Cavendish, Sagan ready to line up for Tour of California

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In some ways, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish will always be joined at the hip.

Or the elbow.

You see, the two have long been among the world’s top cyclists, routinely winning some of the sport’s marquee races. Sagan is a three-time and reigning world champion, fresh off his Paris-Roubaix victory, while Cavendish trails only Eddy Merckx for the most Tour de France stage wins.

Yet in last year’s Tour, they became embroiled in controversy. They had begun their final sprint in Vittel when Sagan’s elbow flared out, seemingly running Cavendish into a barrier. The fall broke the British sprinter’s collar bone, and Sagan was quickly booted from the race.

Lawsuits ensued. Sagan argued it was a racing accident. Cavendish bristled. In the end, cycling’s governing body decided the crash was merely “an unfortunate and unintentional race incident.”

Still, things haven’t quite thawed between the two, and it creates an intriguing subplot when they join some of the sport’s top riders for the weeklong Tour of California. The only other time they’ve raced since the Tour de France was Milan-San Remo, where Cavendish crashed early on and was not a factor, so this could be their first chance to spend any time together.

“Maybe we’ll speak during the race about it. I don’t know,” said Sagan, with a playful chuckle.

The two had always been cordial, if not quite friendly, but the tension between sprint stars was still apparent in separate phone interviews with The Associated Press.

Asked about seeing Sagan again, Cavendish replied: “I’m just here to race.”

So are some of the other heavy hitters in the sport.

Even though the ongoing Giro d’ Italia draws many big names to the season’s first Grand Tour, the Tour of California has become a favorite proving ground for Tour de France hopefuls. So that’s why Sagan and Cavendish will be joined by the likes of Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff and Fernando Gaviria in contesting the sprint stages, beginning with Sunday’s opening stage in Long Beach.

They will have chances on the fifth and seventh stages, and possibly the third-stage finish at Laguna Seca Raceway, where Sagan beat Greg Van Avermaet to the line a few years ago.

“It’s always nice to come to California. I spend a lot of time here,” Cavendish said. “My first time was 2008, I think, so it’s great to see the race grow to a World Tour race. It’s pretty special.”

It’s special for Sagan, too. He has the most stage victories with 16 – Cavendish is second with 10 – and won the overall title in 2015, even though he’s not really a general classification rider.

Then again, the popular Sagan has embraced riding in America just as the state-side cycling fanbase has embraced the Slovakian star. He won his first world title in Virginia in 2015, prepared for the mountain bike event at the Rio Olympics in the U.S., and just finished hosting a gravel-grinding Gran Fondo in California to raise money and awareness for at-risk youth.

“Oh well, I feel good here,” he said. “I’m far away from Europe, where people notice me more. It’s good for me, work-wise. It’s good for training. Nice weather, good altitude training camps. It’s just a pretty good place for me here in America.”

As the Tour of California prepares to depart, here are some things to know:

OVERALL CONTENDERS: Reigning champ George Bennett is racing the Giro, so look for young American riders Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless to attack on the climbing stages. Other riders with GC hopes are Rafal Majka, Tejay van Garderen, Egan Bernal and Lachlan Morton.

MORE ON TJ: Van Garderen won the overall title in 2013, when many thought the American was primed for Grand Tour stardom. It’s been a rocky road the last few years, but he appears to be rounding into form for his return to California. “The 2013 edition was a special memory for me,” he said. “The course is demanding but we have a strong team and we will go into the race with big goals.”

THE COURSE: The overall standings should begin shaking out on Stage 2, which starts in Ventura and takes riders up Gibraltar Road. Also crucial is Stage 4, a relatively flat time trial in San Jose.

THE WOMEN: The three-stage women’s race begins Thursday in Elk Grove, and proceeds alongside the men’s race to the finish Saturday in Sacramento. Megan Guarnier will be riding for the USA Cycling Team this week, rather than her usual Boels-Dolmans trade team, alongside cyclocross star Katie Compton.

