MORGAN HILL, California (VN) — A decade ago, the Amgen Tour of California provided a rare proving ground for North America’s domestic pro cyclists.
Underdog riders from smaller UCI Continental teams such as Jelly Belly, Health Net, and Toyota-United flooded each day’s breakaway, hoping that a stellar result might lead to a larger contract. At the conclusion of the race, the highest-placed domestic rider on GC earned serious bragging rights. Stage wins were rare.
Those dynamics have shifted in recent years, washed away by the race’s WorldTour status, which bars UCI Continental teams from competing. Today, it’s the North American Professional Continental teams that come to California as the underdogs. Rather than target bragging rights and exposure, these teams and riders now seek an altogether different experience.
“Sure, 10 years ago there was a little bit of who is the best Conti team in the race,” said Jonas Carney, performance director at Rally-UHC. “Those days are long gone.”
What do the North American Pro Continental teams and riders hope to do these days? I spoke with them to find out:
“They get their asses kicked”
With 80km remaining in Monday’s 215km stage from Rancho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe, Edward Anderson of Hagens Berman Axeon shot off the front of the dying breakaway in an effort to hold off the charging peloton. Anderson rode by himself for several kilometers until he was swarmed by team EF Education First.
The surge burned Anderson’s legs for the action in the stage’s finale, however the 21-year-old from Richmond, Virginia still finished in 34th place, 1:11 down.
“If you blow up, you blow up,” said Axel Merckx, manager of the team. “We’re not here for GC, we’re here to learn from the WorldTour teams and throw ourselves in the mix.”
Indeed, Merckx’s team is using the race as another classroom to teach the lessons of professional cycling to his collection of Under-23 riders from across the globe. Throughout the year Hagens Berma Axeon takes riders to smaller events in Europe and North America. The guys are expected to get results at these races.
That’s different at the Amgen Tour of California, which is the team’s pinnacle race for the season. Sure, the team wants to attack into breakaways, and perhaps challenge for a top-10 in a stage. But the real goal of the race is to expose the young riders to the speed of the WorldTour peloton.
“This helps the guys realize where the top level is,” Merckx said. “They get their asses kicked and they realize where they are, and where they need to be. And it makes you better in the long run.”
Chips on their shoulders
After three days of racing, riders from USA Cycling’s national team had featured in nearly every single breakaway. Tyler Stites rode into the break on the opening stage; on stage two it was Michael Hernandez’s turn; on stage 3 Alex Hoehn’s spent more than 100km riding in a two-man break.
“We’re riding with a chip on our shoulder,” Hoehn said. “Guys might be looking down on us. Who are these guys? They race Continental in America. We want to show everyone that… we definitely can compete against the best in the world.”
Hoehn’s attitude is reflective of the overall mission of the program: Riders want to show themselves against the WorldTour teams to further their own careers in the sport. Pop a good ride, potentially get a job. The team’s stated mission gives it a similar motivation to what UCI Continental teams had in past editions of the race.
With its quasi-development focus, USA Cycling chose younger development riders for the squad: Keegan Swirbul (23), Samuel Boardman (23), Miguel Bryon (24), Hernandez (21), Hoehn (21), and Stites (21). As a team captain, USA Cycling chose veteran sprinter Travis McCabe, who finished second on the opening stage.
The composite team program was launched early this year, and came after USA Cycling revealed it was unable to fund a full U23 European racing program this season due to a budget shortage. Instead, the federation send a collection of young riders to California. While the team may not be as focused on development as Hagens Berman Axeon, its overall mission is similar—give young riders an opportunity.
“We’re taking every single day as a single stage, so we came into today as a one-day race,” Hoehn said. “We’re going to have guys in the break again tomorrow.”
Results or bust
Rally-UHC came into the Tour of California touting the strength of its stage race leader, Brandon McNulty. McNulty, 21, was recovering from a stomach illness he caught after winning the Tour of Sicily, and was unable to follow the GC favorites on Monday’s stage to South Lake Tahoe.
Rally had riders to fill in. Rob Britton attacked into the front group and finished seventh on the day, with Gavin Mannion and Kyle Murphy finishing 15 seconds back. All three men are now within a minute of the race lead.
“We have enough depth now that we can contest a good GC with multiple guys,” Carney said. “Two years ago our GC hopes blew up in our faces and we didn’t have another choice.”
Rally has come into the Tour of California with firm goals in mind: a podium GC finish, stage victories, or some other major prize. Those heightened goals come from Rally’s longevity in the race. It has raced the Tour of California since 2008.
“When we first did the [Tour of California], just putting a guy in a breakaway or finishing top five in a sprint and we’d celebrate,” Carney said. “Now, we’ve won the KOM jersey and numerous stages. A big stage win, or a top three in GC is where we need to get to.”
Just like Continental teams a decade ago, Rally comes to the Tour of California to prove itself; only now, the team is hoping to convince the cycling world that it has the riders and staff to one day attain WorldTour status. Joining cycling’s big leagues is part of Rally-UHC’s long-term plan, and success in California plays a major component.
“Our realistic goal is to be one of the best Professional Continental teams in the world right now and come to California and go head-to-head with the WorldTour teams,” Carney said. “We want to be competitive with WorldTour teams because we want to be WorldTour someday.”