Top domestic riders question what it takes to make the WorldTour

What does it take for a top domestic rider to make it to the WorldTour? That’s a question several pros are asking themselves.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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Just what does it take for a top domestic rider to make it to the WorldTour?

That’s the question several pros are asking themselves as the 2015 season comes to a close, and 2016 rosters are filling up.

While it’s possible for some to make a living on the North American circuit, for almost every domestic racer, a WorldTour contract brings increased salary, better team infrastructure, and the chance to compete at the most important races on the calendar. A season spent racing full-time in North America is akin to a season spent in minor-league baseball. The domestic circuit is a stepping-stone — a proving ground — to the big league, and it’s an unspoken understanding that most riders would jump at the opportunity to jump to a WorldTour squad.

Yet this year, few top domestic pros are getting the call up to the big show.

Canadian Mike Woods is one exception; the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider will join Cannondale-Garmin in 2016. It’s likely that his Optum teammate, Phil Gaimon, will join him there. Gaimon is rumored to return to the American squad where he rode in 2014 — before he lost his spot due to the merger between Cannondale and Garmin squads.

American Kiel Reijnen, of UnitedHealthcare, is also set to sign with a WorldTour squad, though he is currently unable to disclose which squad he will join.

However for every rider making the jump, there is a handful whose dream will go unfulfilled next year. And what’s most frustrating, they say, is that there is little rhyme or reason for it.

Canadian Rob Britton was arguably the best domestic stage racer in North America this season, winning the overall at the Tour of the Gila and finishing in the top 10 at the Amgen Tour of California, Tour de Beauce, and, most recently, the USA Pro Challenge, where he finished on the podium behind BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis and Brent Bookwalter.

Ordinarily, these results would merit a contract to race in Europe, but that hasn’t been the case for Britton, who, at 31, is running out of time to make the leap to the sport’s highest level. With news that his SmartStop team is folding, due to lack of sponsorship, Britton’s search for a 2016 contract intensified. Yet no WorldTour offers have come, and Britton has a letter of intent to sign with an undisclosed domestic Continental squad.

“I think my results have been enough, over the past few years, to prove that this year wasn’t a fluke,” Britton said. “But no, I haven’t had any WorldTour offers. I can’t even get an email returned. Part of me would like to have at least had the opportunity, or at least the opportunity to say, ‘No, but thank you.’ I’ve seen guys go over [to Europe] with significantly lesser results. So, when you ask, ‘What does it take to get a WorldTour contract?’ I’m still looking for the answer.”

Age is not a factor, however, for American Gavin Mannion, 24. A graduate of Axel Merckx’s development program, Mannion rode as a stagiare for Garmin-Sharp at the end of the 2014 season, but remained in North America in 2015, riding for Jelly Belly.

Like Britton, Mannion had stellar results at the biggest UCI stage races in North America this year, finishing second overall at the Redlands Classic, third overall at the Tour of the Gila, and fourth overall at the USA Pro Challenge. He also rode well at the U.S. national road championships, finishing sixth, between Chris Horner and Andrew Talansky.

And like Britton, Mannion will be racing domestically again in 2016. (Mannion also was not able to disclose his 2016 team.)

Though he works with a high-profile agent, Andrew McQuaid — son of former UCI president Pat McQuaid — Mannion said no WorldTour offers have come in. Asked if he’s frustrated by the lack of recognition, Mannion was diplomatic.

“There was maybe more frustration at the end of my last year as U23 [2013],” Mannion said. “Coming from Axel’s team, I spent four years racing with those guys, where the only goal is to end up in the WorldTour. All the guys you are teammates with are making the jump, and I felt like I had good enough results in 2013 to do that — I was eighth overall at Tour de L’Avenir, but it just ended up not working out that year. I came really close. I thought had a contract in September, but it fell through at the last minute. That was the most frustrating fall, or contract season, so far.”

Results in North America ≠ results in Europe

Mannion had a subpar 2014 season, hampered by injuries and illness. His 2015 season was markedly better, but he now faces the prospect of turning 25 next season while racing domestically. He’s not too old to make the jump, yet, but it weighs in the back of his mind.

“I can see why WorldTour teams are a little hesitant to take guys from the U.S. as they get older,” Mannion said. “Racing in Europe, there is such a steep learning curve. You can be the strongest guy in America, but you don’t have to have amazing bike-handling skills, or the ability to ride in the peloton, to win the [National Racing Calendar]. In Europe, all that is amplified. I did a lot of racing there as a U23 and junior. The past two years are the only seasons that I haven’t raced in Europe. I feel like the longer you spend racing in America, and not doing some of the European stuff, the harder it is to get used to that racing style.”

Asked about riders like Britton and Mannion, and Cannondale’s signing of Woods and Gaimon, Jonathan Vaughters said that bringing domestic riders over to Europe is always a risky endeavor, adding that it was Woods’ results in Portugal in March that opened the door, rather than his results at the Tour of the Gila or Tour of Utah

“Racing well in the USA on big roads, high altitude, where it almost never rains… it’s not the same beast as Europe,” Vaughters said. “I signed Mike Woods on what he did in Portugal, not Utah [Woods won the one-day Clássica Internacional Loulé; he also finished fifth on the mountain stage of the Volta ao Algarve]. Europe is whiskey-and-cigarette racing. U.S. racing is organic kale, and then hold hands afterwards.”

Vaughters said that no matter the natural talent, signing a domestic rider to race in the WorldTour almost certainly brings with it difficult process — something Vaughters refers to as “the meat grinder.”

