May 13, 2016

Peter Sagan has had so much success in the U.S. lately that he might as well take up residency.

The Slovakian cyclist has dominated sprint stages at the Tour of California for years, and last year he surprised many by holding on for the overall victory. Then, a few months later, Sagan rode to triumph at the world championships in Richmond, Virginia.

He's back to headline this year's Tour of California, which begins Sunday in San Diego, and he will be wearing the rainbow stripes that he earned with that impressive ride last fall.

''I'm really looking forward to coming back to this race. It's a great event at which I have some really good memories,'' Sagan said. ''This year will be a very difficult edition, and not quite suited to my style, but stage by stage we will see what we can do.''

Indeed, a new mountain-top finish on Stage 3 in Santa Barbara could prove too punishing for Sagan, who has already captured Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde van Vlaanderen during a busy spring.

Sagan may instead target the sprinter-friendly stages, where the charismatic rider can add to his record 13 stage wins and five points jerseys.

''It's a race I've liked competing at over the past years and it has now become a tradition in my program,'' said Sagan, whose Tinkoff squad will include Adam Blythe and Michael Gogl. ''I would be happy if I am again competing for some strong results here.''

Things won't be easy for Sagan with arguably the best field of sprinters in event history.

British star Mark Cavendish, the winner of nine stages, headlines the Dimension Data squad, while Alexander Kristoff of Katusha and John Degenkolb of Giant-Alpecin will also be on hand.

The first stage should be an opportunity for the sprinters, while Stage 2 on Monday from Pasadena to Santa Clarita should be another. But the general classification will begin to take shape on Stage 3, when riders ascend the 6-mile slope of Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara.

The race continues to Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway on Stage 4, heads to Lake Tahoe the next day, and then features another key GC stage with the Folsom Time Trial on Friday.

Stage 7 takes place in the cycling hotbed of Santa Rosa with the race concluding in Sacramento.

''It's really a world-class field, especially for the sprint stages,'' BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter told The Associated Press. ''As far as the GC, maybe there's a couple more WorldTour teams than have been here in years past, and the more you get together, the higher the level.''

French phenom Julian Alaphilippe may be the GC favorite for Etixx-QuickStep, especially with the backing of a strong team that includes Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar. Former winner Bradley Wiggins will be back with his own squad, though his focus on track cycling for the Rio Olympics means he may target only the time trial, and Lawson Craddock and Andrew Talansky give Cannondale options.

''I have some beautiful memories from last year, despite losing the general classification for a handful of seconds,'' Alaphilippe said. ''At that time I was disappointed, but it's all bygones now as I'm coming to the U.S. motivated to try and go for another good performance.''

BMC Racing has Rohan Dennis with overall aspirations, but also has Taylor Phinney - trying to prove his fitness for a spot on the U.S. team for Rio - taking aim at the time trial. The team also has Greg Van Avermaet back after he broke his collarbone in a crash at Ronde van Vlaanderen.

''We are going in with both general classification and stage-win ambitions,'' BMC sports director Jackson Stewart said. ''There's not one rider on the team who isn't capable of getting a good result and for Brent Bookwalter and Taylor Phinney, it's one of the few occasions they can race on home soil.''

While the Tour of the Gila and Tour of Utah draw respectable fields, the cancellation of the USA Pro Challenge this year has left the Tour of California as the premier American stage race.

It's also made it the top target for many Americans in the pro peloton.

''I can't express how excited I am to return this year as one of the top American teams in the world,'' said Craddock, a Texas native. ''I have a lot of experience at this race and I'm really looking forward to bringing that to the team to help achieve the best place possible.''

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