental and Continental teams include Eric Young (Optum Pro Cycling), Ken Hanson (UnitedHealthcare), Nicholai Brochner (Bissell Development Team) and US pro champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Maxxis).

"I came here for the first time five years ago and won two stages," Sagan said at the pre-race press conference Friday afternoon. "And then every year I found more victories. Maybe it was a little bit easy last year and maybe before because we were missing Mark [Cavendish] and we were missing Goss. We will see this year, but I don't know. This year is going to be harder."

The opening stage in Sacramento will be the sprinters' first opportunity for a stage win and the early overall lead. Cavendish won the Sacramento stage in 2011, his last appearance at the race, and briefly wore yellow. He has a total of three stage wins in California, while Goss has one and Haedo has five.

Cavendish said Omega Pharma-Quickstep definitely brought the firepower to California to help him add a stage win or two while making a run at the green jersey.

"I'm incredibly fortunate that Omega Pharma-Quickstep has an amount of massively strong guys," Cavendish said. "Mark Renshaw is a sprinter in his own right, and he goes through as my last man. Along with the big Belgians like Tom Boonen, Guillaume Van Keisbulk, Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin from Italy, you've got some massive power there that can deliver me to the sprint at a high speed."

That delivery is especially important in bunch kicks now that "everybody in the peloton thinks they can do it, and it has become quite dangerous," Cavendish said.

Goss, who had just finished watching Orica-GreenEdge win the opening team time trial at the Giro d'Italia, – where teammate Svein Tuft put on the pink leaders' jersey – said he hopes to build on that momentum.

"So far we've had a good day," he said. "The guys took the jersey at the Giro, and hopefully that keeps the ball rolling and we get some results here. [Michael] Albisini got three stages in Romandie, and they say when it rains it pours, so hopefully we can keep the results going here."

Following stage 1, the next opportunity for the fast finishers will likely come on the stage 4 jaunt down the Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Cambria. The stage 5 route from Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara has a flat finish, but the climb of San Marcos Pass comes just 28km from the finale.

The sprinters will have to make their way over several climbs on Stage 7 from Santa Clarita to Pasadena, but another downhill run to the finish over the final 50km could bring things back together for a bunch sprint. The final stage in Thousand Oaks will take place on an infamously difficult circuit that could favor a rider like Sagan, a fast finisher who can also climb well.

"The great thing about the Tour of California is that there are stages like Santa Barbara and Pasadena that suit a little more climber style of sprinter," said Jelly Belly's Rodriguez. "I think that's where my strong suit is. If I get my opportunity on the fast ones, I'm going to give it everything I have to get up there and get a result. There are a lot of options here, but this course definitely suits Peter [Sagan] the best as an overall to try and get the green jersey."

Cavendish would obviously also like to take home the green jersey from the race, but he said his top priority is to simply win stages.

"Hopefully the green jersey will come from that," Cavendish said. "The race really only has two sprint opportunities this year, maybe a third, but it will be a very, very reduced field for that very last sprint around the course this year. But you know, I'm here and I enjoy trying to win those stages."

Sagan's path to more stage wins and another green jersey in California certainly got harder this year, and the young rider is under increasing expectations to perform. But does the added pressure take away from his ability to have the kind of fun he has become known for?

"No," he said succinctly. "I don't think so."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.