Why the Tour of California’s move to WorldTour could be bad for US cycling

by Michael Better


On Tuesday afternoon, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, abruptly announced the 2017 WorldTour calendar. The WorldTour will expand drastically in 2017 from 27 to 37 events with nations such as the United States, Qatar and United Arab Emirates becoming the latest to host WorldTour events. The announcement ended months of rumour, with the Amgen Tour of California confirmed on the list of new events.

From the outside, The Tour of California’s move to the WorldTour seems like a positive — it expands the calendar globally and brings a higher level of racing to the U.S. However, within U.S. cycling, there’s another view entirely.

CyclingTips spoke with a range of team directors and riders from various levels of the sport and the feeling is that the move will be harmful to the development of U.S. cycling.

“It doesn’t help grassroots programs like ours, for sure not,” said Axel Merckx, the owner and director of Axeon Hagens Berman, a long-standing development team in the U.S. “We’ll see, it’s still early and they just announced it and we’ll see if the rules are going to change or not.

“I hope we’ll get a say and we’ll be able to at least have a shot at maybe participating some how to the race because if you forget about the grassroots and you forget about the development in cycling then you’re just not thinking long term. You’re thinking short term and that would be a big mistake for cycling in the U.S. because already Colorado is disappearing and all of a sudden teams like us can’t do races like Tour of California.

“There’s not a whole lot left here and it’s going to be hard to keep the sponsors around and to keep them investing in development in the future of cycling.”

Possible Rule Change

It is possible that the UCI will amend the rules governing which teams can participate in WorldTour events. As it currently stands, Continental teams are barred from competing in the top-tier events, but at the UCI and Professional Cycling Council (PCC) meeting in June, where an agreement on the new 2017 reforms and the 2017 WorldTour calendar was confirmed, a rather interesting proposal was made.

The following is the statement from that June meeting:

“As of 2017 season, all existing UCI WordTour events will have all UCI WorldTeams participating and for new UCI WorldTour events, participation rules which will ensure that a minimum of 10 UCI WorldTeams take part will be proposed by the UCI for approval at the next meeting of the PCC.”

The proposal doesn’t clearly specify whether or not this opens the door for Continental teams to participate in WorldTour events. CyclingTips reached out to the UCI for clarification and received the following response. “Details of participation rules for teams joining the UCI WorldTour are being finalised. For your guidance, please note that one important consideration will be to ensure continued implementation of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP).”

The proposal is due to be discussed at the next meeting between the PCC and the UCI. For now though, in the immediate aftermath of the UCI’s announcement, it seems most are expecting that Continental teams won’t be able to take part in the promoted Amgen Tour of California.

The Scary Unknown

Former professional rider Lucas Euser, who retired at the end of the 2015 season, came through the U.S. domestic circuit and rode for WorldTour team Garmin-Slipstream in 2009 before finishing his career with the Pro Continental UnitedHealthcare team. He explained to CyclingTips the balancing act California moving to WorldTour creates for the U.S. Continental teams.

“It’s tricky,” Euser said. “I mean we want to expand cycling in the U.S. We don’t have a WorldTour race in the U.S. and Tour of California has always set out to be that race.

“What it does, obviously, is pushes out the Continental teams and that’s a really tough predicament of U.S. cycling. I really think that if the other races step up and we have some more 2.1s, some more HCs, we have some new races we don’t even know about, then it’s a good thing. If it’s in the state it is now, it’s a bad thing because you can’t have one big race for the Continental teams in the U.S. It’s going to hurt the state of U.S. cycling.”

The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is currently the only race in the U.S. that will allow Continental teams the ability to showcase themselves on television in 2017. Utah will also be the only UCI HC level stage-race in North America, with the Tour of Alberta currently ranked as a 2.1 race. The Tour of Alberta also appears to be in difficulty with the race being reduced to five stages — one stage shorter than last year. The loss of the opportunity to race the Amgen Tour of California, should that eventuate, will greatly reduce the ability of Continental teams to showcase their sponsors to a global television audience.

Not Banking on UCI Rule Change

Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac) was able to show the world his potential and score a WorldTour contract after he powered to fourth on Mount Baldy at the 2012 Amgen Tour of California while riding for Axel Merckx’s development team. He’s skeptical of the Tour of California’s promotion.

“I think aside from us and [the other American WorldTour teams] it’s probably a negative impact,” Dombrowski said. “For the development teams and the Continental teams, that is usually the biggest race of their season and it gets a lot of … it gets a big audience and for their sponsor interest it’s probably not great [that California has been promoted]. It seems like it could have a little bit of a negative impact on the domestic scene for sure.”

At age 19, Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) did a Dombrowski-esque performance this year at the Amgen Tour of California. He stormed onto the cycling scene with an impressive ride on the hors categorie climb of Gibraltar Road to finish fifth on the stage. Were it not for getting caught behind a crash late in the final stage he would have finished fifth overall, instead of the still-impressive ninth he managed. Powless will not be able to race in California next year, unless of course the UCI amends the rules.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” Powless said. “It’s really good for American cycling, for the fans and everything and I really think the U.S. deserves a WorldTour race, but at the same time it’s kind of disappointing, especially because it’s a home race of mine and I was hoping to go back there and really go for overall, like going into it knowing I can be competitive and land on the podium and possibly even win the race.”

Multiple Continental team directors CyclingTips spoke with echoed the thoughts of Axel Merckx that the move California has made to the top-end of the sport is not the right one for U.S. cycling.

“I guess you can look at it two ways,” Thomas Craven, director sportif at Holowesko-Citadel, explained. “It is either going to force teams to move up to a different level, as well as USA Cycling to foster the races and to help them be UCI races to make it more valuable for the current Continental teams to be Pro Continental. Or it’s going to crush us all because that is the race we all want to do. It’s going to eliminate teams that their showcase is doing a race like Tour of California when they actually get to race against WorldTour guys.”

Patrick McCarty, team director at the Continental-level Rally Cycling, agreed that California’s move-up was the wrong decision.

“I think it hurts it a little bit to be honest,” McCarty said when asked about whether it helps or hurts the state of U.S domestic racing. “It certainly affects us. It’s one of the biggest races we do in the year and it’s something we need to participate in. So yeah, it’s a huge change for us. It’s something we’ve talked about internally and I think it’s just something we need to discuss more.”

Lachlan Morton, who rides for California-based Jelly Belly and is a former WorldTour rider thinks it’s the wrong move in terms of contributing to the growth of domestic cycling in the U.S.

“I think that [will] kill domestic cycling,” Morton said. “Whoever’s making those decisions isn’t really in touch with what’s happening at the domestic level. The sponsorships of these smaller teams like Jelly Belly rely so heavily on doing races like California and then Colorado is gone, so I think it would mean a lot of teams would disappear.

“For sure it’s great that people in California get to see all the big guys come out, but it doesn’t do American cycling as a whole any favours I don’t think.”

The Upside

Stuck in the middle between the views of a WorldTour team and Continental team is UnitedHealthcare, which stands at the Pro Continental level. California’s move to the WorldTour allows UnitedHealthcare to compete on a bigger stage, against tougher competition, and show its sponsors to a greater audience.

“California has always been important, regardless of it being WorldTour or not,” Mike Tamayo, general manager and director sportif at UnitedHealthcare, said. “It’s always had great crowds and everything else, you know good organization. If it’s WorldTour that means the quality of the race is going to go up, as far as the competition.

“It’s a good thing because we are going to be racing against the best in the world. It makes it harder for us, as a Pro Continental team, to have to take on all the WorldTour teams versus before you were racing against eight to 10 WorldTour teams, now we are racing against 18 of them. That makes it harder, but we are up for the challenge. We are not opposed to it. We think it’s a good thing.”

Tamayo could also see California’s move to the WorldTour from a Continental team’s perspective.

“I think big changes always come with a lot of pain,” Tamayo said. “In the U.S. we need more UCI races, not less. As California goes up to WorldTour, then we need all the other races to step into .2-level UCI races and then .1-level UCI races and what happens then is the growth of the sport is going to happen. It doesn’t happen in one year. Everybody wants it to happen right away, but that’s what’s going to allow the growth to happen.

“California going up is going to make every other team stop and go ‘ok we’ve got to work harder, not just in getting results, but we’ve got to work harder in marketing and growing our budget.’ It’s not easy, don’t get me wrong, but it should give everyone some motivation to push forward and give all the other organizers motivation also to grow as well.

“That is going to grow the sport in the U.S., but you’re not going to see that for five years. So right now it hurts, but I think it’s a good hurt.”

The feeling among the U.S. peloton is that the Amgen Tour of California’s move to the WorldTour isn’t a positive one. But that attitude seems to hinge on the assumption that Continental teams won’t be able to participate in the race. If the UCI does change its rules and Continental teams are indeed able to attend and earn invitations to California, all of the concerns might be moot. But as it stands, fears of the worst are putting the U.S. Continental scene on eggshells.

Only time will tell how the race actually affects the U.S. calendar, the grassroots programs, and the next generation of U.S. professional cyclists that haven’t even entered the pro ranks yet.

Editors Picks