Most professional cyclists get classified quickly. They can sprint, climb or become time-trial specialists. They can control a pack or spend their careers as designated team riders.
Cyclists who climb and time trial well win eight-day stage races like the Amgen Tour of California. As their experience and skills progress, the same riders contend for grand tours, three-week races like the Tour de France.
And then there’s Peter Sagan. No one quite knows where to place the Slovakian. He’s 6-foot, 163 pounds but can climb with thin competitors. Though his physique doesn’t match the profiles of pure sprinters or time-trial specialists, he also excels in those disciples.
When the Tour of California begins Sunday in Sacramento, the expected prevailing plot is not if Sagan will win one of the eight stages but how many he won’t win.
Sagan, 24, now is his fifth Pro Tour season, has 65 career victories, including 10 stages in the past four years of the Tour of California and five wins this season.
“He’s a freak of nature,” said Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit), the reigning national time-trial champion who will be among the favorites in Monday’s Stage 2 individual time trial in Folsom. “I wouldn’t bet against him in any situation. We’ve seen him climb with the best in the world when he’s fit and motivated.
“I think a grand tour is a bit of a stretch with their long, sustained climbs. He seems to have a limit somewhere, but he’s an incredible athlete, and if he worked hard to lose some muscle, it’s possible he could even compete at that level.”
Despite Sagan’s strengths, this year’s field is formidable.
All of the event’s six overall winners are either retired or recovering from injury. But the peloton of 128 from 16 teams and 28 countries is expected to include Tour de France, Olympic and world championship riders.
After a one-year deviation with a south-to-north route, the eight-day, estimated 720-mile trek will travel from north to south before ending May 18 in Thousand Oaks.
Bradley Wiggins (SKY), the 2012 Tour de France winner and reigning Olympic road-race gold medalist, is favored for the overall title.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma) of Great Britain, a 25-time Tour de France stage winner, Matt Goss (ORICA-GreenEDGE) of Australia, and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) of Belgium are expected to vie with Sagan in sprint stages.
Young Americans Taylor Phinney, 23, and Peter Stetina, 26, who both ride for BMC, and Ben King (Garmin-Sharp) are among others expected to be top contenders in the field in which nine of last year’s top 20 will return.
Neither Tejay van Garderen (BMC), last year’s champion, nor Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff) of Australia, last year’s runner-up and the 2010 race winner, are entered.
Sunday’s 120-mile opening stage will begin at 10:50 a.m. near the Capitol on L Street. The field will head east and pass through Pleasant Grove and Lincoln and then to Auburn and Cool. The return route, downhill and fast, will conclude with three laps around the Capitol and finish where it started. It will likely be a pack sprint finish with Sagan in the mix.
Monday’s Stage 2, a 12.5-mile individual time trial starting at 1:05 p.m., will begin and finish in Folsom’s historic district. The Sutter Street start will be followed by a left turn onto Riley and a short downhill run onto Rainbow Bridge and over the American River. The riders will then head north toward Folsom Lake. A right turn onto Folsom Lake Crossing will take the riders past the main entrance of Folsom Prison. A turn onto Green Valley will lead the riders to a 180-degree turn back on the same route to the finish.
In addition to the time trial, two mountaintop finishes in Stage 3 to Mount Diablo (near Danville) and Stage 6 to Mountain High will determine the overall contenders.
In addition to Zirbel, time-trial favorites include Phinney, Stetina, Wiggins and Jens Voigt (Trek) of Germany.
“The race was more than I could handle at the time,” said Zirbel, 35, who first competed in the event in 2007 but withdrew. “I just remember being blown away by the depth of the field and how strong everyone was. I was down on myself because it was just so difficult.
“But experience counts for so much. I don’t know that I am any stronger of a rider now, but you learn how to race smart and conserve energy, and riding at the top level seems more attainable.”
With Van Garderen’s absence, Stetina will be the BMC team leader for the first time.
“I think the time trial is extremely important,” Stetina said. “Mount Diablo is not very steep until the very final. So I think there are going to be bigger time gaps for the time trial than on Diablo. And then Mountain High is a hard climb. You definitely have to have a good time trial to contend for the overall.”