Which is the best team in the American peloton? It depends on your definition of best. Rally Cycling has the top stage racers: strongmen Rob Britton, Evan Huffman, and new hire Robin Carpenter, who won the country’s premier multi-day races in 2017. Holowesko-Citadel has the fastest lead-out train, spearheaded by sprinter John Murphy, winner of three races in 2017. And Hagens Berman Axeon is tops when it comes to young and hungry talent.
Every season these teams battle for supremacy on the domestic racing calendar at familiar races like the Redlands Bicycle Classic, Tour of the Gila, and Joe Martin Stage Race. And the rivalry has launched multiple American stars to the WorldTour. The most recent graduates, Neilson Powless and Sepp Kuss, debuted with LottoNL-Jumbo this season.
The competition is alive and well for the 2018 season and has been given an international twist. All three squads have stepped up from UCI Continental status to the Pro Continental ranks — a designation that opens the door to larger races in Europe and abroad. In fact, all three squads competed on European soil in the early months of 2018, at races such as France’s Tour of Normandy, Spain’s Vuelta Andalucia Ruta del Sol, and Belgium’s espoirs version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
While it’s yet to be determined whether the teams will actually face each other overseas, each team’s results on the European tour will amount to an easy scorecard of the status of the rivalry in 2018. Best results on foreign roads wins.
“We don’t want to just go race in Europe — we want to win races and be competitive,” says Rally’s sport director Jonas Carney. “We think we can be competitive at these events.”
The step up for these teams is a result of perhaps the most disrupting moment in the American peloton in the last three years. Last season the Amgen Tour of California was granted UCI WorldTour status — a move that was greeted by cheers. Finally, after more than a decade, America’s top race earned a spot among the world’s biggest events. There was a damning caveat buried within the fine print, however. WorldTour races forbid the participation of UCI Continental teams. The lion’s share of American domestic teams falls into this category. So, with the flick of a pen, these teams were squeezed out of the race.
A compromise between race management and the UCI let two Continental teams into the 2017 edition, California-based Jelly Belly-Maxxis and Rally. The decision squeezed out Holowesko and Axeon, much to the chagrin of their riders and team managers.
“It was really hard to understand and accept,” says Hagens Berman boss Axel Merckx. “We planned all winter to race in [the Tour of California].”
Each of the three teams independently decided to step up to the UCI Pro Continental level — a designation that should help them avoid future snubs by the California race. But their new status requires a substantial boost in behind-the-scenes infrastructure: everything from additional mechanics and soigneurs to added team cars and support vehicles. The higher-tier status also requires a major increase in budget — anywhere from the low six-figures to well over $1 million.
“We’ve always been a team that does a lot with a limited budget,” says Holowesko boss Thomas Craven. “We’re increasing the budget this year but that [philosophy] is going to continue.”
All three teams had to seek additional cash this offseason. Holowesko brought on oil company Arapahoe Resources as a naming sponsor; the move also brought in four members of the company’s criterium team. Merckx’s team found additional resources from law firm and longtime sponsor Hagens Berman, which led the team to reverse the order of its name (it was previously Axeon Hagens Berman). Rally secured its boost in funding from its title sponsor.
And that’s where the teams have an individual flavor. Rally has an ambitious plan for 2018 and hopes to send squads to races in Spain and the Middle East, before tackling major UCI HC, and perhaps even WorldTour events, through the summer months. The step forward is part of a larger plan to compete in the world’s biggest races, possibly even a grand tour someday.
Holowesko and Hagens Berman have more modest goals. The squads want to dip their toes in the European peloton, participating in smaller races in France and the Low Countries through the spring, before heading back to the United States and familiar events such as the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah, and Colorado Classic. Both teams hope that the step up guarantees them a spot in California.
“It’s not going to be that different this year,” Merckx says. “We’re more of a glorified Continental team with a bigger budget.”
So even though the country’s best rivalry has taken on an international flair this season, the battleground remains the same: the home roads.