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Sanchez, US riders top Tour of California contenders

© AFP/File | Samuel Sanchez smiles during the 97th Volta Catalunya 2017 on March 23, 2017

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - 

Spain's Samuel Sanchez and American riders Andrew Talansky and Brent Bookwalter are expected to be among the title contenders when the 12th Tour of California cycling stage race begins Sunday.

The race makes its debut on the International Cycling Union's WorldTour, but conflicts with the Giro d'Italia, where most teams have their top riders competing, will keep most big stars away while several others are injured.

France's Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx-Quick Step, last year's winner, underwent right knee surgery this week and will miss July's Tour de France.

Britain's Mark Cavendish of Team Dimension Data is recovering from mononucleosis while Cofidis rider Nacer Bouhanni of France is out with a concussion.

That leaves a wide open field with Bookwalter, third in last year's Tour of California, and 2010 Tour de France runner-up Sanchez, sixth last year, giving confidence to BMC Racing.

"This year we're coming back with renewed enthusiasm and the motivation to repeat our strong performance," Sanchez said. "Brent is also highly motivated as he will be racing on home soil and I think he can be up there at the end of the week."

Home-state hero Talansky, fifth in last year's Vuelta a Espana, and compatriot Lawson Craddock were fourth and fifth respectively in California last year and return for Cannondale-Drapac.

"I'm feeling good," Talansky said. "The last few weeks since returning from Europe have been smooth. I'm ready to race. We won't be sitting back and waiting."

The race opens in Sacramento and finishes May 20 at Pasadena. Stage two starting in Modesto offers six category climbs, the toughest up Mount Hamilton. Stage five features a steep and long ascent to Mount Baldy among three category climbs.

Sprinters will have a penultimate sixth-stage 24km time trial Friday at Big Bear Lake to regain any lost ground ahead of the final 125km stage down to the finish.

Slovakia's Peter Sagan, a two-time reigning world road race champion and the 2016 Tour of California winner, has 15 stage wins in the event and rides for Bora-Hansgrohe, which also boasts Poland's Rafael Majka, last year's best climber in the Tour de France.

American Ian Boswell, seventh in California in 2015, takes a leadership role for Sky in his fifth year with the team.

"I've always ridden for other people. I've never been designated leader in a performance plan, and as we get closer there's a little bit of pressure, which is good," Boswell said.

American Evan Huffman, riding for Rally, won last year's Tour of California best climber title and took the biggest victory of his career in last month's Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.

© 2017 AFP