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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.

Yates’ Giro lead cut in half, Schachmann wins 18th stage

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PRATO NEVOSO, Italy – Simon Yates remained in the lead of the Giro d’Italia but the British rider’s advantage over closest rival Tom Dumoulin was slashed in half after the tough 18th stage on Thursday.

Yates was dropped by his rivals on the steep Category 1 climb to Prato Nevoso and he finished 28 seconds behind defending champion Dumoulin, who crossed the line with Domenico Pozzovivo and Chris Froome.

“I was just tired, that’s it. Still a few days to go. I can bounce back, no worries,” Yates said.

Maximilian Schachmann of Germany won from a breakaway to claim his first victory in a Grand Tour.

Schachmann attacked heading into the final section of the climb, finishing 10 seconds ahead of Ruben Plaza and 16 ahead of Mattia Cattaneo.

The rest of the breakaway, which escaped 16 kilometers into the mainly flat 196-kilometer (122-mile) route from Abbiategrasso finished more than a minute off the pace.

“The final kilometers were really, really hard,” said Schachmann, who rides for Quick-Step Floors. “I knew I had a good chance from the breakaway. I tried to play it safe, to not attack too early. It was really hard, we are already on stage 18 so no one has fresh legs anymore.”

Yates’ lead was cut to 28 seconds heading into the final three days of the Giro, which includes two brutal days in the Alps before the procession to Rome.

“I always said if I have the legs then I will keep on trying,” Dumoulin said. “I had the legs today and I tried and it worked. Finally, after two and a half weeks.”

Pozzovivo remained third but was 2:43 behind Yates, with Froome a further 39 seconds behind.

Froome arrived at the Giro bidding to become the third person to win three Grand Tours in a row but the four-time Tour de France champion crashed in training before the opening time trial, lost time in a split on stage four, and injured himself again in a second crash four days later.

“It was quite a good day today,” Froome said in Italian. “This is the first of three consecutive stages which will be very hard. We saw for the first time Simon not at 100 percent. That surprised me as until now he has been fantastic.

“After the fall at the start I didn’t feel 100 percent but each day I felt better and now I’m quite good.”

There are four mountain passes on the route up to Bardonecchia on Friday, followed by Saturday’s “queen stage” up to Cervinia.

The Giro finishes in Rome on Sunday.

Viviani wins 17th stage for 4th win, Yates keeps Giro lead

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ISEO, Italy (AP) Elia Viviani sprinted to his fourth victory of this year’s Giro d’Italia on Wednesday, and Simon Yates maintained his hold on the leader’s pink jersey after the 17th stage.

The Italian won a bunch sprint through rain at the end of the hilly, 155-kilometer ride from Riva del Garda to Iseo, holding up four fingers as he crossed the line.

Sam Bennett, who was looking for his third victory, was second and Niccolo Bonifazio was third.

“Bennett could have moved level today. It was a stage that was more suited to him. He tried to put us in difficulty,” said Viviani. “It was a hard stage because no one wanted to let the breakaway go. The team did a super job. I think they were perfect.”

Danny van Poppel was the first to launch his sprint on the rain-soaked approach to the finish, but Zdenek Stybar and Fabio Sabatini gave a great leadout for Viviani, their Quick-Step Floors teammate.

“I had a few slips, and I just lost the nerve,” said a teary Bennett, his voice cracking with emotion. “I just couldn’t get out. I had the legs again and I just couldn’t get out.”

There was no change in the general classification with Yates leading defending champion Tom Dumoulin by 56 seconds.

“There’s no easy day at the Giro,” Yates said. “This was another hard one and it could have some impact on the coming mountain stages. I heard about splits in the bunch but I never knew who was caught behind.

“I hope everyone is tired because I’m tired.”

Domenico Pozzovivo remained 3:11 behind Yates and 39 seconds ahead of four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome as the races prepares to head into the Alps.

Thursday’s 18th stage is a mainly flat 196-kilometer route from Abbiategrasso to Prato Nevoso, but ends with a steep Category 1 climb – the first of three summit finishes.

There are four mountain passes on the route up to Bardonecchia Friday, before Saturday’s “queen stage” up to Cervinia.

The Giro finishes in Rome on Sunday.