The world champion has won at least one stage in every edition since making his debut in 2010, accumulating a total of fifteen wins at an average of over two per edition, including a race-record five in 2012.
Two years ago he stunned everyone by even managing to win the overall classification, posting the quickest time in the shortened time trial, and somehow finishing among the top climbers on the huge Mount Baldy.
He’s unlikely to achieve that feat again, and will concentrate on stage wins and earning a seventh points classification victory in eight years, but could still be part of the winning team, with Bora-Hansgrohe also fielding climber Rafal Majka.
An impressive line-up of sprinters
With the exception of stage two, each of the first four days of the Tour of California are engineered towards the sprinters.
With his teammate Fernando Gaviria starring at the Giro d’Italia, Kittel will be eager to remind Quick-Step what he is capable of, but will face stiff competition.
Both John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) compete aiming to make up for having missed out in all the major Classics, with the latter also harbouring a point to prove after his team accused him of being overweight.
Team Sky’s Elia Viviani will also be one to watch, in light of the Italian’s first win of the season at the Tour de Romandie.
As is often the case, the stage that finishes atop Mount Baldy will be the one that shapes the GC at the Tour of California.
With 40km to go the riders take on the category one Glendora Mountain Rd, a challenging test in itself that lasts 12.6km and averages 5.1 per cent.
The gradient continues to undulate during the following 20km, before reaching the official start of Mount Baldy, which is shorter at just 8.2km, but boasts a horrible average gradient of 8.2 per cent.
Its excessive difficulty, which becomes more pronounced the closer the riders get to the summit, should provide the best climbers enough to scope to lay the foundations for overall victory – barring another miraculous ride in the vein of Sagan in 2015, in which the Slovak somehow finished sixth here and lost just 47 seconds to the winner.
It’s been an inauspicious start to 2017 for Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac).
He’s been largely absent all season, appearing only at the Tour of the Basque Country, where he abandoned after stage two, and the Volta a Catalunya, where he suffered the indignity of being officially timed out.
Nevertheless, the Tour of California is one of his key aims of the season, and he’ll be a favourite for the overall victory even if lacking in form.
Other contenders include Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), veteran Samuel Sanchez and his teammate and last year’s third place finisher, Brent Bookwalter (both BMC), but the 24km Big Bear Lake time trial on the penultimate day of the race could edge things in his favour.
With many of the sport’s top stage racers either at the Giro or otherwise opting not to ride, the Tour of California has over the years proven to be a learning curve for young talents – particularly home American riders.
Two years ago Ian Boswell (Team Sky) impressed to finish third on Mount Baldy and seventh overall, and will this year be promoted to be outright leader of Sky.
And in 2014, a 22-year-old Lawson Craddock showed tremendous potential to finish third overall. Having gone off the radar since finishing fifth at last year’s edition, he also has the chance to push on his career with a bid for overall victory this time around.
There are also plenty of other, less well-known young Americans riding, particularly in the non-WorldTour teams. Among them could be the nation’s next great hope, ready to make a name for themselves at the Tour of California.
The women’s Tour of California
Taking place between Thursday May 11 – Sunday 14 will be the Women’s Tour of California, the 10th leg of the WorldTour, and the first stage race of the series that offers some ascents for the climbers to enjoy.
Stages one and two end both end at South Lake Tahoe with a devilish kick in the form of a 1.7km rise averaging 5.9 per cent, and the second stage also features the category one Daggett summit, tackled just 10km from the finish.
This will be where the GC is likely decided, as the final two days, both finishing in Sacramento, are pan flat and tailor made for sprinters.
Last year, Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) won the overall to instigate a terrific run of form that would culminate in her winning the WorldTour.
She again enters the race as a top favourite, although it will be interesting to see how she balances leadership with the on-form Anna van der Breggen.
Team Sunweb look set to be their main rivals, with the triple-threat of Tour of Flanders winner Coryn Rivera, Lucinda Brand, and 2015 runner-up Leah Kirchmann.