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Bennett on hiatus of Tour of California: ‘It’s a big loss for cycling’

New Zealand star saw first-hand how much impact the Tour of California carried for riders, teams and sponsors alike.

The Amgen Tour of California punched over its weight and insiders agree it will be missed on the racing calendar.

The weeklong race might not have been the hardest of the year, but the U.S. WorldTour stage race — now facing an uncertain future after organizers pulled it from the 2020 calendar in what’s called a “hiatus” — was surprisingly important among riders, teams, and sponsors across the sport.

And its absence will be felt in more ways than one. George Bennett, winner of the 2017 edition, was already making plans to race it for 2020 when organizers abruptly pulled the plug.

“Just a week before it was announced it would stop, we were talking about my program,” Bennett told VeloNews. “If you’re going to the Tour de France, California was a perfect race before going to altitude. Now with it gone, there’s nothing to replace it.”

California’s slot on the WorldTour calendar in May was ideal at a lot of different levels. And now that’s it off the calendar, at least for 2020, it leaves a bigger hole than many might imagine.

For GC riders like Bennett, who were coming off a break after a busy early-season calendar, California was the ideal race to transition toward the Tour de France and pre-Tour altitude camps.

The race was so perfectly positioned on the calendar that superstar Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) would use it as his first race back after the spring classics. Sagan raced 10-straight editions before finally changing his schedule for 2020 in order to start the Giro d’Italia for the first time in his career.

And for riders who did not want to face the rigors and demands of the Giro d’Italia, but wanted some solid racing in typically good weather and on good roads, California will be hard to replace.

“Now that it’s gone, it will bring the Giro into the picture for a lot of guys,” Bennett said in a telephone interview. “There is not a replacement race in mid-May right now. Guys will miss that race.”

Good weather and smooth tarmac made an ideal alternative for riders not racing the Giro d’Italia. (Photo: Getty)

The only other elite men’s 2020 WorldTour race besides the Giro in May is the one-day Eschborn-Frankfurt. There are a few other races on the calendar that might draw some WorldTour riders — the Vuelta a Aragon in Spain or the Tour de l’Ain in France — but it’s more than the race days that will be missed.

Since its founding in 2006, California quickly emerged as one of the most important events of the year. As Bennett described, the race’s growing prestige outstripped its built-in difficulty compared to other races on the circuit. But because it was in California as the lone WorldTour stage race in the United States, it carried extra weight and importance among sponsors, teams and riders compared to perhaps older or more challenging races in Europe.

“California was always a race that the exposure of it was higher than the level of the race,” Bennett said. “It was such a big race for sponsors and for American riders and media. Tour de Romandie is a lot harder race, but the media coverage at California was so far-reaching.”

Tour of California
The gravitas of being the only US race in the WorldTour elevated California’s importance for sponsors and the U.S cycling industry. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for AEG (File).

U.S. riders all wanted to perform well and the race became an important platform for sponsors and bike companies to show off their wares. Once the race hit WorldTour status in 2017 along with the expansion of the women’s events, it became even more important for teams to chase points for rankings in the season-long series.

“Young guys could go there and have a breakthrough ride and it would catapult them onto the scene,” Bennett said. “If you race at Romandie against [Primoz] Roglic and all those guys, but if you’re 10th there, it’s not the same as being 10th at California in terms of exposure, even though physically Romandie is much harder.”

Bennett witnessed that dichotomy firsthand. The New Zealand star raced two editions of the race on U.S.-backed teams, first with RadioShack in 2012 and again with Cannondale in 2014, and he immediately saw the buzz and interest surrounding the race.

“Teams revolved around California in ways that they don’t for other races,” he said. “When I was at RadioShack, it was one of the main focuses of the entire season. It was a big deal for the sponsors and the teams. They liked the exposure the race gave everyone.”

When he returned as a member of Jumbo-Visma and won the overall title in 2017, he saw just how much impact success at California could have.

“California was such a prestigious race, and it was a big opportunity for young riders like me to win,” he said. “When I won in 2017, it put me right on the map as being a GC contender.

Bennett’s win at Tour of California in 2017 was a landmark and springboard in his career. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“It’s going to be a bit sad now for the U.S. riders,” he continued. “A guy like Neilson Powless could have a great ride at California and really get noticed by the WorldTour teams. Now even if you were to win a race like Redlands or the [now-defunct] Cascade Classic, it will be a lot harder to get noticed.”

And California soon became a favorite for everyone involved in the international cycling community. Riders and staffers alike would request to put California on their calendars. The allure of racing in California quickly became as mythic for Europeans as Americans daydreamed of racing in France.

“Everyone loved racing at California,” Bennett said. “Californians were a good representation of what being American is like. Sometimes from outside the U.S., we have a different idea of what America is like. California showed the best side of America. It was beautiful roads and amazing scenery, and everyone was very friendly. It’s a big loss for cycling.”