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.”

Little boy goes wild watching dad in Tour de France

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Bauke Mollema wasn’t the only one putting on a show at the Tour de France.

Mollema received plenty of support back home as his son went absolutely crazy watching his “papa” push to victory in Stage 15. As it is with siblings, Mollema’s oldest son, Julian, was forced to share the spot light as Thomas got emotional watching his dad finally earn a coveted stage win.

Amidst the blood, sweat and tears that have made up the 2017 Tour de France, Mollema’s adorable 2-year-old son, Thomas gave the internet something to smile about.

The Tour de France has “always been the most important race for [Mollema]” and his dreams came true when he had an impressive break away to solidify the first stage win of his career.

Clearly, Mollema was not the only one excited for his first victory.

 

Cavendish involved in nasty crash after elbow from Sagan

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VITTEL, France (AP) A nasty crash involving Mark Cavendish marred Tuesday’s fourth stage of the Tour de France, which was won by France’s Arnaud Demare in a chaotic sprint finish.

Replays appeared to show world champion Peter Sagan elbowing Cavendish, who was squeezed against the barriers to his right, out of the way. Cavendish slammed into the barriers and two other riders plowed over the British sprint specialist, a winner of 30 Tour stages.

Sagan, who crossed the line second, was later given a 30-second penalty that relegated him to 115th place on the stage. As a result, he dropped from second place in the overall standings to 15th.

“I get on with Peter well, but I don’t get … if he came across is one thing, but the elbow. I’m not a fan of him putting his elbow in me like that,” Cavendish said.

“A crash is a crash, I’d just like to know about the elbow, really,” Cavendish added. “I’d just like to speak to him about it.”

After the crash, Sagan went over to see how Cavendish was and patted him on the back, while the British rider showed him his wounds.

The Slovak said later he had apologized to Cavendish.

“It’s not nice to crash like that,” Sagan said.

“It’s the sprint. I just didn’t know that Mark is behind me, he’s coming from the right side,” Sagan added. “Mark was coming pretty fast from the back and after I just didn’t have time to react, to go left, and he just came (into) me and after into the fence.”

A medical team quickly ran out to treat Cavendish, jogging into the oncoming stream of riders to reach him.

When Cavendish was finally helped to his feet, his jersey was badly torn and blood was streaking down his side. Cavendish rode in with a teammate after treatment, gingerly holding his right arm close to his body, with his right hand in a bandage.

It’s already been a difficult year for Cavendish, who came down with mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in April.

Demare’s sprint victory ended a long wait for the home fans, with the previous French victory in a bunch sprint at the Tour being won by Jimmy Casper in Stage 1 in Strasbourg in 2006.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s marvelous,” said Demare, the French champion who finished second to Marcel Kittel in the mass sprint that concluded Stage 2.

There was another crash earlier that delayed Tour leader Geraint Thomas, but the Welshman retained the yellow jersey since it happened in the neutral zone near the stage finish.

Thomas leads Sky teammate and three-time champion Chris Froome by 12 seconds, with third-place Michael Matthews of Australia also 12 seconds back. Sagan is now 43 seconds adrift.

Thomas scraped his knee but said it was OK.

“I hit the deck but I’m fine,” Thomas said.

Demare clocked nearly five hours over the largely flat 207.5-kilometer (129-mile) route, which started and finished in two spa towns, Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg and Vittel in France.

“We’ve been working with Arnaud for a long time on sprints,” said Marc Madiot, manager of Demare’s FDJ team. “Winning in the Tour is the best.”

After Sagan’s penalty, Alexander Kristoff moved up to second place in the stage, with Andre Greipel in third.

After starting in Mondorf, the hometown of 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck, one of the first towns along the route was Schengen, where an agreement was signed in 1985 that enabled passport-free travel in mainland Europe.

Then it was a long, fairly straight slog through fields of grain, passing near the medieval city of Nancy into Vittel, home of the official mineral water supplier for the Tour.

It was the race’s third consecutive stage of more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) and when Guillaume van Keirsbulck, a Belgian with the Wanty team, attacked from the starting gun there was no reaction from the pack.

Van Keirsbulck quickly built a lead of more than seven minutes before being caught with less than 17 kilometers to go.

“A really hard day,” Van Keirsbulck said. “It’s not easy to stay in the front.”

Stage 5 on Wednesday concludes with the first serious climb of the Tour. The 160.5-kilometer (100-mile) leg begins in Vittel and winds its way to La Planche Des Belles Filles with a short but steep finishing ascent that features a leg-breaking 20-percent gradient in the final meters. All of the overall favorites should swing into action.