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Rally-UHC: ‘Losing California is a huge blow’

Teams and riders lament the one-year 'hiatus' of the California race that leaves a high-profile vacuum on the U.S. calendar

The one-year hiatus of the Amgen Tour of California is a massive loss for cycling in more ways than one. Although there is hope the race could return, teams and riders across the peloton will be missing the marquee North American stage race next spring.

For most U.S. teams, the race emerged as the season highlight, a kind of mini-Tour de France set in California. During its 14-year history, the race evolved into the central focus for most teams racing on the North American circuit. Without it, everything changes.

“We were very surprised. We really didn’t see it coming at all,” said Jonas Carney, performance director at Rally-UHC. “It was a major priority for our team and losing it is a huge blow to the sport of cycling in North America.”

Rally-UHC is just one of several North American teams buffeted by the unexpected news this week that California is off the 2020 calendar.

For teams like Carney’s — whose organization fielded squads in both the women’s and men’s events — the race represented a season highlight as well as a chance to race at the WorldTour level on home roads.

Stars from the U.S. scene were able to bump shoulders with the biggest names in world cycling at Calfornia: Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“We always built the first half of our season around trying to have a good performance at the ATOC [Amgen Tour of California]. Its absence will require us to re-evaluate our plans and completely change our focus for the first half of the year,” he said in an email to VeloNews. “For our team, it’s a massive hole because it was one of our biggest objectives every year.”

California organizers confirmed this week the event is on a one-year “hiatus.” Officials from USA Cycling said they are also working to try to revive America’s lone WorldTour-level stage race for 2021.

As important as California was, it seemed to lose some of its allure for domestic riders when it joined the WorldTour league in 2017. That changed the participation rules, meaning that only second-tier teams could compete alongside the WorldTour teams. A few U.S.-registered teams bumped from Continental to Professional Continental status, a costly and bureaucratic process for teams who could afford it, but it also meant that some teams were locked out. This year, a composite U.S. development team was allowed to start.

Many lower division teams were forced out when the race became part of the WorldTour, though a composite American development team was able to participate in 2019. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The expansion of the women’s race made it the gravitational center on the North American circuit, with big names such as Peter Sagan and Olympic gold medalist Anna van der Breggen racing in front of local fans. It was also an important focal point for sponsors and team backers to promote their brands to the U.S. audience.

Tom Skujins, who won three stages during his career, said California was the season peak for all of the North American teams.

“It was a big deal for the sponsors,” Skujins said. “When I was with Hincapie [development team in 2014 and 2015], it was the biggest platform all year, for a small team to be there. And there were a lot of teams coming over with an interest in the U.S. market. Now you don’t get the chance to race California.”

Many are wondering what will fill the gap. The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah — the 2.HC race held each August that’s served as a springboard for such pros as Sepp Kuss — looks poised to fill the space. A new one-day race in Maryland set to join the UCI calendar’s new “ProSeries” category just below the top level will dove-tail into the Canadian WorldTour races next fall.

“We are very excited about the new Maryland Cycling Classic,” Carney said. “That race could definitely become a season highlight in North America. Utah, nationals, and the Quebec/Montreal WorldTour races will remain big objectives for our program.”

For Carney, the one-year demise and uncertain future of the race marks an end of era for the U.S. racing scene. California stepped up to become the centerpiece of the North American calendar. His team has evolved over the years as well, and now races with an established European program alongside the team’s domestic roots.

California, however, was always special.

“We are just sad that there will not be a Tour of California in 2020,” said Carney, who thanked race organizers and backers. “Every year it has been an amazing opportunity for our program and our partners. The Amgen Tour of California was a world-class event that provided a big stage for our team to compete against the best in the world. We hope that they can bring it back in 2021.”