Carter Jones fulfilled a dream by earning the opportunity to race full time for a Europe-based pro cycling team this season.
The 26-year-old New Jersey native is competing for Team Giant-Alpecin and is based in Girona, Spain.
But Jones is thrilled to be back in the United States for the 10th Amgen Tour of California, his only scheduled U.S. event this year.
"It really is a unique race," he said in a phone interview.
The eight-stage Tour of California men's race begins Sunday in Sacramento and ends May 17 in Pasadena.
Riders from 18 domestic and international men's teams will cover 724 miles, including four stages that encompass parts of the Southland.
On Thursday, riders will traverse a 96-mile stage from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita. The next day, they will be in Big Bear for an individual time trial.
An 80-mile stage from Ontario to a summit finish at Mt. Baldy on Saturday will precede Sunday's final stage, a 65-mile course that begins at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles and ends at the Rose Bowl.
Race director Jim Birrell said that after a decade on the racing calendar, "We're beginning to have tradition."
Jones, who attended the University of Colorado, is participating in his fourth Tour of California. Teammate Lawson Craddock, who finished third in last year's race, is regarded as one of the top contenders.
Robert Gesink of the Netherlands, who rides for Team Lotto NL, won the Tour of California in 2012. Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who rides for Tinkoff-Saxo, and Mark Cavendish of Great Britain, who rides for Etixx-Quick Step, also are among the contenders.
Tyler Farrar of the United States won a stage in the 2013 Tour of California and is competing for MTN-Qhubeka in this year's race.
Farrar, who grew up in Washington, is based in Ghent, Belgium. Like Jones, he is happy to race on home soil.
"This is kind of the No. 1 American bike race," he said in a phone interview. "As an American pro, it's always special to come back and do it."
Jones, a strong climber, has spent the season getting acclimated to living and racing in Europe.
"It's been a learning experience, getting used to a new level of races," he said.
Being away from home has given him a new perspective about competing in the Tour of California.
"I didn't really appreciate the race until this year," he said. "Now, I'm so psyched."