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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.”

Geraint Thomas blowing in the wind at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — Geraint Thomas and his teammates don’t need a mountain to deliver a hammer blow on their rivals at the Tour de France.

They can do it on the flat, too. With a little help from the wind.

The defending champion was the big winner of a chaotic Stage 10 in southern France on Monday when French rival Thibaut Pinot and other title contenders were caught napping by a treacherous combination of winds and narrow roads.

Unable to all ride at the front, Pinot and other riders got left behind when the winds first stretched and then shattered the peloton into groups over 35 frantic final kilometers (20 miles) of a 217.5-kilometer (135-mile) trek from Saint-Flour to Albi in south-central France.

Perfectly positioned at the front when the pack took different routes around a traffic circle, triggering the first split, Thomas and his Ineos teammates put pedal to the metal to make the gap on Pinot and other contenders caught behind as big as possible.

The bill for the French podium finisher in 2104, as well as Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, and Richie Porte was costly. They rode in a whopping 1 minute, 40 seconds behind Thomas.

“At the start we said at some point this race is going to split,” explained Luke Rowe, one of Thomas’ teammates. “We were all over it with numbers at the front.”

Once opened, the gap increased speedily, with yellow jersey-holder Julian Alaphilippe and Ineos riders setting a frenetic tempo until the end.

“We were straight on the front foot, we knew it was on us to drive it to the line,” Rowe said. “I was saying to the guys, `This is a TTT (team time trial) all the way to the finish line.”‘

Tour de France rookie Wout Van Aert won the stage with a sprint to the line. But Thomas was the headline act.

“I couldn’t think of anything better,” Thomas said. “It’s especially good on a day like today when you never expect it. It was just a positioning error from them and they lose a minute and a half. That’s how it goes.”

Ahead of big Pyrenean stages this week, Thomas vaulted to second place overall, 1:12 behind Alaphilippe, with teammate Egan Bernal in third place, four seconds further back.

After a flawless start to the race, it was Pinot’s first mistake, and a big one. Looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since Bernard Hinault in 1985, he dropped from third to 11th overall, 2:33 behind Alaphilipple and 1:21 behind Thomas, perhaps not fatal to his Tour but a huge setback.

Pinot used an expletive to describe his day.

“What do you want me to say? There’s nothing to say,” he said, looking absolutely disgusted.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was almost as disappointed.

“He was ideally placed in the Tour and to be trapped like that in the last 35 kilometers of the stage before the rest day is sad for him,” he said. “It’s a lot of time lost.”

The peloton split into three groups on a long but narrow section of road opened to the wind when Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck Quick Step teammates sped up the pace at the front to close the gap to six breakaway riders. The fugitives were reeled in with 25 kilometers (15 miles) left before Thomas and Co., working well with Alaphilippe’s team, pushed harder in an impressive display of collective strength.

“It’s not only in the mountains where you can gain time, we have a strong team for days like today, too, and that’s what we showed,” Thomas’ teammate Dylan van Baarle, said.

Enjoying another day in yellow, Alaphilippe said he and his teammates were thinking about placing Elia Viviani for the finish-line sprint when they accelerated, not deliberately trying to hurt Pinot.

“We didn’t plan to split the bunch. We only expected the stage to be nervous and tricky. Our intention was only to protect my yellow jersey and to focus on a sprint,” he said. “We knew precisely at which kilometer there was a risk of crosswinds. All teams gave the same instructions. There was a lot of stress and pressure in the peloton and when it split, everyone expected it, then we did the maximum.”

A three-time cyclo-cross world champion starting to live up to his billing as a future star, Van Aert is riding his first Grand Tour.

“The last 70 kilometers were very nervous,” he said after edging Viviani by just a few inches. Australian Caleb Ewan placed third.

Van Aert surged from the left in the last stretch and resisted Viviani’s comeback by throwing his bike at the line.

The up and coming Belgian said he got the OK from his team bosses to race for the win because his team leaders were trapped in the group behind. But even then he didn’t expect to beat recognized sprinters such as Viviani and Peter Sagan in a photo finish.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Technology beating romanticism at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — With all the technology stacked against them, the six breakaway riders at the Tour de France had no hope of making it to the finish without being caught.

