Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Domestic Teams Chime in on AMGEN Tour of California Success

Rebecca Reza

USA Cycling domestic calendar continues to struggle with races coming and going, while staples such as the Tour of the Gila, struggle each year to continue. Heading into the final day of the 11th edition of the AMGEN Tour of California, USCR spoke with several directors and riders from the domestic peloton to ask about the significance of the race having lost the USA Pro Cycling Challenge this year.

cavendish wins St8 AToCMark Cavendish wins final stage of 2016 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo by Danny Heilprin

Prior to the race start in San Diego, race organizers announced its partnership with ASO and the NBC Sports Group had extended through 2019. The race began in 2006 and was held in February for the first four years before continuous bad weather influenced organizers to switch to May. The change would also give riders choosing not to race the Giro d’Italia, a race to help prepare for the Tour de France. Since then it has grown to include a women’s stage race that is held in conjunction with the men, this year growing to four stages and being the opening of the inaugural UCI Women’s WorldTour.

“For our community it’s really important, for our riders to be able to compete on home soil,” USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall said prior to the kick-off in San Diego. “An entire eco-system of bike racing is lifted by an event like this. All of the top teams come here, the directors, the coaches, the doctors, the mechanics, they all are able to learn and improve their craft by coming to an event like this.”

Throughout the past 30 years, many races that have helped foster and develop professional American cyclists similar to the Tour of California, have come and gone. Some examples are the Tour DuPont - cancelled in 1996 after an eight-year run and the Tour of Georgia that ran from 2003-2008 also lost funding and went under. Adding to that list was Tour of Missouri that ran from 2007-2009, to the Women’s Exergy Tour in 2012, and most recently the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, though organizers have done their best to reassure the public the race will return in 2017.

“Without world class events, you’re not going to foster any growth of the sport,” current National Road Champion, Matthew Busche of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling added. “It takes events like the Tour of the Gila, California, Utah, and the US Pro Challenge, all those events to grow the sport, but it takes more Gila-type races throughout the US to really foster the sport even more.”

Meanwhile, Americans on the WorldTour are happy to come home and race on familiar ground. Ben King of Team Cannondale added, “Obviously this race has a rich history so it’s nice to be part of that and as an American, it’s extra special.”

King continued, “It’s a chance to come home for a little bit, and the quality of the racing makes it the perfect preparation heading into the rest of the season. It’s also a big goal for us as an American team, Team Cannondale. This is a big objective for us, it’s really important for the sponsors and its important for the riders as well because we have several Americans on the team.”

The United States had three races last year that held a UCI ranking of a 2.HC, the highest UCI rating for a continental race. Besides California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, this also included the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. But they too have been suffering, having to cancel its women’s race this year, while cutting down on race staff as well.

Yet, through all of this, California continues to go strong. Throughout the racing this week, American riders have been on the podium each day winning stages, leading jersey classifications, and highlighting up and coming talent such as the 19-year-old phoneme from Axeon Hagens Berman, Neilson Powless.

“Well for us, this is our biggest event of the year,” retired pro-cyclist and owner of Holowesko-Citadel Professional Cycling team, George Hincapie said. “We are out here trying to do what we did last year to win a stage, and to make a big show.”

Holwesko-Citadel rider, Rob Squire agrees, “The Tour of California has been a big race since its inception, so it’s been a big target for all the US guys because we have those big names that draw so much attention to it. What’s great for the US is you look like yesterday; we had a domestic rider on the podium and the day before we had Oscar Clarke in the KOM jersey. What’s good, is that it gives credit to American cycling, and that we’re just as good as anybody else.”

USCR asked Evan Huffman of Rally Cycling if California now took on a higher significance and expectation for results without Colorado. Discounting any mishaps in the final stage Sunday, Huffman has earned enough points to win the overall King of the Mountain jersey classification.

“I don’t know if it changes this race too much, it’s always important,” Huffman said. “Maybe it shifts the focus for Utah a little bit. I think we might try and do another trip to Europe to try and fill that gap as well. I think there are still plenty of other opportunities to race.”

Opportunities however, may not be available. Jelly Belly Team Director, Danny van Haute explains the struggles some teams are having filling the gaps.

“If you look on the UCI North American Calendar, or even Asia, we’re trying to get in. There are no races after Utah in Asia or North America in those next three weeks of August. That makes it difficult, we’re fighting to get invitations somewhere.”

Jelly Belly is one of the longest running sponsors in American cycling, currently in their 17th season sponsoring the Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis pro cycling team.

“We need those sponsors for those big races here in North America,” van Haute concluded. “It’s a big thing for all of us to have a race like US Pro Cycling Challenge and AMGEN Tour of California, and one goes away it devastates everybody. The teams, the sponsors, the world of cycling, we just hope it comes back.”

Despite the struggles races are having, this week in California is another example of just how strong the talent in America continues to be.

“It’s really important to American cycling to have this event,” Bouchard-Hall added. “It’s something that raises the status of American cycling in general in the United States. A lot of people watching this event that wouldn’t see the sport of cycling otherwise and understanding what it is. Amgen and AEG, and the state of California have invested in an event is something that we are very, very grateful for.”

For now, the focus for domestic North American teams will shift to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, while many hopes that the beloved USA Pro Cycling Challenge will return in 2017.

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