Drayton Valley, in central Alberta, is about as far removed from Kazakhstan as imaginable. The rural town has a population of around 7,000, and its landscape is dominated by pick-up trucks, oil fields and pump jacks. Hockey and curling rule at the Ominplex, the community’s showcase sports complex. But the hamlet 135 miles southwest of Edmonton is where American Evan Huffman, the former Astana rider, arrived at a significant milestone is his tumultuous pro career.
One season to the exact race removed from competing for SmartStop, the defunct outfit that quickly moved toward implosion while its riders pedaled in uncertainty, Huffman won the Stage 3 road race, from Rocky Mountain House to Drayton Valley, at the Tour of Alberta.
Huffman, 26, had won already won five races this year, his career best, including a few early season regional events. He also claimed a stage win and the overall in June at the North Star Grand Prix in Minnesota, and the University Road Race in Santa Cruz, California, in late August.
But the Alberta stage win was the highest UCI-ranked win of Huffman’s career, and it gave him a career-first race leader’s jersey at a high-level stage race. It was also the third straight day the Northern California rider showed an often illusive career strength — consistency. Huffman finished third overall, seven seconds behind winner Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel).
“For me, what it’s always been and always will be is positioning in a race and not being afraid to crash,” said Huffman, who is finishing his first year with Rally Cycling. “I guess, it’s doing it despite your fear. Some of the older guys on team have helped me a lot with that. We have a lot of experienced guys.
“A lot of guys are really good sprinters, and a guy like Danny Pate has done all the Grand Tours, and he’s been really beneficial. But at the same time they’ve also been understanding that it’s hard, and they’re not just yelling at me but really trying to help.”
Huffman’s emergence in Canada, and his third place overall finish (he lost the leader’s jersey after finishing fifth in the Stage 4 time trial) also marked a final detachment from the rider’s failed two-year stint with Astana, the controversial outfit supported by Kazakhstan businessmen.
Huffman was vaulted into the WorldTour team largely because of the team’s relationship with Specialized, and with a justification that the young rider had pedaled into prominence as a junior national champion with a penchant for time trials.
But Huffman, who ventured to Europe alone, was largely left adrift. He found an apartment in Girona, Spain. He studied Italian language tapes. He secured a work permit, opened a bank account, and traveled once to oil-rich Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country, for a team presentation.
The lavish affair was the most team support Huffman received in two seasons with Astana. He waited for team calls on his mobile phone, but it often remained silent. He raced only 87 days in two seasons, including twice being catapulted into Paris-Roubaix at the last minute after teammates fell ill or injured.
Cultural differences and loneliness didn’t help. Huffman competed in countries from China to Qatar and Belgium to Jordan and then returned to California after two seasons abroad. He was disillusioned, with few pertinent results. Huffman began living with his mother in El Dorado Hills, outside of Sacramento, and spent most of his days training alone in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“It’s not really a mindset that I had to win, to get over it,” said Huffman of his three straight years with bad team experiences. “I just feel like I am past all that. It’s something that happened and you have to move on. I think I did that with this team, starting at the team camp in January.
“I think it just taught me you can’t take anything for granted in the sport. You have to be in it for the right reasons. It’s really hard and if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not worth it. You have to make sure you really want to do it, first. If you can get through that, you can get through the hard times, because you’ve made the sacrifices. That way, if things are going well they’re really going to go well.”
Huffman’s success has also been the result of the collective effort of several Rally team directors, including former pros Jonas Carney, Eric Wohlberg, and Pat McCarty.
“[Huffman] is incredibly serious this year,” said Carney. “He’s putting the work in and he’s super driven. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Evan last year, but I could see that his performances were kind of all over the board. The biggest thing Evan has to work on I would say is bike-handling skills, and positioning in key moments of a bike race. He’s one of the strongest guys you’ll ever see racing in North America, but it’s really important he works with guys like Danny Pate on tactics, teammate work, strategy, and positioning — things like that.
“I think he was just trying to find himself and figure it out,” Carney added. “I think the biggest change has just been in his attitude. He clearly wants it. He trains incredibly hard, and he’s clearly focused and wants to get back to the highest level. Pat, Eric and I have been working with him all year to help him make the improvements he needs to make in all the areas he needs to make them in. He’s one of the strongest riders you’ll see in North America, but he still has things to work on and he’s put his head down and he’s worked on them.”
Huffman has longed to return to the WorldTour since the day he left, and he could have likely landed a 2017 contract with one of the top circuit’s teams — other results included second on a stage at the Amgen Tour of California, from a two-man breakaway, fifth at U.S. road nationals, and third at Winston Salem Cycling Classic. But he recently re-signed for one more season with Rally.
“It was a tough decision to make,” said Huffman. “I think with the season I’ve had, there could have been other opportunities, if I really wanted to. And I think I am strong enough to do it. But I think for where I am in my career and what I’ve gone through, I want to do it the right way and on a team that’s really going to support me. There are only a handful of teams that I want to ride for.
“If teams are not super interested in me then I would just as soon stay somewhere where I am comfortable. I think with this team, there’s still a lot more I can learn and a lot more that I can do. Next year, there’s still a lot of room to grow.”
About the author
James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.