“You have to spend two years waiting for the guy to build in Europe, waiting for them to stop getting sick each week, wait for them to learn to maneuver a huge peloton in small roads,” he said. “It kills them. They suck for two years. Then, the really talented ones start to bounce back, and can race in Europe and the USA. But it’s a long process.”

Latvian rider Toms Skujins (Hincapie Racing) faces a unique dilemma — he’s a young rider with top results in the U.S. looking to get back to Europe.

Skujins had a breakthrough season in 2015, registering several wins at UCI races, including the Winston-Salem Classic, in May, and three stages of the Tour de Beauce, where he finished second overall. His biggest result, however, came at the Amgen Tour of California, where he won stage 3 with an impressive solo effort into San Jose, to take the race lead, which he held for three stages. He also finished eighth overall at the USA Pro Challenge.

Like Mannion, Skujns is working with McQuaid as an agent. He said he’s spoken with a few teams, but is undecided at this point.

“If I had a good Pro Continental deal, I would take that,” Skujins said. “If they raced in Europe, I’d probably go there. I want to do big races, and a good Pro Continental team with good race calendar would be a good fit. So far it looks like that might be a possibility, but I can’t say anything more than that. I don’t have a deal just yet. There are two Pro Continental teams that have shown clear interest, but I’m still on the edge of going there or not. The Hincapie team is really great.”

Results only part of the equation?

One thing that Britton, Mannion, and Skujins share in common is the lingering question of what more they could have done to get the attention of WorldTour team directors. All three riders alluded to the fact that in today’s peloton, for those who are not winning at the highest level, results are only part of what makes a rider attractive to team directors who are constantly looking to bring return on their sponsors’ investments. Britton said he’s seen riders who are very active on social media, but have achieved lesser results than his, receive WorldTour contracts.

“Honestly, not joking, for North American guys, a good social media presence brings value,” Britton said. “People know your name. I think results should speak louder than that, but I think that’s kind of the reality of the world we live in now. It’s not just results, it’s what value you can bring value to the team. And for that, having an awesome Twitter or Instagram account is pretty handy.

“Maybe I train too hard to get off the bike and take pictures,” Britton continued. “Maybe I should take pictures after dinner. I don’t know. Social media hasn’t been a focus for me.”

Skujins agreed, saying that both marketability and nepotism both play a role in how contract decisions are made.

“Social media has become a bigger part of it,” Skujins said. “Sponsors want a return on their investment, and on social media, it gets noticed. That’s what makes the difference sometimes. I think at end of the day, if you are super strong, if you have the results, there’s no way you won’t find a contract, but sometimes it feels like some of the guys get there more because of who they know, rather than their results.

“I feel like I have proven, in terms of results, that I am one of the best guys at the Continental level, and that I would deserve an opportunity to jump to a higher level, but it’s not always just about results,” he continued. “You have to have contacts. You have to have friends. It feels like it’s also who knows who, who can help you. When there are so many guys at a similar level, it becomes ‘Oh, I know that guy is cool, I’ll just take him.’”

Hope springs eternal

As the cycling world descends upon Richmond, for Skujins and Mannion, there is one last opportunity to prove themselves. Skujins will race the team time trial, with Hincapie Racing, and potentially the road race as well, if Latvia secures an unused starting spot from a nation that does not fill its roster. Mannion will also be riding the team time trial, with Jelly Belly.

Last weekend Britton raced the WorldTour events in Canada with his national team, placing 111th in Quebec, and DNF in Montreal, still affected from a training crash in the lead-up to the races; he will not be at worlds, racing in front of WorldTour directors. But if the WorldTour contract never comes for Britton, he’ll be just fine.

“It’s always easier to say, ‘Oh well, I’ve got a comfortable life. It’s not hard living in North America. I did one year with [British Continental team] Raleigh, so I got a bit of a taste of it. I enjoy my quality of life. I love riding my bike, and being a pro cyclist, but there are other things that bring balance to my life. I can’t just do the ‘live, eat, breathe cycling’ 24 hours a day, all year long. I think being over there [in Europe], away from everything … It could kind of crack me.”

Britton added that he’s “genuinely excited” about his new domestic squad for 2016. “I made the choice to sign early and commit to this team not from lack of interest from others, but because they really believe in me and I want to race for them and see what more I can do in North America,” he said.

For Mannion, taking a more relaxed approach to the sport was integral to his 2015 success, he said, so there’s no reason to change a formula that’s worked.

“Ever since the 2013 season, I thought the goal was to make it to the WorldTour,” Mannion said. “Coming into this year, on Jelly Belly, after a tough last year with 5-Hour Energy, I wanted to come in and have fun racing my bike again. Last year wasn’t fun for me, and having Lachlan [Morton] on the team, coming back from the WorldTour looking for the same thing, it was pretty great. I didn’t stress out half as much as I had in past. There was not as much emphasis on results, and I went to races way more relaxed.

“Of course I’m going to race as hard as I can, but I’m not worrying as much about the final result,” Mannion continued. “It ended up way easier for me. Hopefully I’m making a step up to a bigger team. Hopefully I’m working my way towards the WorldTour. I may put a little more pressure on myself next year, but after this year, I’ve come to realize you can be focused and professional, and still have fun. I don’t need to make this sport any harder than it needs to be.”

As for Skujins, hope springs eternal. He’s trying to take it all in stride, hoping that incremental steps will bring him the WorldTour contract he’s dreamed of.

“I was hoping this would be the year I made the jump. I’ve been hoping for it every year, as everyone does,” Skujins said. “But the year is not over yet. Maybe there are not too many races left, but there are still some opportunities for teams that might be looking for one or two more riders.”

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