Taylor Phinney returns to familiar ground in preparation for Tour of California

A little familiarity goes a long way for pro cyclist Taylor Phinney.

So the 26-year-old should feel right at home when the Amgen Tour of California men’s race starts Sunday in Sacramento.

Phinney, a Boulder, Colo., native, competes in Europe six months a year, but spends winters in Southern California, traversing Mulholland Drive, the Santa Monica Mountains and the Angeles National Forest to train for his American-based Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team.

“Anytime you can feel like you’re riding on a road that you’re comfortable with, that you know, that you’re familiar with the bumps, the potholes and the natural curvature of the road, you feel just a little bit more comfortable,” Phinney said in a phone interview. “When you’re riding your bike for more than five hours a day, feeling a little more comfortable is really nice.”

Riders from 17 domestic and international teams will cover more than 575 miles in seven stages, including four stages that travel through the Southland. For the first time in the Tour of California's 12-year history, it has been designated as part of the International Cycling Union World Tour.

“We wanted to create a race with international stature and bring the best of cycling to America,” said Kristin Klein, race president and executive vice president of AEG Sports, the event’s organizer. “This year … we’ve elevated our race. It distinguishes the best races in the world among the Tour de France.”

The first three stages include courses through Sacramento, from Modesto to San Jose, and from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay.

On Wednesday, riders will pass through a 100-mile stage from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita, followed the next day by a 78-mile stage that begins in Ontario and climbs 12,000 feet on Mt. Baldy.

An individual time trial will take place Friday at Big Bear Lake before the final stage on Saturday, a 77-mile course that begins at the Mountain High ski resort, winds into the Angeles National Forest and finishes in front of the convention center in Pasadena.

“The two decisive days will be Big Bear and Baldy,” said Lawson Craddock, a teammate of Phinney’s, in a phone interview.

Craddock, a Houston native, is participating in his sixth Tour of California and is considered among the top contenders.

“It kind of feels like coming back home to me,” Craddock said. “Being an American and racing for an American team in America’s top race is really, really exciting.”

Phinney won a stage in the 2014 Tour of California and is considered among the favorites to win the individual time trial.

“You suffer as much pain over the course of that distance as you can,” Phinney said. “That’s something I’ve always been more comfortable with, kind of taking the reins of my own speed and pain as opposed to being at the mercy of of the rest of the pack.”

Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who rides for BORA-hansgrohe, is the current world champion. He won the Tour of California in 2015 and holds the race record with 15 stage wins. He will be a top contender, along with teammate Rafal Majka of Poland and Brent Bookwalter, a Michigan native who rides for the U.S.-based BMC Racing Team.

Julian Alaphilippe of France won last year’s Tour of California but will not race because of a knee injury. Mark Cavendish, the winner of 30 stages in the Tour de France and 10 at the Tour of California, is out with an illness.

But for Phinney, it isn’t so much about who is participating in the race, but where the event is being held.

“Just being back in the U.S. … it allows you to be a little more relaxed,” he said. “When I’m more relaxed I have more fun and therefore I guess I’m more excited.”

lindsey.thiry@latimes.com

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