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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.

Andre Cardoso banned four years for doping

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AIGLE, Switzerland — The International Cycling Union says it imposed a four-year ban on Portuguese rider Andre Cardoso for doping with EPO ahead of the 2017 Tour de France.

The UCI says its anti-doping tribunal gave its verdict, in a case opened almost 17 months ago.

Cardoso tested positive for the endurance boosting hormone two weeks before the Tour.

He was suspended by Trek-Segafredo, which selected Cardoso as a specialist climber to support team leader Alberto Contador.

The 34-year-old Cardoso had career top-20 finishes in the Giro d’Italia and Spanish Vuelta, and competed in the road races at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Pro riders union upset by doping control during cycling gala

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PARIS — The professional cyclists’ union is urging anti-doping authorities to treat athletes in a more respectful manner after a Belgian rider was forced to leave a cycling gala to follow anti-doping inspectors for an out-of-competition test.

Pieter Serry, who rides for the Quick Step team, missed the Gala of the Flandrien on Tuesday after doping inspectors came to the ceremony to take samples.

In a statement published Wednesday, the riders’ association (CPA) complained about “another case of non-respect for the privacy of the riders” and criticized the odd timing of some doping controls.

“There have been cases reported where the riders were checked on their wedding day, during a funeral or on their child’s first day of school,” said Gianni Bugno, the president of the CPA. “Now we read about the case of Pieter Serry, controlled in the offseason, out of the hour scheduled, while at the Flemish cycling festival. … The riders pay 2 percent of their prizes to make these controls possible, they are the only athletes in the world who pay the anti-doping from their own pockets,” Bugno said. “The riders respect the measures required for the fight against doping, but at least they ask for the respect of their private life in return.”

Belgian media quoted Serry as saying he had already been tested two weeks ago and told antidoping authorities he was available from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. at his home.

“I understand that there must be checks and that people have to do their work, but two checks immediately after each other, out of season, is simply a waste of money. I feel like a prisoner with an ankle monitor,” Serry was quoted as saying.

The CPA added it will try to find out whether it was the Belgian anti-doping agency, the national cycling federation or Cycling’s anti-doping foundation (CADF) which ordered Serry’s test.

“In addition, the CPA will present an official request to all the bodies involved in the fight against doping and the UCI to establish a code of conduct for the controllers, to ensure the respect for the private life of the athletes, at least in certain circumstances,” the CPA said.