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Peter Sagan back to headline loaded Tour of California

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Peter Sagan has had so much success in the U.S. lately that he might as well take up residency.

The Slovakian cyclist has dominated sprint stages at the Tour of California for years, and last year he surprised many by holding on for the overall victory. Then, a few months later, Sagan rode to triumph at the world championships in Richmond, Virginia.

He’s back to headline this year’s Tour of California, which begins Sunday in San Diego, and he will be wearing the rainbow stripes that he earned with that impressive ride last fall.

“I’m really looking forward to coming back to this race. It’s a great event at which I have some really good memories,” Sagan said. “This year will be a very difficult edition, and not quite suited to my style, but stage by stage we will see what we can do.”

Indeed, a new mountain-top finish on Stage 3 in Santa Barbara could prove too punishing for Sagan, who has already captured Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde van Vlaanderen during a busy spring.

Sagan may instead target the sprinter-friendly stages, where the charismatic rider can add to his record 13 stage wins and five points jerseys.

“It’s a race I’ve liked competing at over the past years and it has now become a tradition in my program,” said Sagan, whose Tinkoff squad will include Adam Blythe and Michael Gogl. “I would be happy if I am again competing for some strong results here.”

Things won’t be easy for Sagan with arguably the best field of sprinters in event history.

British star Mark Cavendish, the winner of nine stages, headlines the Dimension Data squad, while Alexander Kristoff of Katusha and John Degenkolb of Giant-Alpecin will also be on hand.

The first stage should be an opportunity for the sprinters, while Stage 2 on Monday from Pasadena to Santa Clarita should be another. But the general classification will begin to take shape on Stage 3, when riders ascend the 6-mile slope of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara.

The race continues to Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway on Stage 4, heads to Lake Tahoe the next day, and then features another key GC stage with the Folsom Time Trial on Friday.

Stage 7 takes place in the cycling hotbed of Santa Rosa with the race concluding in Sacramento.

“It’s really a world-class field, especially for the sprint stages,” BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter told The Associated Press. “As far as the GC, maybe there’s a couple more WorldTour teams than have been here in years past, and the more you get together, the higher the level.”

French phenom Julian Alaphilippe may be the GC favorite for Etixx-QuickStep, especially with the backing of a strong team that includes Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar. Former winner Bradley Wiggins will be back with his own squad, though his focus on track cycling for the Rio Olympics means he may target only the time trial, and Lawson Craddock and Andrew Talansky give Cannondale options.

“I have some beautiful memories from last year, despite losing the general classification for a handful of seconds,” Alaphilippe said. “At that time I was disappointed, but it’s all bygones now as I’m coming to the U.S. motivated to try and go for another good performance.”

BMC Racing has Rohan Dennis with overall aspirations, but also has Taylor Phinney — trying to prove his fitness for a spot on the U.S. team for Rio — taking aim at the time trial. The team also has Greg Van Avermaet back after he broke his collarbone in a crash at Ronde van Vlaanderen.

“We are going in with both general classification and stage-win ambitions,” BMC sports director Jackson Stewart said. “There’s not one rider on the team who isn’t capable of getting a good result and for Brent Bookwalter and Taylor Phinney, it’s one of the few occasions they can race on home soil.”

While the Tour of the Gila and Tour of Utah draw respectable fields, the cancellation of the USA Pro Challenge this year has left the Tour of California as the premier American stage race.

It’s also made it the top target for many Americans in the pro peloton.

“I can’t express how excited I am to return this year as one of the top American teams in the world,” said Craddock, a Texas native. “I have a lot of experience at this race and I’m really looking forward to bringing that to the team to help achieve the best place possible.”

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.