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Big names in cycling headline Tour of California

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The Tour of California was once a quaint upstart race that took place in February, so early on the worldwide cycling calendar that nobody really paid it much attention.

That has changed dramatically in the past 14 years.

Now, the race has carved out a crucial week in mid-May opposite the opening week of the Giro d’ Italia, the first of the three Grand Tours. And that means it has become a key prep race for riders who have designs on racing in the Tour de France when July rolls around.

Riders such as Richie Porte, who is making his Tour of California debut on Sunday as he begins the ramp up to the Tour de France, where he is expected to be one of the overall favorites.

“In the (general classification) game every day is the most important,” said Porte, who rides for the U.S.-based Trek-Segafredo team. “There’s no day you can switch off. Maybe a bit of a shame for me there’s no time trial, but there’s plenty of climbing.”

Indeed, this year’s edition of the Tour of California might be the toughest in race history.

The only real sprint stage is the first, which begins in Sacramento and returns to the state capital for its finishing circuits. Otherwise, riders will face nearly 70,000 feet of climbing over seven stages, including a climb to Carson Pass, the highest point the race has reached.

The penultimate stage includes the grueling ascent of Mt. Baldy.

“It all comes down to Baldy and staying out of trouble the other days,” said George Bennett of Team Jumbo-Visma, who won the overall two years ago. “It’s going to be a challenging week.”

As the biggest race in North America gets set to begin, here are some things to know:

THE CONTENDERS: Anybody with the legs to climb. That means Porte and former teammate Rohan Dennis, who is now with Bahrain-Merida, will be at the front of the peloton. EF Education First will feature Tejay van Garderen and Colombian climber Rigoberto Uran.

“It’s always a treat to be able to come home,” said van Garderen, who grew up in Washington and won the 2013 overall. “Now being on a truly American team coming and racing on American soil provides a different feel and a different level of motivation.”

None of the contenders will have to deal with Egan Bernal, the defending champion. He was set to ride for Team Sky in the Giro before breaking his collarbone.

THE SPRINTERS: The few fast finishes should come down to Mark Cavendish, who is finally feeling good after a bout of mononucleosis, and Peter Sagan, who has a record 16 stage wins in the race.

Then again, neither has been particularly good lately.

Cavendish had a long illness to blame for his form, but Sagan’s performance this season has been a mystery. The three-time world champion has just one victory on his resume, and he skipped the iconic one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege to rest for a busy summer.

“I have to be ready for Tour de Suisse, nationals and the Tour de France,” he said. “I’m very happy to be back here. … I hope it’s going to be a good year and I’m hoping to do something.”

THE AMERICANS: For the first time, USA Cycling has cobbled together a national team of promising young riders to race alongside 13 WorldTour teams and five Pro Continental teams.

“I’m grateful to USA Cycling for giving me the opportunity to showcase my talent here,” said 21-year-old Alex Hoehn. “It’s not often that a young rider like me gets to line up with some of the best in the pro peloton, and this will be an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.”

THE WOMEN: The Tour of California again will feature a three-day women’s race that runs alongside the final three stages of the men’s race. It begins in Ventura and finishes in Pasadena.

“I’m really excited the race is in Ventura,” said Kendall Ryan of Team TIBCO-SVB, who grew up in California and won a stage in last year’s race. “I know the finish line like the back of my hand. I know every pothole and crack in the road.”

Roglic wins Stage 9; Conti keeps pink jersey in Giro

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SAN MARINO (AP) Primoz Roglic of Slovenia won the ninth stage of the Giro d’Italia on Sunday as Italian cyclist Valerio Conti extended his overall lead after the individual time trial.

Roglic, who also won the opening individual time trial, was quickest on the rain-soaked 35-kilometer (22-mile) route from Riccione that had an uphill finish in San Marino – the only time this year that the Giro crosses into another country.

The 29-year-old Roglic was 11 seconds faster than Belgium cyclist Victor Campenaerts and one minute ahead of Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands.

Roglic had been more than five minutes behind Conti going into the time trial but moved into second overall, 1:50 behind the UAE Team Emirates cyclist, who had replaced Roglic in the overall lead after finishing second in Thursday’s sixth stage.

Moreover, Roglic gained time on his rivals. British cyclist Simon Yates – one of the pre-race favorites – finished more than three minutes behind Roglic.

“It’s a perfect performance in my mind. I did a good job,” Roglic said. “I took it easy at the beginning and I gave it all at the end.

“It’s nice to take some time over the other GC favorites but the Giro is far from over.”

