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.”

Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin wins 100th Giro d’Italia

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MILAN — Tom Dumoulin won the 100th Giro d’Italia in dramatic fashion Sunday, reclaiming the overall lead in a final-stage individual time trial.

It’s the first Grand Tour victory for Dumoulin, a Dutchman with Team Sunweb, and it sets him up as a potential rival for three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome.

Dumoulin entered the final stage in fourth position but finished far enough ahead of his rivals over the flat 29-kilometer (18-mile) route from Monza’s Formula One race track to Milan’s cathedral to move back into the lead.

“This is crazy. I could not have imagined this,” Dumoulin said. “I was strong. I was lucky. Just everything fell into place the whole Giro.”

In the overall standings, Dumoulin finished 31 seconds ahead of 2014 champion Nairo Quintana of Colombia and 40 seconds ahead of last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.

Dumoulin’s fellow Dutchman Jos van Emden won the 21st stage in 33 minutes, 8 seconds.

“It couldn’t be better,” Van Emden said. “I’m really happy for Tom. He deserves it.”

Dumoulin came second in the stage, 15 seconds behind. Nibali came 13th, 1:09 behind Emden and Quintana was 27th, 1:39 back.

Dumoulin entered the final stage 53 seconds behind Quintana.

Dumoulin also won the race’s other time trial in Stage 10 and claimed Stage 14, which had an uphill finish. Dumoulin wore the leader’s pink jersey for eight days but then struggled in the serious mountain stages and lost the lead to Quintana two days ago.

Dumoulin came close to winning the 2015 Spanish Vuelta, which he led heading into the penultimate stage. But he faded fast on the final mountain ride, and finished sixth behind winner Fabio Aru. The final stage was the traditional leisurely arrival to Madrid, which offered no chance to come back.

This time, the concluding time trial was just what Dumoulin needed, enabling him to become the first Dutch rider to win the Giro.

Relief came via the team radio.

“I was feeling good. Halfway they said `Don’t take risks anymore,’ so I thought, `Maybe I’m winning now?”‘ Dumoulin said. “They better never do that again, because it was close in the end.”

Quintana keeps lead but Dumoulin remains pick to win Giro

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ASIAGO, Italy — Nairo Quintana held on to the pink jersey in the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday but likely didn’t pick up enough seconds on his most dangerous rival, Tom Dumoulin, to claim overall victory.

Thibaut Pinot of France won the 20th stage in a sprint finish ahead of Ilnur Zakarin of Russia and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali.

Entering Sunday’s concluding time trial, Quintana leads Nibali by 39 seconds with Pinot third, 43 seconds back.

Dumoulin dropped from second to fourth, 53 seconds back, although he still remains the favorite considering his time trialing skills.

The 100th Giro ends on Sunday with a flat 29.3-kilometer (18-mile) individual time trial from Monza’s Formula One race track to Milan.

Dumoulin already dominated the race’s first time trial in Stage 10.