OTHER WOMEN TO WATCH: American standout Coryn Rivera will be back as the hometown favorite, while Katie Hall has dominated domestic races for her UnitedHealthcare team this season.

Thomas sees Giro d’Italia lead cut slightly by Roglič; Buitrago wins Stage 19

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TRE CIME DI LAVAREDO, Italy — Geraint Thomas maintained his bid to become the oldest Giro d’Italia champion although his lead was cut slightly by Primož Roglič during the toughest stage of the race.

Roglič crossed the summit finish of the so-called “Queen Stage” three seconds ahead of Thomas at the end of the race’s final mountain road leg.

There were no flat sections and five tough, classified climbs on the 114-mile route from Longarone to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which had gradients of up to 18%.

Stage 19 was won by Santiago Buitrago, who finished 51 seconds ahead of Derek Gee and 1 minute, 46 seconds ahead of Magnus Cort and Roglič, who just missed out on bonus seconds.

“I’m really happy with this victory. It was the most difficult moment of a difficult Giro for me personally,” said Buitrago, who rides for Bahrain Victorious. “I wanted to try and raise my arms before the end and coming here at Tre Cime di Lavaredo is amazing.

“This is the recompense for all the work that I’ve done. … There’s a lot of motivation for me and the whole team having seen the fruits of our labors.”

The 37-year-old Thomas, who rides for Ineos Grenadiers, is 26 seconds ahead of Roglič going into what will be a decisive penultimate stage

Third-placed João Almeida lost more time and was 59 seconds behind Thomas.

Roglič changed his bicycle shortly before the start of the penultimate climb and he made his move inside the final kilometer. However, Thomas was able to stick to his wheel and the British cyclist made his own attack in the final 500 meters and looked to have slightly distanced his rival.

But Roglič came back and gained what could be a vital few seconds.

The winner will likely be decided in the mountain time trial that ends in a demanding climb up Monte Lussari, with an elevation of over 3,000 feet and gradients of up to 22%.

“Tomorrow we go full again,” Roglič said. “It’s good. We got a bit of legs back, so tomorrow we go full, eh?

“If I wouldn’t be confident then I don’t start. The best one at the end wins.”

The race ends in a mostly ceremonial finish in Rome, where Thomas could beat the age record held by Fiorenzo Magni, who was 34 when he won in 1955.

Thomas celebrates 37th birthday by retaining Giro d’Italia lead; Roglic into 2nd

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VAL DI ZOLDO, Italy — Geraint Thomas celebrated his 37th birthday with another strong ride in the mountains to retain the pink jersey during Stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia.

Thomas crossed immediately behind Primoz Roglic, who moved up from third place to second.

“The legs have been good,” Thomas said. “Need to enjoy these moments.”

Joao Almeida dropped from second to third overall after losing 21 seconds over the 100-mile route from Oderzo to Val di Zoldo, which included two first-category climbs followed by two second-category climbs in the finale – including an uphill finish.

Thomas – the 2018 Tour de France champion – leads Roglic by 29 seconds and Almeida by 39 seconds.

“It’s a pleasant day. I take time on Almeida and didn’t get dropped by Primoz,” Thomas said. “I felt pretty good, always under control but Primoz obviously went hard. It wasn’t easy. … I just want to be consistent until the end.”

Italian champion Filippo Zanna won the stage ahead of fellow breakaway rider Thibaut Pinot in a two-man sprint.

With only two more climbing stages remaining before the mostly ceremonial finish in Rome, Thomas is poised to become the oldest Giro winner in history – beating the record of Fiorenzo Magni, who was 34 when he won in 1955.

Chris Horner holds the record for oldest Grand Tour champion, set when he won the Spanish Vuelta in 2013 at 41.

However, Thomas will still be tested over the next two days.

Stage 19 is considered perhaps the race’s toughest, a 114-mile leg from Longarone to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo featuring five major climbs. Then there’s a mountain time trial.