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Photo: Rebecca Reza

Travis McCabe realizes his WorldTour dream at age 30

After years of setbacks and sacrifice, American Travis McCabe will enter the WorldTour with Israel Start-Up Nation. McCabe is excited to start his WorldTour career, and has a busy early calendar on the horizon.

How much can life change over the course of one year?

A lot — just ask Travis McCabe.

A year ago, McCabe was contemplating quitting cycling altogether, despite being at his physical peak. The loss of his team UnitedHelathcare at the end of 2018 placed McCabe and other riders into a fickle job market. He found a ride with the new Floyd’s Pro Cycling, however he took a pay cut just to keep racing.

This week, McCabe is in Israel, training with his new teammates on Israel Start-Up Nation, the newest squad to join pro cycling’s WorldTour. In a few months McCabe will make his WorldTour debut — the realization of a dream he has had for years.

“This shows that even the state that cycling is in, it’s not impossible,” McCabe told VeloNews. “The sport is hard and that’s just life in general. I’m not expecting to come in and kick ass. I think the team understands that too. They’re going to wait and see where my race IQ is, how I do in the races and play off that.

“I always wanted to be in the WorldTour racing at this level. Being right at the edge of that is pretty exciting.”

The crux of McCabe’s big step up came last May at the opening stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Camera flashbulbs captured the close photo finish between Peter Sagan and McCabe, who rode for USA Cycling’s national team. McCabe was beaten by the three-time world champion, but the close nature of the sprint showed that he could challenge a rider of Sagan’s quality in a chaotic dash to the line.

McCabe (right) turned heads at the 2019 Amgen Tour of California. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

That result sparked a conversation between McCabe and Israel’s performance director, Paolo Saldana, that eventually led to McCabe signing a deal with the squad this past November.

“That first stage in California really helped, it was a month before [the Tour of] Utah that Paolo Saldana reached out,” McCabe said. “I sent my information to him, got in touch with my coach so he saw my data, but it was a real hit and miss.”

McCabe was familiar with the Israeli team. The Israel Cycling Academy team had raced in the United States on and off since 2015, and was a regular starter at events like the USA Pro Challenge, Tour of Utah, and Amgen Tour of California.

McCabe had a breakout season in 2014 with Team SmartStop. