Rally in Cali
North American squad punches above its weight in WorldTour debut at Amgen Tour of California.
All Photos on the road in California with Rally Cycling © Wil Matthews Photo
American Evan Huffman took a final quick look back before surging across the line to win a thrilling Stage 4 Wednesday at the Amgen Tour of California in Santa Clarita.
The glance back was a final reality check of a dream victory for Huffman and his Rally Cycling team – the team’s first UCI WorldTour victory. Just 13 seconds behind was the hard-charging peloton, coming up just short of catching Huffman and his four breakaway companions. What’s more, Huffman’s teammate Rob Britton of Canada finished second, giving Rally a 1-2 finish.
“We’ve been the strongest team on the domestic scene all year and it just kind confirms that we deserve to be here and it’s nice to see the hard work pay off,” Britton said.
Huffman, in a team release, simply said: "I can't believe that we did it, I don’t think it has sunk in yet. It's surreal and amazing!"
At the Amgen Tour of California, smaller teams like Rally have tiny margins for error. Miss the early breakaway and you miss your opportunity to wear the KOM jersey. A chase back from an early crash drains precious energy.
Simply put, welcome to the WorldTour.
Longtime SRAM partner Rally Cycling has competed in nine Tours of California, but 2017 marks the first time the weeklong race is a WorldTour event, pro cycling’s highest classification. That means Rally is competing in its UCI WorldTour event, which makes Wednesday’s victory all the more historic.
Until Stage 4, things had not gone Rally’s way. In the mountain Stage 2 into San Jose Rally missed the early break, which took away the opportunity to win points in the King of the Mountains Classification. The same day, Rally sprinter Eric Young suffered a crash early and chased all day on a spare bike only to miss the time cut and not start the next day.
Tuesday’s 192.5km Stage 3 from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay was predicted as a day for the sprinters. Yet the day also held the potential for a breakaway to stay away on the windswept undulating roads of California’s Central Coast. Rally’s Danny Pate, a veteran with vast WorldTour experience, was part of a group of five riders who escaped the peloton, only to be caught with just 13km to go. Superstar Peter Sagan would win the stage.
Yet in bike racing, hope springs eternal. In a sport this tough, it has to.
“Our wide strategy coming in is just to have our guys as fit and prepared as possible. We usually tend to have one rider at least dedicated to the overall,” Rally team director Pat McCarty said. “So, they’re trying to do everything they can everyday finishing the hard stages, the time trials. But other than that it’s kind of a mixed bag. Sometimes we have a guy who can go for the sprint. Sometimes we’re trying to go for the KOM jersey.”
Last year at the Amgen Tour of California, Rally did just that with Huffman winning the King of the Mountain jersey and placing second in a stage. This year he came into the race having just won the Tour of the Gila.
In most races in North America, Rally – with its roster comprised of Americans and Canadians – has many of the strongest and most experienced riders in the race capable of shaping tactics. But with so many top teams at the Tour of California, things are different.
“It’s tricky but it just comes down to we just have less of a chance to do something,” McCarty said. “Any kind of bad luck or any type of a slip the level is just so high that we’re out of there. It just makes everything more critical. There’s less makeup time for it.”
Yet each day brings new hope. The team gathers again pre-race in its RV to talk tactics and course conditions. Cycling’s a sport for the underdog. Britton admitted the team was a bit down earlier in the week.
“Stage 2 pretty much level any hope we had for. Any plans we had coming into the race, Stage 2 killed,” Britton said. “It took away the KOM, it took away our sprinter and it took us out of the GC. Those were the three things we had and they were gone. We had to go back to the drawing board.
“Today, we just said we’re going for it.”