Nans Peters of France moved third overall, 2:21 behind Conti.

“It was very rainy for me but I stayed calm. My goal was to keep the Maglia Rosa so I’m very happy with the result,” Conti said.

Vincenzo Nibali fared the best out of the rest of the pre-race favorites, finishing fourth on a day which saw only 12 riders finish within two minutes of the winner. The Italian is 3:34 behind Conti.

Monday is the race’s first rest day before Tuesday’s 10th stage, an entirely flat 145-kilometer route from Ravenna to Modena.

The Giro finishes in Verona on June 2.

Pogacar, van der Breggen win Tour of California

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PASADENA, Calif. – Tadej Pogacar did the work necessary to win the Tour of California on the steep climb of Mt. Baldy.

His team did the work it needed for him to win on the run-in to Pasadena.

With big names going on the attack midway through the final stage Saturday, UAE Team Emirates was able to consistently keep their young star out of trouble. And when the field came back for a sprint at the Rose Bowl, all Pogacar had to do was raise his hands in overall victory.

Cees Bol of Team Sunweb won the group sprint ahead of three-time world champion Peter Sagan to win the seventh stage, while Jasper Philipsen capped a big day for Team Emirates with a third-place run.

Pogacar’s first WorldTour stage race victory came ahead of Sergio Iguita, who went on the attack on one of the day’s final climbs, and Kasper Asgreen of the strong Deceuninck-Quick Step team.

“This was my main goal this year,” said the 20-year-old Pogacar, who was inspired to pick up cycling by his brother. “I knew that I was prepared. I surprised myself a bit that I took the overall win, but I’m really happy and I’m looking forward to next year.”

In the three-stage women’s race, Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen held the lead she took on the first stage all the way to Pasadena, finishing 29 seconds ahead of teammate Katie Hall.

Elisa Balsamo beat Arlenis Sierra and Leigh Ann Ganzer in a sprint on the final stage.

“It’s really special,” said van der Breggen, who finished just behind Hall on the Stage 2 climb to Mt. Baldy. “Katie won here last year and I the year before. We get to work together now. Yeah, getting a one-two result, we didn’t think that was possible before. It’s great for the spirit of the team.”

The short final stage took riders 126 kilometers from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. And with Pogacar holding a 16-second lead on Higuita after his win on Mt. Baldy, the contenders knew they had to make something happen on the short hills midway through the stage.

Max Shachmann got into an early breakaway with Davide Ballerini, Alex Hoehn and a handful of other strong climbers. Asgreen soon attacked the lead group, but their advantage over Pogacar’s chase group was not enough to prevent the field coming together during the final circuits around the stadium.

Deceuninck-Quick Step, which had a strong week of racing, set the tempo for its sprinter, Fabio Jakobsen, and Team Ineos tried to set up Kristoffer Halvorsen with a lead-out. But it was Bol, riding for Team Sunweb, who timed his sprint perfectly to nip Sagan at the line.

“It was quite a chaotic stage,” Sagan said. “I probably reacted a bit late to Bol’s sprint.”

Philipsen’s third-place finish helped him secure the best young rider jersey, while Asgreen won the points jersey as the top sprinter and Ballerini secured the king of the mountains jersey.

“This is my first time here in California. It’s beautiful country,” Ballerini said. “I tried to win a stage but it wasn’t easy. I tried to get away also today, but it was a very short, fast stage.”

That was good news for Pogacar, who was able to hold onto his 16-second advantage over Higuita, riding for EF Education First. Asgreen was another second back to round out the podium, while former race winner George Bennett was 29 seconds back in fourth for his Team Jumbo-Visma.

Asked where the relatively unknown Pogacar picked up his beyond-his-years poise and tactics, he replied: “I think from all the racing over the years, with great coaching. I’ve been racing 10 years now and you learn stuff. But I still don’t know everything.”

It seems as if van der Breggen does.

The world’s best rider by a wide margin, van der Breggen stayed close to the front of the peloton as it reeled in the breakaway, helping to ensure the final stage of the women’s race would be a sprint.

American rider Coryn Rivera came to the front and was just starting to ramp up the speed when she sustained a mechanical problem at the worst possible moment. That opened the door for Balsamo, who held off Sierra and Ganzer with Chloe Dygert of the U.S. right behind in fourth.

Van der Breggen and Hall were joined on the final podium by Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

“It was a hard stage race. Three beautiful stages,” van der Breggen said. “They didn’t make it easy for us the last day. We’re really happy to finish first and second. It’s a great result.”

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