Tempers flare as UHC, Boels fight for bonus seconds in California

The race for the general classification at the women's Tour of California got a bit heated amid allegations of overly aggressive riding.

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SACRAMENTO, California (VN) — The turning point of the 2017 Amgen Tour of California occurred on a windswept road in the Sacramento suburbs, miles away from any finish line. Depending on who you ask, the moment was either an example of supreme gamesmanship by the world’s top female international squad, or an example of poor sportsmanship that pushed the limits of fair play.

It began ahead of an intermediate sprint on Saturday’s stage 3, when UnitedHealthcare’s Katie Hall led Boels-Dolmans’s Anna van der Breggen by just three seconds in the general classification after the Tour of California’s queen stage. As the teams rumbled toward the sprint line, which carried valuable bonus seconds, Boels’ Christine Majerus appeared to edge UHC’s Ruth Winder off the edge of the road and into the dirt.

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Winder, an Olympian on the track, had been tasked with picking up the bonuses, to keep the valuable time from falling to van der Breggen. After she lost contention, van der Breggen picked up the sprint, edging to within just one second of Hall.

Race officials gave no penalties for the incident, and the racing continued as normal. Winder was clearly upset about the action of the Dutch team.

“I had a little bit of a riff with them yesterday,” Winder said on Sunday. “If you watch the footage you can come to your own conclusions of what you think of the intermediate sprint.”

On Sunday’s final day, van der Breggen again grabbed valuable seconds in an intermediate sprint to snatch the race lead away from Hall. After the stage, Winder approached a group of Boels riders, clearly irate. “If you have something to say, say to my face,” Winder told the riders. She later told VeloNews that a Boels rider had “said some unfriendly things” as they crossed the finish line.

After the stage, Van der Breggen acknowledged the tension on the road with UHC, and said the two teams had dealt with the sore feelings off the bike. Van der Breggen stood up for her Boels teammates, saying her team’s tactics and racing style were fair.

“We try to do it fair,” she said. “I have some riders on my team that if riders are not fair, then they go for it. UnitedHealthcare, at some points when they tried to push me out of some wheels, I thought it was on the limit. We talked about it and they agreed with it. Fair play is the most important thing. I think UHC did everything they could and I think next time they will understand that pushing isn’t allowed and we played it fair.”

Van der Breggen’s victory solidified her lead in the UCI Women’s WorldTour standings after she swept the women’s Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Battles between American domestic teams and their larger, richer, and often stronger European counterparts are nothing new in U.S. men’s and women’s racing. Every year the Amgen Tour of California presents one of the only opportunities for smaller domestic teams to battle large squads from Europe.

Pride and bragging rights are on the line, as are valuable WorldTour points and prize money. David always wants to beat Goliath. And the big teams seek to show their dominance in a variety of ways.

This begs the question of whether a simple difference in style — or in the level of aggression, more accurately — between European squads and American ones could have set off the spat. Could it be a misunderstanding? Could Boels’ riding be misinterpreted as intentionally dangerous?

“It’s definitely more aggressive in Europe,” said Sunweb’s Coryn Rivera, who has raced extensively and found success on both continents. “I’m kind of an aggressive rider, so I like it, I prefer it that way. I think that’s why I’m doing pretty well this year, because I’m quickly able to adapt and don’t take any shit. But it is much more aggressive.”

Boels’s team director Bram Sevens said the narrow roads and constant attacking in Europe lend to a different style. Sevens defended Boels’s riding as aggressive but well within the realm of normal European racing.

“I think we have respect for other teams,” Sevens said. “We are in this race to win the race. We are not aggressive riders. We are always racing. There is a difference in the style from racing in America to Europe. There is more attacking and the road is not so big in Europe.”

Domestic racers came to UHC’s defense on Sunday and backed up the assertion that Boels had raced overly aggressive throughout the week. Colavita-Bianchi rider Abby Mickey, who was riding behind the incident, said it was a clear violation of the rules of fair play.

Mickey declined to  name the Boels rider in question, but said the aggressive moves were intended to intimate other riders.

“She knows exactly how she’s riding and she rides like that all the time,” Mickey said. “Not all of the European girls are like that, at all. I mean, and not all Boels is like that either. Megan [Guarnier] is very respectful, the way that she rides. A couple of the other riders also. It’s just one of two riders in particular, they come here and they feel like they can push us around because we’re American and they assume we can’t ride as fast.”

Hall, who won the second stage after dropping van der Breggen, was diplomatic about the situation. “I’m not sure how to really talk about it,” she said. “I think it’s possible to race classy. I just wish everyone would race classy.”

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