Taking a flyer: Inside Rally Cycling’s big step up to Pro Continental ranks

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It’s fair to say that throughout his several decades in cycling Rally Cycling men’s team director Jonas Carney has experienced the full spectrum of professional bike racing. He raced at the Olympics. He excelled in the hectic scrum of criteriums, crowned national champion twice; he’s been a national champion on the track, as well. He’s seen countless big North American stages race come and go. And now, in his 11th season running the team, he’s facing an entirely new experience.

For the first time in the program’s existence, the team is registered at the UCI Pro Continental level. The move, discussed for several years, occurred in conjunction with the status increase of two other American teams, Hagens Berman Axeon and Holowesko-Citadel, joining two other American Pro Continental programs, UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk.

The higher designation suggests invitations into bigger, international races and, in a first for the team, competing as a split squad. So far this year that has included invitations to events such as Dubai Tour, Tour of Oman, Volta Valenciana, and Ruta del Sol.

“Every year, the objective is to make it better, whether it’s the riders or the staff or the internal structure of the team,” said Carney. “As far as the roster, we try to make it better every year, and on paper, this is the best roster yet. There’s just a lot more depth.

“I mean if we were just jumping around doing Joe Martin [Stage Race], [Tour of the] Gila, and Redlands, we would just have too many good riders, it would be overkill. But we are going to be running a double program quite a bit this year and racing in Europe quite a bit, so we really need that kind of depth.”

From left: Brandon McNulty, Adam de Vos, Evan Huffman, Danny Pate. Photo: Wil Matthews.

Rally’s squad boasts a mix of young and old, American and international riders. It has the talent to surpass last season’s tally of 58 wins and 107 podium finishes. There’s a 19-year age difference between newcomer Brandon McNulty,  2016 junior world time-trial champion and the squad’s youngest rider, and veteran Danny Pate, the 2001 U23 world time-trial champion and the squad’s oldest rider.

Evan Huffman, winner of two stages at the Amgen Tour of California as well as Tour of the Gila and Tour of Alberta, will be a designated team leader. The team’s GC role will be shared with Canadian Rob Britton, the 2017 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah winner.

Matteo Dal-Cin, the Canadian road champion, and McNulty, silver medalist in the U23 world time-trial championship, have also returned. Brad Huff, Jesse Anthony, Kyle Murphy, Eric Young, Colin Joyce, Adam de Vos, Emerson Orante and Pate, now is his third season with Rally, are also back. New recruits include Robin Carpenter, Ty Magner, Kyle Murphy, Nigel Ellsay, and Ryan Anderson, who returns to the program after two years with French Pro Continental team Direct Énergie. In all, the team has 11 U.S. riders and five Canadians.

One key departure is Sepp Kuss, the climbing specialist who finished second overall at the Tour of Alberta; the young Coloradan has moved on to the WorldTour ranks with LottoNL-Jumbo. Kuss is another name in a line of riders to have come through the program on the way to the WorldTour; others include Matthew Busche, Michael Woods, Chad Haga, and Carter Jones.

Several other riders — Shane Kline, Pierrick Naud, and Curtis White — did not renew. And Tom Soladay, who competed for the team for seven seasons, retired and is now Rally’s communications director.

Team sponsors and partners include Rally Health, a digital health company, as well as DiamondBack bikes, SRAM components, HED wheels, Kenda tires, Borah clothing, Bell helmets, Oakley eyewear, and Speedplay pedals.

“We upgraded because it was the right time,” Carney said. “We have the budget to do that, and we’ve always wanted to do it. It just took this long to get here. Certainly the likelihood that we wouldn’t get into California if we didn’t upgrade was an incentive. But it was just one piece of the puzzle. Obviously, we wanted to do California, but we really wanted to upgrade and be racing in Europe. We didn’t just do it to try and get that invite.”

