Seven riders dreaming the WorldTour dream, wrapped in stars and stripes

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SANTA CLARITA, CA (CT) — When the Amgen Tour of California went WorldTour and cut the pile of third-tier Continental teams out of its invite list, it also cut off an important venue for young talent to prove itself. This year, the dreamers are back.

The Tour of California no longer has a place for the Continental teams that once made up a significant share of its field. As a top-division event, America’s biggest race can not invite third-division teams to participate.

Just the same, seven Continental riders made the start this week in California — and they’ve put on quite a show, too. One of them, Travis McCabe, nearly beat Peter Sagan in the opening stage. Another, Alex Hoehn, snagged the Most Courageous Rider jersey after spending nine hours in breakaways.

That’s all thanks to the Tour of California’s decision to invite a U.S. national selection to America’s biggest race. It may not seem like much, but for domestic riders that lost a key step along the pathway to the international peloton when California went WorldTour, it’s a big deal.

“It’s absolutely massive,” said Mike Creed, who runs Continental development squad Aevolo Cycling, and is also serving as one of Team USA’s sports directors in California alongside Mike Sayers.

For years, the Tour of California served as the Super Bowl of the U.S. domestic racing scene, the pinnacle of competition for American Continental outfits. That all changed when the race jumped up to the WorldTour. A handful of North American Continental teams made the jump to Pro Continental status last year to stay eligible for California invites, but the high costs associated with that upgrade proved unsustainable for some.

“[The national team] was an idea that started percolating this winter. It was Bob Stapleton, our chairman of the board of directors, who really brought the idea up and started pushing for it,” said Jeff Pierce, USA Cycling’s Director of Elite Athletics for road and track.

The idea made sense for the federation, and it made sense for the race too.

“Kristin Klein, the race director, Bob, myself and some others at USA Cycling talked about the idea. Having the red white and blue, the stars and stripes, in the race, and featuring them the year before the [Olympic] Games, would be a nice draw and a different angle for the race to be able to promote.”

It’s not the first time a U.S. national team has been invited to compete in California, but the circumstances have changed since the last time it happened in 2007. With Continental teams left out of the equation nowadays, a national team invite takes on much greater importance.

In the past, the Tour of California played a critical role in countless career paths, giving young American riders a chance to show off their talents in front of the world—and in front of sports directors from bigger teams. Just ask Neilson Powless, who raced to a top 10 in California in his debut in the race with Axeon Hagens Berman. After following up that result with other strong rides in domestic events and international under-23 races, Powless signed with Jumbo-Visma to start the 2018 season.

“California in 2016 was really the race that got me noticed. From then on it was talking to certain teams,” he said. “It really set me up for a smooth pathway to the WorldTour I think.”

Races like the Tour of Utah – and the now defunct USA Pro Challenge and women’s-only Colorado Classic – offer American riders exposure as well, but no U.S. race quite compares to the Tour of California. That distinction is even greater now that the Tour of California sports a WorldTour rating.

“Tour of Utah always has a little bit of a spin on it. [Directors] could say, ‘Oh, it’s at altitude, or this guy is tired coming off the Tour de France,'” Creed said. “Everyone [in California] is riding for start spots for the Dauphiné and then the Tour, there’s none of those excuses.”

With the opportunity to showcase up-and-coming talent, USA Cycling decided to build its selection around developing riders and riders on the cusp of making the jump to bigger teams.

“We definitely had a development focus,” Pierce said. “This wasn’t, ‘Anybody who is an American, the best possible team we can do.'”

Travis McCabe, the stage 1 runner-up, is the only rider over the age of 24 on the team, and he’s a fitting headliner. He delivered big results in both the Tour of Utah and Colorado Classic last year, but after his Pro Conti UnitedHealthcare team folded, he dropped down to the Continental level over the offseason, joining Floyd’s Pro Cycling

McCabe brings a veteran presence to the team, but he’s also just the sort of rider who could benefit from the exposure the Tour of California provides. So too are his younger teammates: Keegan Swirbull, Alex Hoehn, Michael Hernandez, Miguel Bryon, Tyler Stites, and Samuel Boardman. For them, the Tour of California represented a golden opportunity to see what it really means to race against top-level competition.

“Learning how to fight with the WorldTour guys – well, not fight – but try to be courteous when you need to but also put your elbows out when you need to, it’s great,” Swirbull said.

Swirbull rode to a GC top 10 last year in Utah. He pointed out that the climbing fields in both events are “decently comparable,” but that the speed of the California peloton across all terrains, particularly on flat roads, was “just insane.”

Getting a feel for that speed is an invaluable experience for Swirbull and his teammates. The brutal stage distances in California represent a new challenge as well, one that can be rewarding for those who manage to make it through the week.

“It’s incredible,” Swirbull said. “Just getting that depth in your legs of doing a weeklong races of stages 200 k like this is how you get stronger.”

The U.S. squad’s pre-race objectives for California were not too dissimilar from what a Continental team might hope to pull off in a WorldTour race. That probably comes as little surprise, considering the Continental composition of the squad.

“It’s about representing the country and the federation well and being aggressive,” Creed said. “Just going and showing we’re not just making up numbers.”

That has meant a lot of time for Team USA riders up the road in breakaways this week. Their success infiltrating the big moves on all but one day, coupled with McCabe’s runner-up performance in Sacramento, should have Team USA pleased with the way things have turned out in California. Those performances will also show other domestic riders what’s possible in the future.

The reception the team has received has been a success story as well. It’s easy for the race announcers to get fans excited about a “U.S national team” on home soil, particularly when that team’s riders are finding a way to make the television broadcast every day.

“You hear our names over and over and over again, and I know a lot of other teams are probably pretty jealous we’re getting all this publicity,” McCabe said.

A single squad of seven riders will not replace the congregation of Continental squads that once rode the Amgen Tour of California, but it’s a huge improvement from the alternative, which would have seen one of America’s fastest sprinters and several of its top up-and-comers watching the race from their living rooms. With that in mind, and with the chosen few in red, white, and blue living up to expectations this week, USA Cycling is hoping to continue the trend in the coming years.

According to Pierce, that’s “absolutely” the plan at the moment. The opening act has been a resounding success, so why not keep it going?

“I think this is going to build into something that becomes a big aspirational component of the [development] program, where these guys say, ‘Hey, if I do this as a junior, then I can move into the U23s and then here’s what I might get to do, race in a WorldTour race at the Tour of California,'” Pierce said.

“That wasn’t the complete plan in the beginning, but then when you start to see the reception, that vision started to become clear pretty quickly, that there’s a lot more here that we can do with this.”

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