Rally gets California invite; Axeon, Holowesko excluded

With the Tour of California's inclusion to the WorldTour, most Continental teams are being shut out from a spot in the field.

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Just two UCI Continental cycling teams will compete in this year’s Amgen Tour of California, and two fan-favorite Continental squads will stay at home.

VeloNews has confirmed that the Amgen Tour of California will invite the Rally Cycling Team and one other Continental-level squad for 2017. VeloNews has also confirmed that the Axeon Hagens Berman and Holowesko-Citadel pro racing teams were not granted invites for 2017.

The Amgen Tour of California declined to comment for this story. Representatives from Rally Cycling also declined comment.

Axeon Hagens Berman team director Axel Merxck said the decision caught him by surprise.

“I can live with the fact that we weren’t invited, but the feeling I have is better communication would have gone a long way,” Merckx said. “It’s not good for my riders and it’s not good for my sponsors.”

Axeon’s exclusion stems from the Amgen Tour of California’s step up to the UCI WorldTour for 2017. Historically, UCI rules required WorldTour races to invite all 18 WorldTour teams, plus several Pro Continental squads as wildcard entries. This rule created tension within the country’s domestic Continental level teams, since the Amgen Tour of California has included Continental squads since its inception in 2006. A berth in the Amgen Tour of California helps some companies justify their sponsorship of Continental squads.

In January, the UCI announced new rules for WorldTour races. The 10 new WorldTour events — including the Amgen Tour of California — are required to invite no fewer than 10 WorldTour teams, with the remaining teams coming from the Pro Continental ranks or National teams. There was speculation within the domestic racing scene that the race would be given the freedom to invite more Continental teams.

Merckx, 44, said race management told him they were working to find a way to include Continental teams in the 2017 event.

A development team focused on under-23 riders, Axeon has participated in the Amgen Tour of California since 2012, when it was named Bontrager-Livestrong. Since then, the team has twice had a rider finish in the top 10 of the race’s final general classification. In 2016, climber Neilson Powless finished fifth on the queen stage climb to Gibraltar Road en route to finishing 9th overall and winning the Best Young Rider award.

“Riders like Neilson and [Adrien] Costa are the future of American cycling, and it’s unfortunate that they won’t be there,” Merckx said. “They give excitement to the young fanbase.”

Thomas Craven, director of Holowesko-Citadel, said he also believed his team would be included in 2017 due to its recent success. In 2015, Tom Skujins won a stage of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California en route to winning the UCI Americas Tour overall. In 2016, the team won the UCI Americas Tour team standings, with Robin Carpenter winning a stage at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah as well as the overall at the Tour of Alberta.

“If they were going to include [Continental] teams I figured we’d be at the top of the list,” Craven said. “It’s disheartening to hear that other [Continental] teams got in and we didn’t. All we can do is accept it and move on.”

Whether or not prior results at the Amgen Tour of California factored into the invitations is unknown. Rally Pro Cycling has participated in the race since 2008, when the squad competed under the Kelly Benefits Strategies name. The only Continental team with more Tour of California starts is team Jelly Belly, which has competed in the race since 2006 (the team missed the 2012 and 2013 editions). In 2014, Rally scored one of its best results in team history when Will Routley won the fourth stage of the race. Two years later, Rally’s Evan Huffman won the Tour of California’s King of the Mountains award.

Merckx said he had been in contact with race management throughout the fall and winter regarding the team’s inclusion. He said he supplied a roster to management months ago so that his riders could begin out-of-competition drug testing, which is required for participation in WorldTour events.

The various hoops convinced Merckx that he had a shot at earning a spot in the race.

“We’ve had opportunities to participate in [other races] since January and we waited because California was the priority,” Merckx said. “Now I’m scrambling to find a race. I’m calling everywhere to get to some races in Europe but most of the organizers are already full.”

Craven said his team will likely spend May training for upcoming races in July and August.

“It’s a huge loss,” he said.

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