Patriotism reigns as Tour of California kicks off

Published May. 9, 2014 6:32 p.m. ET

Peter Stetina is an American cyclist riding in one of the premier events in his home country for a U.S.-based team against a field filled with mostly European rivals.

No pressure, right?

The youngster from the BMC Racing Team will try to defend the title won by teammate Tejay van Garderen last season when he starts the Tour of California on Sunday in Sacramento. But he will be doing more than just that: He'll be trying to defend the home turf.

While the Giro d'Italia is drawing worldwide attention the next three weeks as one of the sport's three grand tours, and the Tour de France looms later this summer as its premier race, the Tour of California is one of the rare opportunities for American riders to stay at home. British star Bradly Wiggins and Slovakian sprinter Peter Sagan are the ones forced to travel.

''We're always racing in Europe, and you have that extra motivation and you go that much deeper when you are at your home race,'' Stetina told The Associated Press on Friday. ''I live in Santa Rosa. My friends are coming out to visit, and everybody is getting ready for this race, even more so than the Tour de France. But it's all good energy.''

The USA Pro Challenge in Colorado has grown into another significant American race, but it still does not have the history of the Tour of California. Now in its ninth year, it has grown from a largely continental event into one that attracts some of the best international riders.

Wiggins, the former Tour de France champion, will be at the start line. So will Sagan and sprint rival Mark Cavendish. Belgian rider Tom Boonen and Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam are also in the field, choosing to ride along the Pacific coast rather than in the mountains of Italy.


In other words, plenty of opportunities for American riders to upstage them.

''A lot of teams want to come here, which is another important thing. It says a lot about the race,'' said Taylor Phinney, a teammate of Stetina on the BMC Racing Team and a member of the U.S. team at the London Olympics. ''There's always a really positive vibe.''

The race is a big one not only for Stetina and Phinney, but also their team. They may ride Swiss-made bikes, but the team itself is run by American cycling guru Jim Ochowicz, and it is based in Santa Rosa, less than 100 miles from where the Tour of California will depart.

''We have a very balanced and motivated team,'' BMC Racing Team sport director Max Sciandri said. ''The guys will be working hard around Peter and we have Taylor there for the time trial, plus everyone will be stage hunting in a way.''

There are other American teams - Garmin-Sharp, Trek Factory Racing and UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team, among them. And even some international teams, such as Netherlands-based Belkin Pro Cycling, have U.S. sponsors that are eager for to see their colors flying at home.

Belkin is a consumer electronics manufacturer based in Los Angeles.

''This is the Tour de France of the United States and we would like to make our sponsor proud,'' Belkin sports director Nico Verhoeven said. ''We'll try to do what we always do. We aim to ride an attacking and attractive race, and hopefully we can bag some results.''

Cycling always seems to circle back to the individual riders, though. They're the stars of the show. And it's no different at this year's Tour of California.

Stetina may have the best shot among Americans of landing atop the general classification, but up-and-coming riders such as Joe Dombrowski - who will be riding in support of Wiggins on Team Sky - and Lawson Craddock of Giant-Shimano will have a chance to carve out their own names.

They will be doing it in a race where their countrymen have generally fared well. Floyd Landis won the first race in 2006, Levi Leipheimer swept the next three, and Chris Horner stood atop the podium in 2011. In fact, only Australian rider Michael Rogers and Dutch star Robert Gesink have been able to put a crimp in the American dominance.

''Our team and every other American team, for sure, they treat this like it's one of the biggest races,'' Stetina said. ''You always got to show up and represent when you're in your home state. We have the home-court advantage and we have to make use of that.''