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For domestic teams, Tour of California is their Tour de France

For the 13 WorldTour teams in attendance, the Amgen Tour of California is a one-week stage race worth top-division points — a modest target, but also a fine tune-up for the bigger races to come.

For the domestic teams in peloton, the Tour of California is their Super Bowl.

From sporting prestige to sponsorship exposure, no stage race on the American calendar can match what the Tour of California has to offer. For the selection of U.S.-based outfits that made the jump to the Pro Continental ranks this season, the Tour of California was always going to be a huge measuring stick for success in 2018. Domestic teams have had one eye toward California for months — and now that the race has come and gone, they can begin to assess the impact of their performances last week.

Hagens Berman riders moved up into the front of the peloton as they worked to set up their sprinter Michael Rice for the final. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

When the Tour of California received a WorldTour upgrade last year, the step up brought with it the crucial stipulation that only WorldTour and Pro Continental teams could receive invites. 2017 saw the Tour of California seek special dispensation to invite at least a few domestic stalwarts to the table, but this season, several American squads upgraded to the Pro Continental level, largely to secure California invites. Rally Cycling, Holowesko-Citadel, and Hagens Berman Axeon all stepped up to join fellow U.S. teams UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk as the five American outfits racing at the sport’s second highest division.

A big investment, of course, but also a ticket to the biggest show in American cycling.

“At the first meeting in January, the only objective [was] Tour of California,” Holowesko-Citadel director Thomas Craven told VeloNews. His team announced a logo update in the week before the race. What better time to promote a sponsor than the run-up to the biggest event of the year?

Rally Cycling has high hopes for growth and may one day eye a spot on the WorldTour. The Rally racing calendar has expanded to include some big international events this year, with an expectation of continuing the trend — but nothing has displaced California just yet.

“The Tour of California is our Tour de France,” Rally Cycling owner Charles Aaron said.

More than an opportunity for teams and riders to prove their strength against an elite international field, the Tour of California is a huge opportunity for sponsors. The event is broadcast live on NBC Sports, which is accessible in nearly a hundred million households in the U.S.

The race also takes place in an extremely attractive location for business.

“We’re very fortunate. Rally, the California market is very important to them. Rally themselves are in San Francisco,” Aaron said. “We had engagements and events, a Rally expo, folks learning about Rally, and on top of that, we had VIPs, in Sacramento and Long Beach as well. Full tents. Clients, friends, employees, some other partners that we work with, we had great presence from everybody associated with the program.”

The Tour of California gives team directors an opportunity to show real value to sponsors. Unsurprisingly, the importance of the race makes it a huge undertaking to select a lineup.

“It was hours and hours of conversations between the directors to figure out who we wanted to bring for the race and it wasn’t an easy decision at all,” said Rally team director Jonas Carney.

“We really just had to analyze the race, how the WorldTour teams were riding, how our guys were riding, how the course would suit our athletes, what were the attainable goals for the week.”

UnitedHealthcare’s Tanner Putt and Holowesko-Citadel’s Fabian Lienhard shared a laugh as they started out on their long breakaway. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The races in the run-up to the Tour of California become proving grounds for those riders who are on the bubble — in much the same way a race like the Tour of California might be a proving ground for a WorldTour rider hoping to nab a Tour de France roster spot.

Rally’s Adam de Vos punched his ticket with a strong Tour de Langkawi. Holowesko-Citadel’s Brendan Rhim delivered solid performances at the Joe Martin Stage Race and the Redlands Bicycle Classic, earning a coveted spot for California.

So how did the domestic teams do once they actually arrived in California?

Rally, whose management has made no secret of aspirations to up their game as an evolving team over the coming seasons, did not quite match last year’s haul of two stage victories. Instead, the team managed to put up-and-comer Brandon McNulty into the top 10, a major result considering the high-caliber field.

Holowesko-Citadel and Hagens Berman Axeon didn’t come away with any stage wins or GC top 10s, but both squads put riders into breakaways and earned plenty of exposure for sponsors. Between them, the two teams claimed the most courageous rider titles for four out of six stages in which they were awarded.

Hagens Berman Axeon’s Sean Bennett came close to a stage victory in stage 3 and under-23 world time trial champ Mikkel Bjerg delivered a solid time trial the following day. Holowesko-Citadel’s TJ Eisenhart recorded daily updates before each stage for NBC Sports, allowing him and his teammates to show off their bright yellow jerseys on a national broadcast before even breaking a sweat.

In short, each squad can point to some kind of success from the week in California.

Hagens Berman Axeon’s Mikkel Bjerg led the break, with Jonny Clarke, Adam DeVos, and Neilson Powless in tow. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

For the riders themselves, results in California are often a golden ticket to a contract with a WorldTour outfit. Rally’s ambitions for growth mean the squad is hoping to keep its big talents nowadays, but Carney said California has served as the key proving ground for some of the squad’s biggest exports in the past.

“Chad Haga, who is still racing for Sunweb, he had a great performance in California and that’s when I started helping him navigate a contract with the Sunweb team,” Carney said.

Putting talent on display for the bigger teams is a particularly important goal for Hagens Berman Axeon, a squad that is committed to developing younger riders. The race was always a critical proving ground for the team, but the WorldTour bump has brought even more potential suitors to the table.

“What’s beneficial is that he did it in front of 13 WorldTour teams,” director Axel Merckx said of Bennett’s runner-up ride in stage 3. “That’s 13 WorldTour managers, directors who saw the race and know who he is now, and know, ‘That kid is legit.’”

Regardless of how the teams performed, the very fact that they rode in California is a boon. Come transfer season, the American Pro Continental squads will have a huge leg up on any domestic rivals in terms of signing available talent.

Pro Conti status or no, invitations to race in California are not guaranteed. Previous appearances help with perception.

“It has made a difference in the past, especially when there was that time period where all the Continental teams didn’t know whether they would do it or not,” Carney said. “We had a track record of doing it every single year. That helped, and it helps that we’re Pro Continental now and our chances of doing it are very high.”

Rally riders massed at the front of the peloton next to Sky to launch Brandon McNulty on the big climb. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The high likelihood of racing the Tour of California will help Rally with the goal of retaining top talents as the team looks toward a possible WorldTour future. At the same time, it will help each squad attract the young, developing talents they seek to build out the base of their rosters. With an inside track to California, those up-and-comers know they might have a shot at auditioning for bigger gigs on the biggest stage in the country.

“If someone gets in touch with me to ask ‘What’d that guy do?’ I can say well, ‘He finished second in a stage at the Tour of California.’ That’s a nice line to have on your resume,” Merckx said.

The race upgrade has, of course, made it more challenging to actually nab wins in California. This has been especially apparent in the sprint battles of recent years, as most of the WorldTour’s top speedsters have made the trip to California. Domestic sprinters have struggled to put up results against the likes of Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and Fernando Gaviria.

Nonetheless, the value of simply racing alongside those big names is hard to quantify, and not only on the sponsorship side of things.

“It’s a huge learning experience for our guys,” Carney said. “It’s fairly rare that we get to race against that quality of a field. The young guys on the team, they really get a feeling for the way that those teams race, the speed of the races when it really goes down.

“I think for our young guys like Brandon McNulty, to have an opportunity to race at that level, it’s definitely giving him the experience that he’s going to need when he ends up at the WorldTour full-time.”

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