Commentary: Domestic riders fought hardest at the Amgen Tour of California

The Amgen Tour of California's best battles involved riders on U.S. domestic teams as they battled against the sport's biggest stars.

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My favorite memory of the Amgen Tour of California comes from the race’s 2007 edition.

Fans clogged downtown San Francisco as TV cameras beamed live images of the day’s prologue time trial, which started along the Embarcadero and finished up to Coit Tower, to an audience across the globe.

Levi Leipheimer, then the country’s top Tour de France hope, took the win, just one second ahead of Jason Donald, a guy who had held a Category 5 racing license a few years before. Ben Jacques-Maynes, my old teammate on the UC Santa Cruz collegiate cycling team, was third.

The scene captured everything there was to love about America’s marquee pro cycling race. Here, in front of a sea of American cycling fans, big stars of the Tour de France raced against guys you knew from the local group ride.

I believe it’s worth reminiscing about the Tour of California’s early years as we process the disappointing news from last week. On Tuesday, race owner AEG cancelled the 2020 edition of the race, citing the race’s challenging economics.

The news understandably sparked a flurry of online chatter about the race’s shortcomings and the seemingly broken business model associated with big stage races. Fear not; I will address both of these topics in a column later this week.

But today, I want to remember the race’s place within North American cycling, lest we forget the impact it had upon its launch in 2006, not to mention the outsized role it played in the domestic racing scene for 14 years.

There was plenty to love about the Tour of California, especially in those early editions. And, in my opinion, nothing about the race was more attractive than the battles waged by the lesser-known riders and the smaller domestic North American teams, as they tried to beat the sport’s biggest stars to earn exposure, a bigger contract, and bragging rights.

“A dream come true”

Team Health Net was one of the domestic UCI Continental squads that was a stalwart at the race through its early editions. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Let’s step into the Wayback machine, and set the dial for March, 2005, when AEG announced plans for the race. The riders, team directors, and officials that I spoke to for this story remembered feeling similar sentiments upon learning of the new event.

It was a mix of bewilderment and utter joy.

“It was a dream come true,” said Mike Sayers, then the road captain of the domestic squad Health Net-Maxxis. “Even as an amateur racing in Sacramento, we’d talk about how cool it would be if there was some mythical tour in California that had the European guys. We didn’t have anything like it.”

It was as if the cycling gods had smiled on American racers, waved a magic wand, and delivered the one thing the sport so desperately needed: A big race that pitted the country’s best against the big squads from Europe.

The race launched into a crucial period for U.S. pro bike racing. After the Tour du Pont shuttered in 1996, an entire generation of North American riders had gone without a big international stage race on home soil.

While Lance Armstrong’s Tour dominance brought in throngs of new fans (myself included), as well as sponsors and interest from broadcasters, the middling domestic racing scene saw little of the lift. Major teams still came and went: Saturn, the best domestic squad, shuttered in 2003, the height of Lance mania.

Often times, the best battles saw regional pro squads like the Bay Area’s Webcor Builders and Ofoto-Lombardi Sports battling with national pro teams like Health Net and Navigators Insurance. There were plenty of criteriums and a few marquee stage races. But the scene lacked that one big stage race to draw everyone’s focus.

Everyone wanted a big race, even officials with the national federation. Steve Johnson, then the director of athletics at USA Cycling, said the federation tried to steer the country’s focus away from crits and toward stage races. The longer events, USA Cycling felt, provided a better development tool for our best riders.

Fan support for the Amgen Tour of California never ceased to turn heads. Photo: Mark Gunter/Getty Images

USA Cycling even tweaked its points structure for the season-long National Racing Calendar in hopes of enticing promoters to put on longer events.

“Perhaps it was a naive dream that we could have a robust international racing calendar without having to spend so much time in Europe,” Johnson said. “We wanted people to focus on the goal of bringing more international races and higher-level races to the USA.”

In 2003 race production company Medalist Sports helped launch the six-day Tour de Georgia, which fit nicely with USA Cycling’s wishes. But even Georgia, which in 2004 attracted Lance, U.S. Postal, and Team CSC, lacked the same gravitas that the new California race promised.

