May 11, 2014

Tour of California Preview

The Tour of California occupies a bizarre place on the calendar. It is opposite the Giro d'Italia (just as the other big US stage race the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado is opposite a Grand Tour). It is positioned as a Tour de France prep race, but since the calendar move to May, the winners tend to not do well in the Tour de France. As a result, we have seen declining quality in the GC fields in recent years and this year is no exception. Still, it is a big race, especially if fine tuning for sprints, given Mark Cavendish has had some success in this race in the past and Peter Sagan seemingly owns this race each year before his annual grand tour rampage (3 stage wins in 2011 Vuelta before winning the Green Jersey in the last two editions of the Tour de France).

GC Favorites
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) - The 2012 Tour de France champ enters as the favorite, though it is a tenuous hold as Wiggins has focused away from stage racing since his withdrawal from the 2013 Giro, targeting the Time Trial World Championship and Paris-Roubaix.

Tom Danielson (Garmin) - Likely the best American hope, that is if he's even the team leader. You never really know with Garmin.

Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) - Well accomplished with a couple of Grand Tour top 10s, he was slated to be a domestique here to team leader Robert Gesink before Gesink's withdrawal from all competition because of a heart arrhythmia.

Peter Stetina (BMC) - First time for Stetina to be a team leader. Expect good legs and some mistakes in leading his team along the way.

Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano) - Top 10 while riding for a Continental team a year ago, Craddock needs to prove he belongs at the World Tour level. Another top result here would help the young American greatly.

Javier Acevedo (Garmin) - Podium finisher for his Continental team a year ago, Acevedo now rides for Garmin. I mention him though nobody knows who the Garmin team leader actually is here.

Tiago Machado (Netapp-Endura) - A few years of uneven results and unfulfilled expectations have given way to a very good start to the season in the lower Pro Continental ranks. Unlikely to win, but a top 10 seems likely.

Sprinters
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) - One of the big 3 sprinters in the world, Cavendish has been dominant in recent years until last season when he hit some missteps. Re-enter former lead out man Mark Renshaw and everything this season has appeared back to normal. We'll see with California conqueror Sagan in this field and later in the Tour de France where Cavendish will face off against Giro d'Italia dominator Marcel Kittel.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) - The points winner in this race the last four years, Sagan has made a habit of turning California sprint stages into processions ending in his victory. That said, there has been no sprinter near the quality of Cavendish to challenge Sagan here during his run.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) - Degenkolb is a good sprinter and a good all-rounder. Actually, his skill set is very similar to Sagan's, though Degenkolb won't get a shot at the Tour de France green jersey with Kittel on his team taking to prime sprinting stages for himself.

Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) - Former Milan-San Remo winner who has fallen on hard times though his sprinting talent has always been a cut below the best. Note that Cavendish has always treated him with respect even as a former teammate turned rival. while Cavendish treats others (notable Andre Greipel) in the same situation with scorn. Cavendish just doesn't view Goss as a rival.

Moreno Hofland (Belkin) - A young sprinter for the Belkin team, this will be one of his first attempts going up against the likes of Cavendish and Sagan.

Whoever BMC is working for on a given day - Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney and Greg Van Avermaet are all in this race and all can sprint. On a given day, any one of them could be the designated man though none have the topend speed to beat Cavendish or Sagan on a normal day.

Key Stages
Stage 2 - Individual Time Trials in week long stage races are always important and this one at 20.1km matters a ton to create a pecking order before the two mountain stages and possibly help decide the eventual race winner.

Stage 3 - The Mount Diablo summit finish from last year returns for another round with the difficult Mt. Hamilton climb early in the stage to soften the legs. Expect some big time gaps here, especially the day after an all out effort in the time trial.

Stage 6 - The other summit finish, this one hits altitudes never before seen in the Tour of California. Whoever leads after this stage is the likely winner, though it will be painful climbing above 2000 meters on the final climb to Mountain High.

Picks
GC - Bradley Wiggins. The weaker field than usual will help Wiggins. After he wins the time trial he will be able to defend the jersey on the two mountain passes.
Points - Mark Cavendish. He is a better sprinter than Sagan and while Sagan has more ways to score points, those other ways aren't on the route this year.

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