Race directors were watching their every move on TV screens set up in their cars, and rival competitors riding behind were informed in instant time of the gap through earpieces. It was a day for a bunch sprint, and it could not be any different.

At the Tour, long gone are the days when bold riders would launch long-range attacks and foil the sprinters at the finish line. The sport has changed so much in the space of 20 years that, on the many long and flat stages peppering the thee-week racing program, breakaways have nearly no chance of succeeding.

“A stage victory in the style of Jacky Durand or Thierry Marie? It’s nearly impossible on Grands Tours, and even more at the Tour de France,” Arkea Samsic team manager Emmanuel Hubert told The Associated Press.

Hubert, a former pro rider, mentioned Durand and Marie, two riders who epitomized the idea of panache. In the 1980s and ’90s, both were capable of launching long-range victorious rides that made them fan favorites.

Such long-haul trips still take place nowadays, but they are almost never rewarded.

Take the six who spent Monday at the front of the pack in the southwestern Aveyron region. If they had any hopes of reaching Albi ahead of the pack, they quickly found out their grand day out would not feature a happy ending.

There were four climbs on the day’s program, but the flat finale gave sprinters a golden opportunity to get a stage win. Tony Gallopin, Michael Schar, Natnael Berhane, Anthony Turgis, Mads Wurtz Schmidt and Odd Christian Eiking moved away from the pack soon after the start. With none of them a threat in the general classification, the peloton was happy to let them go.

But once their lead reached three minutes, the fugitives were kept on a tight leash, with sprinters’ teams speeding up the pace at the front of the pack to make sure they would not open a gap too difficult to bridge later in the stage.

A classic scenario then developed. Using all the data available to determine the right time to move, sprinters’ teams organized the chase about 50 kilometers from the finish to rein in the audacious group.

“There is so much at stake for the sprinters’ team,” Cofidis manager Alain Deloeil told the AP. “For them it’s nearly a professional mistake if, on a flat stage, they don’t bring back the breakaway. They need to set up a sprint for their fast man.”

These scenarios, which also affect racing in the mountains, are a real problem for organizers who need to maintain the excitement over a three-week period. At a closed-door meeting before the race started, Tour director Christian Prudhomme urged riders to be more audacious in their strategies after a somewhat boring start to the race last year.

Deloeil and Prudhomme are nostalgic for an era when ear pieces and power meters were words still to be invented. They believe riders don’t use their instinct anymore, with their eyes glued to screens determining whether they should attack or chase down fugitives.

Team Ineos, the former Team Sky, often relies on data from power meters – the small devices fitted to riders’ bikes measuring their power output – when tackling climbs. It’s a strategy that produced five Tour victories with three different riders since 2012.

Prudhomme would like to see restrictions on power meters.

“Riders should not have permanent access to their data,” Prudhomme told the AP. “In days gone by, Fausto Coppi used to attack Gino Bartali when he noticed the little blue vein coming out on his rival’s leg. It was a sign that Bartali was getting tired. And Bernard Hinault waited until Joop Zoetemelk’s leg moved aside, because it meant he was tired. And that was the moment Bernard chose to attack.”

According to Prudhomme, banning power meters would add a refreshing dose of romanticism to a sport heavily relying on data.

“If riders could not read their power meters, there would be more emotions,” he said. “But obviously the biggest teams don’t want that.”

Stephane Rossetto, a Tour rookie who twice tried his luck over the past 10 days in long unsuccessful breakaways, said many competitors are too conservative in their approach.

“That’s modern cycling, and we need to adapt,” the 32-year-old said. “Many riders are just looking at their power meter and don’t go beyond a certain limit. And with ear pieces, we get the gaps in real time. There is not much room for surprise. Me, I never look at my power meter.”

Luke Rowe, a teammate of defending champion Geraint Thomas at Ineos, hit back at Prudhomme’s remarks.

“He is living in the Stone Age with comments like that,” Rowe said. “I can tell you, from a guy who spends a lot of time riding on the front, you don’t ride on power. You ride on feel, you ride on who is in the break, how far ahead they are, on wind direction, terrain. You take all these factors into consideration to see how you are going to ride. You don’t stare at power meters.”

Boosting Rowe’s case, it was the good positioning of Ineos riders at the front of the pack – and not technology – that allowed them to gain around 100 seconds on three dangerous rivals when crosswinds played havoc in the finale of Monday stage.