“Georgia had some good rollers and climbs, but it wasn’t particularly hard. It was like, ‘Our country’s biggest race is in Georgia? Really?” Jacques-Maynes said. “Meanwhile in California all the pro teams would come train there in the winter. The amateur racing scene was huge and it was growing. So to think that Georgia was our biggest race, we always thought, ‘there has to be something bigger.'”

The Amgen Tour of California was definitely bigger. The inaugural edition featured eight days of racing, and a mixture of eight ProTour and eight domestic pro teams, plus international television distribution and bonafide Tour de France heroes.

There was just one hitch: The crowded UCI racing calendar meant AEG had to hold it in February. The domestic teams got their big platform, but the racing date meant they would need to adjust their entire competition calendars in order to be fit in the dead of winter.

Sayers, now a coach, said domestic riders weren’t annoyed by the early date. Sure, the early date was inconvenient. But the prospect of finally racing against ProTour teams was worth the hassle.

“We dedicated an incredible amount of resources to that first [Tour of California],” Sayers said. “We did a point-to-point team camp in California, just pre-riding all of the stages, the entire course. The mindset was like, if our season is over at the end of February because we burned all our matches in California, it was worth it. We were happy to accept that reality.”

Everything for California

Domestic team Toyota-United won the race’s first road stage in 2006 with sprinter Juan Jose Haedo. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The early date for California put an enormous burden on riders and teams. Not only did riders need to be fit for the event, but teams needed to obtain sponsored clothing and equipment in time for the race. Managing these logistics was hard enough for ProTour teams, which employed staffers and mechanics to oversee the operation.

For the smaller UCI Continental squads, which lacked those resources, the race presented an enormous undertaking.

“Your bike sponsor used to deliver stuff in December and January, now you’re telling them you need stuff in October to build bikes and get ready for [the Tour of California],” said Danny Van Haute, longtime manager of the Jelly Belly team. “It’s not like your local crit where you can mix and match wheels and your kit. We had to be dialed in.”

Likewise, teams had to finalize their respective strategies for the new tour. A few domestic squads targeted the GC in those early years; in 2006, Health Net-Maxxis rode for Nathan O’Neil, who finished 5th place overall.

Many other domestic squads discovered that they could earn more value for sponsors by attacking into long breakaways, and targeting stage wins.

Yet another breakaway comprised of domestic UCI Continental riders tries for the stage win during the 2011 edition of the race. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

“GC was out of the question because you’re going up against the best guys in the world,” Van Haute said. “For 12 years it was – ‘get in the breakaway,’ every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired. Go get in the break and get Jelly Belly some time on TV.”

Every day, UCI Continental teams like Jelly Belly, Bissell, and Kelly Benefits Strategies attacked into these long moves to try and steal one from the ProTour teams. More often than not, the ProTour teams brought the escapees back, setting up top sprinters for the win. On a handful of occasions, however, the smaller domestic teams actually won.

In that inaugural 2006 edition, for example, Toyota United, a UCI Continental team, took two stage wins with its sprinter, Juan Jose Haedo. The following year it was Ivan Dominguez who took a sprint for Toyota-United.

One of the most dramatic days of racing happened in 2008, when Dominique Rollin won into San Luis Obispo after dropping George Hincapie. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

In 2008, Toyota-United scored another eye-popping win when Canadian rider Dominique Rollin rode into a breakaway alongside George Hincapie during a bitterly cold and rainy stage from Sand City to San Luis Obispo. Ten kilometers from the finish, Rollin dropped Hincapie and rode solo in for the win.

The list of UCI Continental riders to win stages during the race’s 14 editions is surprisingly short: Haedo, Dominguez, Rollin, Francisco Mancebo, Janier Acevedo, Will Routley, Toms Skujins, and Evan Huffman.

Winning in California became a huge accolade for domestic riders. Haedo and Rollin both jumped to the ProTour after their respective victories, as did Acevedo and Skujins.

