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Team HTC-Columbia bringing top riders to Tour of California

San Luis Obispo-based Team HTC-Columbia is bringing many of its top riders to compete in this year’s Tour of California.

Headlining the team will be Mark Cavendish, the 24-year-old sprinter who won six stages in last year’s Tour de France. He also competed in the Tour of California last year and won the fifth stage in a sprint to the finish in downtown Paso Robles.

Joining him will be two current national champions — Michael Rogers, 30, of Australia and Lars Bak, 30, of Denmark, as well as Tony Martin, a 25-year-old German who won the best young rider jersey at last year’s Tour de France.

They will be in California despite the simultaneous staging of the Giro d’Italia, one of professional cycling’s three grand tours. That race began last weekend and won’t finish until May 30, a week after the Tour of California ends.

The Tour of California is a priority race for HTC-Columbia this year, team manager Rolf Aldag said.

“The Tour of California has always been one of the season focuses for our team,” Aldag said in a news release. “It was important to us to come here with a good team and the goal of being competitive the entire race.

“Mark Cavendish has great form with his recent win in Tour de Romandie so we will start on Sunday with the objective of taking the first stage win.” The Tour de Romandie was a stage race in Switzerland that recently concluded.

“For the overall we have Mick Rogers and Tony Martin,” Aldag said. “Mick finished third last year and is having a great season so far this year. He led Tour de Romandie until the final stage last week. Between him and Tony, and with the help of young American Tejay Van Garderen in the mountains, we believe we have a good chance.”

Another likely reason for the strong HTC team being entered is the competition. Getting much of the attention this year is seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and his new Team RadioShack. Another member of that squad is Levi Leipheimer, last year’s Tour of California winner.

One man not riding for HTC-Columbia this season is George Hincapie. The South Carolina resident left HTC in the offseason to join BMC Racing, another American squad.

Bob Stapleton, the owner of HTC-Columbia who makes his home in San Luis Obispo and has based the team headquarters on O’Connor Way, said that the parting was cordial. Hincapie, 36, is entering a stage in his career, Stapleton said, where he wants to race less and focus more on his family and a sportswear company that he has launched.

What will Hincapie’s loss mean to HTC-Columbia? “It will be in the quiet, confident leadership he brought” to the squad, Stapleton said.

None of the Tour of California’s routes will be on the Central Coast this year. In a bid to broaden interest in the race, organizers are starting it Sunday in Sacramento, then moving it into the Bay Area before heading to mountainous stages in the Sierra foothills and the San Gabriel Mountains towering above Los Angeles. It will stage in downtown Los Angeles for the important time-trial race before finishing in Thousand Oaks next weekend.

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