The ATOC is back, and ... bigger than ever? At least once you add in the women's races. It's a south-to-north "Race from the Sun" orientation, and should make for a nice, diverse week of racing. Stars will come out. It's California. Let's look into why you might even want to watch.
1. Logan Owen
Um, I was in Hawaii at the time, that's my excuse for not knowing a month ago that a kid from outside Seattle won Liege-Bastogne-Liege Espoirs. We didn't get back for a couple more days so that would explain why we also missed the parade. Anyway, along with 11th at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen, Owen has had a very strong spring, and with a sprint win at the Tour of Utah, he shapes up as a guy to watch for stages, though like any 21-year-old he deserves to be the subject of tempered expectations. I'll see what I can do about that.
2. Peter Sagan
Yep, changing gears pretty rapidly here. Sagan, the world champion and defending ATOC winner, will spend the week sucking all the air out of the metaphorical room, after his triumphant spring classics campaign. He's a star in America, to the extent anyone from Europe is (well, maybe not as much as Fabio, or Hugh Grant). The crowds will love him. And that's why he won't win -- because this is America, and when it comes to cycling, we can't have anything too nice.
3. The DDD Sprint Train
This is why Sagan won't be eating stage sprints for lunch every day. Dimension Data not only bring Mark Cavendish -- who owns nine stage wins, second only to Sagan. But they are bringing his entire sprint train -- Tyler Farrar, Bernie Eisel, Mark Renshaw, and so on. It will be Sagan alone, or with some token help, against all of DDD. And Sagan might still prevail, but in general the head-to-head matchups have gone to Cavendish.
4. The Sprinting Star Power
Um, before we hand the keys to the city to the Manxman, let it be known that he'll actually have some illustrious competition in the bunch gallops. Oh, there's Alexander Kristoff, who can take over the flat finishes when he gets hot. [He has not been hot, though he did win in Frankfurt last week.]
Then there is the emotional return of John Degenkolb to action after a serious hand injury and horror crash in Spain this past winter. He's not ready to try for wins and is supposedly here to support Ramon Sinkeldam, but we'll see if his form allows Degs to go after a win before it's over.
Oh... and you want stars? Does Tom Boonen count? Does Greg Van Avermaet? Thought so. [Also maybe don't sleep on Nicoclo Bonifazio.]
5. The Other American Hopeful
Yo, this is our house, amirite? So why we letting foreign guys come and win our race? Time to get back to the way things were in the good old days, when you could count on Levi or Floyd to represent America and lock it all down.
There is of course a heavy American presence in the peloton, but for now let me hone in on one of America's brightest young talents, Lawson Craddock. Leader of the Cannondale team, Craddock has made his transition from his early U23 classics showings to a potentially exciting climber and obvious GC threat. Last year he slipped down the Cali GC with the race truncated by snow, but two years ago, on a tougher circuit, he took third overall. That was his age-22 season, and since then he's made a habit of hanging around the week-long stage race GC rankings, bagging ninth in the prestigious Pais Vasco, 16th in Paris-Nice and sixth in Criterium International (a two-day event). In the VPV he was just barely off the pace of Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador on the primary mountain stage. With only one true climbers' stage, a climby-ish run up to Tahoe, and an ITT, this is a good course for Craddock.
6. Bradley Wiggins Still Races
He even has a support rider or two. How does a three-man team gain entry into this race? I have no idea. As for Sir Bradley, he's racked up four race days so far this year, so you know he's coming to kick ass. [He'll probably win the time trial, actually.] This is about as clear an indication that it's an Olympic year as you'll see on the road.
7. Taylor Phinney.
What he'll do next is anyone's guess. But he won't be lying around waiting for something to happen.
8. The GC Battle
OK, on to the main course. There are quite a number of contenders planning to show up here. BMC will rely on Rohan Dennis to handle the climbs and blow the doors off the competition in the time trial -- not a bad strategy, particularly with a deep team that has Phinney, Brent Bookwalter, Sammy Sanchez and Michael Schar in support. Cannondale can try Andrew Talansky if Craddock doesn't have the legs to win.
Among the foreign interlopers, Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx-Quick Step very nearly won last year and might be thinking the second time is the charm, but Petr Vakoc might be a better bet, even if his ability on the Santa Barbara stage is something of a question. Basically, I wouldn't put anything past him. A more conventional favorite would be Jurgen Van Den Broeck, as his legs began to wake up at Yorkshire and the ITT will be fine with him. Peter Kennaugh heads up the always formidable Team Sky, though he was awfully quiet in Yorkshire. Lachlan Morton of Jelly Belly just won the Tour of the Gila, which is an indicator that he's ready to challenge for the win here.
9. There's a full women's race!
OK, "full" might be a little strong, the women don't start til stage 5 of the men's itinerary, the stage to Lake Tahoe, but that's a trend in the right direction. I'm not sure how decisive that course will prove to be, but it should give the climbers a general advantage heading into the time trial. I haven't followed enough women's races this year to say anything intelligent apart from "Lizzie Armitstead," but she is one of the few big names absent from the start list. Megan Guarnier and Evelyn Stevens head up a formidable Boels-Dolmans squad, at least one publication thinks Marianne Vos will continue her comeback there, and the best of the rest will include Emma Johanssen, Kristin Armstrong, Mara Abbott, Lisa Brennauer, and Trixie Worrack.
10. Mother Nature Cooperates
The famously lovely California weather will allegedly be back, after last year's difficulties -- not the first the race has grappled with. So even though it's tempting to take things for granted, let's all exhale a bit and appreciate what should be a very nice week.