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.

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”