Sprinters will again come to the fore of the race following a test in the mountains, a day for opportunists and Wednesday’s 34.7km individual time trial at Silicon Valley.
Cavendish (Dimension Data) wasn’t in the mix and sat-up on the opening stage, which Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) won, though stayed upright. That was perhaps a sigh of relief for the 32-year-old, who after winning a stage on season debut at the Dubai Tour has spent majority time on the tarmac and finished just two of the six races he has started.
Cavendish stayed in the Middle East and rode the Tour of Oman before the Abu Dhabi Tour in which he fell in the neutral zone and abandoned kilometres later with a concussion.
The 30-time Tour de France stage winner recovered in time for Tirreno-Adriatico but crashed in the opening team time trial, which he finished outside the time limit with a fractured rib and facial lacerations.
He then fractured another rib when he somersaulted over a high and wide bollard at Milan-San Remo, a race he knows intimately well having won in 2009.
“I always found the phase of the Classics more intense because you can win and lose in a shorter period of time whereas this is more drawn out,” Dimension Data sports director Roger Hammond said in California.
“Now I feel like I’m on a massive oil tanker that takes two miles to change direction or turn. Once you start that’s it, whereas the Classics feel like a speed boat race.”
Cavendish entered the Tour of California, normally happy hunting ground for him, off the back of the Tour de Yorkshire that he retired from on stage four.
Hammond said California was a “new start” to get “on the right path” with a view to the Tour de France more than anything else.
“He’s not here riding around to have a look at the California countryside but it’s part of a phase of the season now,” he said. “I think we’re pretty confident that you wouldn’t bet against him winning.
“That’s what he did in Milan San-Remo. He didn’t ride in Abu Dhabi, or Tirreno-Adriatico, and then he was one of the last sprinters left approaching the Poggio, before he hit the bollard. That’s the way to look at it.”
Hammond interpreted the spills as bad luck over something more sinister and threw a wider net, encompassing the squad’s season, which has been compared to a voodoo doll getting repeatedly beaten.
The latest blow could have been fatal for veteran road captain Bernhard Eisel, who underwent emergency brain surgery for a crash-related subdural haematoma last month.
“I think a little bit of bad luck brings more bad luck in that you have less and less people around you. It’s not just Mark in the team,” Hammond said.
“Reinardt Janse van Rensburg hasn’t raced since the World Championships last year so he’s an important part of his lead-out. [Mark] Renshaw has been sick since last year as well so that’s another key person in his lead-out.
“If you then have to cover those people on your own, or have people that are new and stepping up, it’s like working with neo-pros in that position, which isn’t ideal. We do our best to try and replace, make it right, but things happen.”
Thursday’s 176.5km fourth stage from Stockton to Elk Grove features one category three climb around the halfway point of an otherwise flat course.
The final stage in Sacramento – where Cavendish has never lost a bunch sprint – is what the Manxman has put his own name down for though.