The message to up-and-coming North American riders was simple: Shine in California and punch your ticket to pro cycling’s big leagues. Over the years, the race helped propel generations of riders to the WorldTour: Chad Haga, Carter Jones, Neilson Powless, Brandon McNulty, and others.

Francisco Mancebo, riding for domestic team Rock Racing, won the opening stage of the 2009 edition. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

“You could get a European team director’s eyes on you in California, and before that was basically impossible,” Jacques-Maynes said. “You could perform for them, talk to them in person, as opposed to exchanging international phone calls and sending them emails. I think it opened that opportunity for [ProTour] teams to have confidence in signing more Americans because they could see the quality of the competition themselves.”

Domestic riders hit a high point during the 2013 race, when the battle for the overall featured WorldTour rider Tejay van Garderen and Colombian Janier Acevedo, a top climber on the small Jamis-Hagens Berman squad. While van Garderen eventually took the overall, Acevedo and Jamis scored a big result on the second stage.

Will Routley won from the breakaway in 2014. Photo: Casey Gibson/Getty Images

Acevedo dropped van Garderen on a summit finish outside of Palm Springs, and Colombian donned the yellow race leader’s jersey for several stages. It marked the first time that a rider on a U.S. continental squad was able to lead the event.

Jacques-Maynes, a native of Santa Cruz, California, rode as a domestique for Acevedo that year, and said he immediately recognized the historical significance of the team’s success. Jamis rode in defense of the race leader’s jersey for just the second time in the race’s history. It was one of the highlights of Jacques-Maynes’s career.

“It felt like such an honor—not many guys got to ride the front of the Tour of California with the yellow jersey on their team,” Jacques-Maynes said. “The little guys got the opportunity to step onto the big stage and ride a few hard days at the front. It was super satisfying having that responsibility.”

Toms Skujins’s stage win in 2015 launched him to the WorldTour. Skujins took two more stages of the race in subsequent years. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

“It was our Super Bowl”

Opportunities for domestic riders began to dwindle as the event grew in stature, and the U.S. cycling scene battled through a challenging sponsorship market. In 2016, the race’s final year as a 2.HC event, 10 WorldTour teams showed up, and only four domestic UCI Continental squads were selected. Then, in 2017, the race stepped into the UCI WorldTour.

The writing was on the wall for the UCI Continental squads: They were soon to be shut out of the event.

Van Haute still looks at the race’s decision to step into the WorldTour as a misstep.

“It was our Super Bowl, and [going to WorldTour] ruined our chances to continue developing a lot of guys, because that was our only opportunity to test ourselves against the WorldTour guys,” Van Haute said. “Kudos to Amgen for putting on the race, but going to [WorldTour] ruined things for the conti teams.”

Evan Huffman and Rally Cycling took two stages during the 2017 edition. Photo: JD/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

For that final year with UCI Continental teams, 2017, the teams put their best foot forward. After its GC hopes were dashed on the race’s second stage, the Rally Pro Cycling team decided to adjust its strategy toward breakaways and stage wins.

On stage 4, Rally had Rob Britton and Evan Huffman attack into the day’s breakaway on a hilly stage into Santa Clarita. The two drove the breakaway as, behind, Team Sky went to the front of the peloton and tried to bring the men back. On the final run-in to the finish, Rally’s efforts prevailed. Britton led out the sprint, and Huffman took the stage win.

Three stages later, the duo again attacked into the breakaway and set up another thrilling finish. Huffman took the second stage win into Pasadena.

Now retired, Huffman says the victories marked the high point of his career. Sweeter still was the context of the wins. Huffman had already raced in the WorldTour with Astana, and had come back to the U.S. domestic scene to try and make a living racing in North America. He didn’t want to return to the WorldTour.

“It was a great win, in and of itself, more than a step in any direction for me. It didn’t matter that I was on a small team to me,” Huffman says. “And I guess I still feel the same way about it. In the moment, I got to relish in the victory for what it was, and in everything I had done to get to that point.”

With that win, Huffman closed the book on domestic riders winning at the Amgen Tour of California. In my mind, those memories will never be forgotten.

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