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.”

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.”