Sprint battle royale on tap as cycling’s fastest finishers set to square off in California

Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan, Peter Sagan, and Alexander Kristoff are all set to contend for sprint wins in California

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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LONG BEACH, California (VN) — The Amgen Tour of California opens with a sprinter-friendly stage on Sunday in Long Beach, and the list of speedsters set to contend for the win is perhaps the strongest sprinting field the WorldTour has seen so far this year.

With Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) all in attendance, practically every top-tier pure sprinter has made the trek to southern California for this week’s race. So to have more versatile finishers Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).

It’s been a growing trend in recent years: The sport’s fastest riders are opting to skip the long transfers and brutal climbs of the Giro d’Italia to get in some critical pre-Tour de France racing in California. For one reason or another, most of those fast finishers find themselves in extra need of tune-up miles this May.

Kittel, making his third career appearance in California, is in the midst of his first season with new squad Katusha-Alpecin. The new sprinter-team pairing was a bit slow of the gate, though Kittel stormed to a pair of stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico. The Tour of California will be another important opportunity for Kittel to put his train to the test against WorldTour competition.

“There haven’t been many sprint stages like there are this year [in California], and I think this year is a really good race for the sprinters,” Kittel pointed out Friday at the pre-race press conference.

Indeed, there are likely to be three days for the sprinters at this year’s Tour of California. After Sunday’s flat circuit race in Long Beach, stage 5 to Elk Grove and the seventh and final stage in Sacramento will both suit the fast finishers as well.

Cavendish, who has won the second most Tour de France stages — and the second most Tour of California stages — in history, will look to use the three chances to return to winning ways after a spate of crashes stretching back to last year.

The 32-year-old Manxman broke his scapula and withdrew from last year’s Tour de France after a controversial collision with Peter Sagan. He sustained a concussion crashing into a car at the Abu Dhabi Tour this February and then crashed hard into a traffic divider at Milano-Sanremo. The Tour of California will be only his second race back since that incident.

“After such a crash like at Milan-Sanremo it is not easy,” Cavendish acknowledged. “But for sure I’m not here to mill around. You only get better by trying to get involved.”

Cavendish’s former Quick-Step Floor teammate Gaviria is also working his way back from a frustrating start to 2018. The Colombian broke his hand in a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico, forcing him to skip the spring classics. He returned to racing at the Tour de Romandie but didn’t finish the race, and then missed out on a shot at a WorldTour victory at Eschborn-Frankfurt when he misjudged a turn in the finale.

With his career debut at the Tour de France looming, Gaviria could use some positive results to hang his hat on. That won’t be an easy ask considering the field in California.

“It’s tough because there are a lot of sprinters [here],” he said. “For the rest of the season, it’s getting ready for the Tour [de France] with conditioning, trying for a victory there.”

Ewan will also make his Tour de France debut in July. Unlike Gaviria and Cavendish, he enjoyed a healthier start to the season, snatching wins at the Tour Down Under and the Clasica de Almeria, and delivering an impressive runner-up ride at Milano-Sanremo.

That said, he could stand to add to his tally of sprint victories against top talent this season and hasn’t raced since the Italian monument in March.

Ewan downplayed his form ahead of the Tour of California while pointing out that he was looking forward to squaring off against so many Tour de France rivals regardless.

“This is probably going to be the last chance for all the sprinters to test themselves against each other before the Tour,” he said. “I’ve had a bit of time off, and it will be good to get back into racing and to be sprinting against such a good field.”

The quartet of marquee bunch kick specialists will all be looking over their shoulders, of course, at Peter Sagan. He’s so much more than a pure sprinter — but he’s pretty good at sprinting, too. The Slovakian world champ was his usual laconic self ahead of the race, pointing to his good memories from California as a reason to keep coming back.

Plus, as he noted, “racing is better than training.” That’s especially true when you’re racing to win, and Sagan has had no trouble doing that in California. He has won more stages in California than anyone, and he’s off to a fine start in 2018 after winning Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

It won’t be easy adding to that total this time around, considering the field and the parcours as well. He shines on intermediate stages that put the heavier sprinters in difficulty, but outside of Tuesday’s lumpy stage 3, the road stages at this year’s race are mostly suited for pure sprinters or pure climbers.

Then again, Sagan did stun the peloton just two years ago en route to winning the overall title. Although that seems unlikely to happen again this year, it’s an important reminder that the 28-year-old can win under practically any circumstances.

He and the rest of the Tour of California sprint field will get their first taste of high-speed action soon. It all kicks off on Sunday with a 134.5-kilometer (83.6-mile) stage 1 in Long Beach.

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