The team’s new horizon began soon after the squad’s Southern California training camp with February races in Dubai, Oman, Spain, Jordan, and France. Britton was designated leader in early event, with Huffman set for later spring peaking for the the defense of his 2017 Tour of the Gila title and another strong Tour of California effort, assuming the team is invited. As of March 16, the American WorldTour event had not announced any Pro Continental team selections.

Heading into the March 18-25 Tour de Langkawi the team hadn’t taken a big UCI win, though they came close at the Dubai Tour, where McNulty almost pulled off a major coup on the 20% gradient Stage 4 finish at Hatta Dam. The 19-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona came within 50 meters of winning the biggest race in the program’s history.

“With 1 km to go I thought I had won the entire race,” McNulty said. “With 500 meters to go, I still thought I had won the race. Then with 200 meters to go, I hit the steep part of the climb and the legs locked up. I looked back, saw the field and held on until 50 meters to go. All of a sudden guys were flying by me.”

Video: Stage 4, 2018 Dubai Tour

Huffman, who spent two formative years racing with Astana, returned to the Continental ranks in 2015, and enters his third season with the Rally program.While he could have pursued a return to Europe with a WorldTour team, he opted to remain where he was comfortable and continue to learn from Carney as well as team directors McCarty and Eric Wohlberg.

“Evan is a real quiet guy, he’s pretty introverted,” said Carney. “But he does understand bike racing pretty well. He has quite a bit of experience having raced in Europe full-time for a couple of years. So he’s warming up to that role of being a little bit more outspoken on the bike and being a little more outspoken in the team meetings. He’s able to express himself when he needs to. It’s taken a little, but he’s definitely warming up to the idea.”

Huffman’s improvement was the result, in part, of self-critique. He hasn’t always been comfortable in the peloton, particularly while descending. He was expected to return as the defending Tour of Alberta champion, however organizers have announced its demise.

“I think at most races I will be the team leader, or at least a co-team leader with Rob (Britton),” said Huffman. “Obviously, Robin Carpenter is new and he’s a pretty similar rider to me as far as his strengths and characteristics go. We’re doing different races early in the reason. But I think my seniority with the team counts for a lot as well. I think we will work well together.”

Evan Huffman and Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) finished 1-2 on Stage 4 of the 2017 Amgen Tour of California 2017. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

Last season, Huffman considered making his debut at the world road championships, but he decided the travel from Western Canada to Norway was too much at the end of the season. He also had a more important priority in early October, his marriage. With the Tour of Alberta now defunct, Huffman, 27, is more likely to compete at the world championships in Austria, assuming he’s selected. In the meantime, he’s focused on his leader’s role.

“I think it’s something I’ve grown into,” he said. “When you are really young and starting out in the sport, it seems easy. If you’re the fastest guy, then you’re the team leader and that’s all there is to it. But being in the sport longer, you realize how much more goes into it.

“There are a lot of things off the bike. A guy could be rude, or really arrogant. Teammates often don’t have a good time with that. I’ve seen it. A guy could be really talented, but they have a hard time because their teammates don’t like them. If you want to be a team leader, you can’t just be good at one race or for one month of the season. You need to be consistent and earn the role.”

Carpenter, who spent five years with the Holowesko-Citadel team owned by Hincapie Sports, said he likes the new team dynamic and he’s eager to find his role.

“I’m not the strongest climber on this team by any strength,” said Carpenter, who won Alberta in 2016. “And I am not the fastest sprinter. But I am a good all-arounder and I see myself in support of the other guys. But maybe some of the tougher and lumpier races, and good one-day faces in Europe, will be a little more my style and maybe there will be some chances then.”

Carpenter’s sentiments are echoed by the team at-large. It’s competing on a new level, with logical expectations from certain riders. And while it may have been uncertain in years past, the ultimate goal for the team is now clear — to join the WorldTour ranks, to retain top riders, and to spring a few surprises along the way.

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. He also writes a weekly car column for Bay Area News Group. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.

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