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.