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Huffman victory saves Rally’s California campaign

SANTA CLARITA, California (VN) — Two months before Rally Pro Cycling’s Evan Huffman won Wednesday’s stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California, the squad received season-altering news. The California race had given Rally a berth in the 2017 race, ending weeks of nervous waiting.

Unlike other WorldTour events, which prohibit smaller Continental squads like Rally from participating, the Amgen Tour of California was allowed spots for two Continental teams for its 2017 edition. Rally and Team Jelly Belly received spots, while the country’s other two Continental squads, Holowesko-Citadel and Axeon Hagens Berman, did not.

In the ensuing days, the domestic cycling scene wrestled with the decision. Axeon’s development riders had animated the 2016 race, and Holowesko’s Robin Carpenter had beaten WorldTour riders at the 2017 Tour of Alberta. Did Rally really deserve a spot in a WorldTour race, while Axeon and Holowesko were forced to sit at home?

“It was a tough choice. Sometimes we beat Axeon and Holowesko, sometimes they beat us,” said Jonas Carney, Rally’s director, at the finish line in Santa Clarita. “We wanted to show people that we belonged here.”

The California berth put extra pressure on Rally to perform in California. So did the team’s spring success. In April Rally dominated New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila; Huffman won the overall, the team took four of five stages, and five Rally riders finished in the top-10. The team entered California with a plan: Target flat stages with sprinter Eric Young, unleash Huffman in the time trial, and place Britton as high as possible on GC.

The plan seemed simple enough. And then it was destroyed on Monday’s descent from Mount Hamilton.

As the race exploded on the climb to Mt. Hamilton, Britton and teammate Adam De Vos rode into the group containing the race’s GC favorites, cresting the top in the group. On the ensuing descent, De Vos crashed on a loose corner and lost contact with the group. Two kilometers later, Britton’s chain became jammed in his rear derailleur, rendering his bike unrideable.

The bad luck continued. As the Rally car sped ahead to help its stalled GC favorite, a bicycle atop the car’s bike rack clipped a tree. The team had to stop and adjust the bicycle before continuing the chase.

“I looked at my Garmin after the stage and it was about three minutes of standing around,” Britton said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

When the dust had settled, the situation was awful. Britton crossed the line 10 minutes down on the leaders, his GC ambitions all but over. Young crossed the line after the time cut, and was unable to continue.

“We were left scratching our heads,” Britton said. “Our GC is gone, our KOM is gone, our sprinter is gone. We had to back to the drawing board.”

The logical pivot after a disaster of that magnitude is to target stage breakaways, so Rally management mapped out the remaining five stages for breakaway potential. Tuesday’s stage from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay was too flat. Thursday’s ascent of Mount Baldy looked promising, as did the final stage into Pasadena. The team’s Canadian road manager Eric Wohlberg mentioned Wednesday’s stage to Santa Clarita. Initially, they shot down the idea.

But management knew the roads in the region. In February Rally held its winter training camp in nearby Oxnard, and went on frequent training rides along the route of Wednesday’s stage.

“[Road manager] Pat [McCarty] and I were unconvinced that we should have gone all in for Wednesday, but Wohlberg really pushed for it,” Carney said. “We knew there would be a tailwind for the last 40km which helps a break. We decided to go 100% in.”

Huffman and Britton charged from the pack early and helped establish the break as the group rolled out of town. Lennard Hofstede (Sunweb), Gavin Mannion (UnitedHealthcare), Mathias Le Turnier (Cofidis), and Martin Elmiger (who was eventually dropped) joined the escape, and the six quickly built a sizable lead.

The sprinters teams eventually gave chase. With 24km remaining the gap had shrunk to 3:30. Yet the five riders continued to pull, and the steady tailwind helped push them eastward toward Santa Clarita. In such conditions, a small breakaway can hold its advantage on a charging peloton, and with 10km remaining the gap had yet to dip below 1:30, despite the efforts of Quick-Step, Katusha and Sky.

As the group entered the final kilometer, they began to play cat-and-mouse. That’s when Huffman took off, accelerating away while still riding in the saddle. Hofstede gave chase with Britton on his wheel, yet he never closed the gap on Huffman. Britton sprinted around the Sunweb rider to give Rally a sweep of the podium’s top two steps.

“I went way way way too early but people started to look at each other and I saw a couple of bike lengths and did the old seated acceleration,” Huffman said. “At 200 meters I was fully cramping in both legs but I had the advantage. I’m still in disbelief of how I feel mentally.”

After the stage Rally management hugged each other as they sprinted toward the podium. The victory marked the team’s first at the California race since 2014, when Canadian Will Routley won the fourth stage after a daylong breakaway. Yet Wednesday’s win was bigger, due to California’s new spot on the WorldTour, and because of the disaster the team had endured.

“We lost all of our objectives after Hamilton and guys didn’t lose hope. I didn’t see any sad clown faces that night,” Carney said. “They bounced back super fast.”

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