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Tour of California Offers Tight Racing

Though it hasn't drawn the star power of the Giro d'Italia, this year's Tour of California should offer up exciting GC action as a host of domestic riders and stars returning to form line up to do battle on Sunday.

There's another race right now that's not the Giro?

After years of covering the Tour of California, I still occasionally have to ask myself that, not because California is a bad race but because the Giro is, well, the Giro. It's easier to ask that question this year with many of the big stars of the support not in attendance, but the absence of a Bradley Wiggins or other stage racing superstar actually only makes this year's race even more exciting.

The sprinting talent is about as it has been in years past, with Mark Cavendish making a pilgrimage overseas for the first time since 2010, third time, interestingly opting not to search out stage wins at the Giro d'Italia this year. Peter Sagan is again back, returning to the race he's won 11 stages at over the past five years. That included the memorable 2012 edition where Sagan won stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and 8. The Saxo-Tinkoff rider will certainly be hoping for a repeat of that to kick off the second part of his season after a disappointing classics campaign. Marcel Kittel was supposed to be in attendance in one of the first races back after a long, illness-plagued spring, but he withdrew from the race several days ago, saying that it would be too much for his body at this point in his recovery. Theo Bos is here too, and the former track star could sneak in and surprise Cavendish on one day.

While the general classification battle is lacking a lot of big names, it makes up for it in depth of usually second tier riders. A balanced playing field could make the racing on Stages 3, 6, and 7 really interesting. Cannondale-Garmin's Andrew Talansky is the most pedigreed rider here as a winner of last year's Criterium du Dauphine, but he is unlikely to be at top form with his focus on performing well in the Tour de France in two months' time. In contrast, many of the other riders here with ambition to win are at one of the focal points of their season. Robert Gesink is returning to the race he won in 2012. After missing almost a year of competition due to a heart arrhythmia, Gesink is still trying to find his form of old again, though the Stage 7 finish on top of Mt. Baldy should be good for the tall, thin Dutch rider. Etixx-Quickstep's Julian Alaphillipe is also here after a roaring April where he took second place in both Fléche Wallone and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. However, Alaphillipe has yet to prove strong on the longer climbs, instead packing a sprint after a hilly day that will make him one of the favorites to win Stage 3. This could be the perfect, low-pressure environment to see if the young French phenom can also perform well in short stage races, but he could also be running on fumes at this point.

Perhaps more than in prior years, there will also be a strong GC contention from the domestic teams. Janez Brajkovic, who has placed inside the top ten at the Tour de France, is here for racing for United Healthcare. Perhaps more interesting are Lachlan Morton and Phil Gaimon. Morton was on fire two years ago at the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in his first season as a professional, but the seriousness of top-level European racing did not suit him well and he switched from Garmin-Sharp to the domestic Jelly Belly outfit at the end of last season. The Stage 6 time trial at Big Bear Lake will probably be his undoing, but Morton could surprise the next day on Mt. Baldy. Finally, Phil Gaimon, who spent last year on Garmin-Sharp as well, will be here with sights on an overall victory. After a win in the Redlands Classic, it could be his year to podium here.

As for the route, it's typical California fare, perhaps with a bit more bent towards the sprinters than usual. Stages 1, 2, 4, and 8 seem destined to end up in bunch sprints, and Stage 5 could as well, although from a reduced bunch. Peter Sagan must be licking his lips at the climby profile on that stage already. Stage 3 could be interesting with a rolling and gradually climbing final 6 kilometers and a quite steep final 400m. Look for a battle between the GC riders trying to pry out a few seconds here, but also with some punchy riders like Sagan and Alaphillipe mixing it up for the stage win as well. Stage 6 is a time trial around Big Bear Lake, which seems pretty cruel because the stage starts above 6,000 feet in elevation after two days of racing at sea level. Finally, the venerable queen stage to the top of Mt. Baldy comes next Sunday after a week's worth of racing. I won't blame you for tuning in to the Giro on most days because not many of these stages should provide scintillating viewing, but I would put a sticky note on your computer to watch the finishes of Stages 3 and 7. Watching all the young climby guns go after each other up Baldy should be pretty great viewing, and you won't even have to miss watching the Giro to do so (thanks, time zones!).

Oh, and don't forget that there is a Women's Tour of California going on now. Though you can't watch the race on the organization's Race Tracker (seriously, why won't they broadcast it if they tout it as such a big deal?), it is the first time the race has offered a stage race for women and the three days of racing plus a standalone time trial have drawn a strong field.