Team Rally’s European swing continues this weekend deep in the heart of rural France.
It’s on these narrow, twisting roads of France and Spain that the future of the newly elevated Professional Continental team is being forged. The long-running team’s roots remain North American, but it is reaching out to Europe more ambitiously than before.
It’s all part of a multi-year plan to elevate the team to the highest levels of the peloton.
“We’ve taken a big step up this year to the Professional Continental level,” said Rally sport director Pat McCarty. “This is a big investment for the future. For the sporting aspect, we’re still racing our bikes and trying to get a result. The North American calendar is still the priority right now, but Europe is becoming more important.”
Rally makes an important step this season in its decade-long history. Since its debut in 2008 under the Kelly Benefits Strategies banner, the team has grown steadily to become a major presence on the North American circuit. The arrival of new backers, anchored by the title sponsor Rally, the team was able to make the leap to the Pro Conti level for 2018.
The team’s raced in Europe before, but this year, it’s something different. The trip is longer, and one that eventually will have more permanence. The goals remain the same — gain more experience in Europe and prepare for the most important dates on the North American calendar — but this season there’s more to their ambitions.
Behind the scenes, McCarty and others on the management staff are building up the infrastructure. The team hopes to have a European service course up and running before the season is out.
“We’re really starting to build that infrastructure,” McCarty said. “It’s exciting. We have a lot of support from our sponsors, and they’re really excited about us.”
So far this season, the 16-rider squad has been racing on two fronts. One half’s been in the Middle East, racing in Oman and Dubai. McCarty has been leading the European squad, where it’s raced at the Volta a Valenciana, one-days in Murcia and Almería and recently wrapped up the Ruta del Sol. Up next day are a pair of one-days in France before a short break ahead of a very busy April with a full calendar in Spain. The team will come together to select the strongest riders to race at the Amgen Tour of California in May, the team’s first major target of the season.
“We’re trying to get these guys more experience racing in Europe,” said McCarty, who had stints at U.S. Postal Service, Phonak, and Slipstream during his decade-long racing career. “This European swing helps facilitate preparation for the rest of the season.”
So far, it’s been spells of terrible weather, rough road, crashes, illnesses, and bad hotels — in other words, welcome to Europe.
Results mean different things. Part of it is getting used to racing in Europe. Everything here is faster, harder, and more intense. It might be getting into a breakaway, grab a jersey for a day or two, punch into the top-10, or get into position for a sprint.
“I am seeing small improvements. It’s a big difference in Europe,” McCarty said. “The level is much higher. One of our guys went to the front in one of the big climbs, and it was a really hard pace. In the USA, there would be 10 guys left. In Europe, there were still 100 riders in the group. … It’s just so much harder to get a result, and harder to control the scenarios.”
There’s been steady progress. Brandon McNulty was 14th overall at the Dubai Tour, and Ryan Anderson was 21st in the final TT and 33rd overall at the Ruta del Sol.
There is also a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiating that goes into trying to secure race invitations. Unlike WorldTour teams, which are guaranteed starts in the choice races, at the Pro Conti level, organizers and teams play a game of roulette.
“On paper, yes, being at the Pro Conti level helps, but at the end of the day, it’s who you know,” he said. “It’s a maze. Sometimes organizers like to have a North American team. Sometimes it’s political. … It changes year to year.”
This weekend, the team is racing in a pair of one-days in the Ardèche region of France. They’re hard, challenging races that draw the top French teams in the peloton. The team’s bid to get an invite fell on deaf ears until McCarty reached into his Rolodex.
“At first, they told us no, then I reached out to an old teammate of mine,” McCarty said. His former colleague put in a good word, and then McCarty offered to pay for the team’s hotels, and then a spot opened up. Just like that, two more important races for the team’s calendar.
“The ultimate goal is to get the WorldTour level some day,” he said. “The idea is to grow the team progressively, race over in Europe more and more, and eventually get into a grand tour. And the dream is to race the Tour de France.”
The team is already building relationships behind the scenes with ASO and RCS Sports, the two big organizers of the grand tours and other major WorldTour races. Team managers sat down with race organizers to talk about the team’s vision, and ASO and RCS sport have already offered invites to such races as Oman and Dubai. It’s a good starting point.
For now, the team’s DNA will remain North American. All of the riders are either Canadians or Americans, and that’s by design. The team’s pedigree of alumni is impressive, with current and former WorldTour riders such as Matthew Busche, Michael Woods, Ben King, Chad Haga, Sepp Kuss, and Carter Jones.
“They’re good enough. They’re talented enough. We know we can come over here and race,” McCarty said. “We’re on these European roads, so it’s just a matter of time of getting used to the conditions. It just takes some getting used to.”