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.”

2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

Peter Sagan wins prelude to Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Three-time world road racing champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia made an outstanding start to the 2018 cycling season Sunday when he won the People’s Choice Classic, a prelude to the first World Tour event of the season, the Tour Down Under.

Sagan beat star sprinters Andre Greipel of Germany and Caleb Ewan of Australia in a bunch sprint to win the 50.6 kilometer (31.4 mile) race over 22 laps of a street course in central Adelaide.

The win means Sagan will wear the tour leader’s ocher jersey in the first stage of the six stage Tour Down Under on Tuesday. Sunday’s race does not count toward general classification.

Ewan won the race in each of the past two years and Greipel is the only three-time winner. The 132-strong field that lined up for the race Sunday included seven former winners.