Wiggins odds-on favorite to win Tour of California

DAVE SKRETTA (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

Bradley Wiggins might be the only one who doesn't consider himself the overwhelming favorite to win the Tour of California when it begins Sunday in Sacramento.

The former Tour de France champion and leader of Team Sky's British invasion has identified one of America's premier stage races as one of his priorities this season. But he also believes it could come down to the final days, perhaps even the finishing stages next weekend.

''I don't think the mountaintop finishes are as straightforward as they look,'' he said.

Still, the overall classification figures to be sorted out in those mountains, including the Stage 3 ride up Mount Diablo on Tuesday and the climb up Mountain High on Friday. The race ends on May 18 over the same circuit in Thousand Oaks that concluded the 2010 edition.

Defending champion Tejay van Garderen is not competing this year, instead focusing on the Tour de France in July. But his BMC Racing Team still has aspirations of challenging Wiggins on the eight-day, 720-mile journey down the Pacific coast to the finish near Pasadena, anointing Peter Stetina their best shot for standing on the podium.

Other riders who could challenge for the overall title in a race that has been dominated mostly by Americans include young rider Lawson Craddock and Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam.

''We brought a real strong team,'' said Stetina, who lives in Santa Rosa. ''We checked all the boxes, like Taylor (Phinney) for the time trial. I'm really honored as a new rider that the team put the faith in me to charge the team's goal to defend Tejay's title.''

Phinney, a U.S. Olympian, figures to be the favorite over Wiggins in the lone time trial, a 12.5-mile ride Monday around the 1850s gold-boom town of Folsom. Otherwise, he will mostly ride in support of his young teammate as he tries to win his home race.

''Everyone is pointing to Wiggins as the odds-on favorite, and he's stated it's important for him and his sponsors to win here, so that's out there,'' Phinney said. ''But everyone is going to be looking at him. It's not really a field where you can pick one guy.''

That is especially true on stages likely to end in a bunch sprint.

Former world champion Mark Cavendish, coming off four stage wins in Turkey, will have the support of the powerful Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. He'll almost certainly go head-to-head with Peter Sagan, the Slovakian revelation of the 2012 race who also won two stages a year ago.

''It is not a sprint-friendly course this year,'' Cavendish said.

That bodes well for Sagan, who tends handle climbs better than his Isle of Man rival.

''I came here for the first time five years ago and won two stages. I came back and won another stage and I kept winning,'' he said. ''But the last two years were easier because Cavendish and (Matthew) Goss weren't here. Having them here is going to make this year harder.''

After the opening stage, the Folsom time trial and climb up Mount Diablo, the race heads from Monterey to Cambria. A stage from Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara is followed by the summit finish at Mountain High, a trek from Santa Clarita to Pasadena and the finish in Thousand Oaks.

The tour also expanded its women's events this year. There is a circuit race Sunday in Sacramento, followed by a time trial Monday in Folsom.

''The momentum started building last year,'' said Alison Powers, one of the favorites in both races. ''We are getting more and more recognition, more teams, more sponsors. I hope this year is not the 'year of the woman,' but that it becomes the years of the women.''

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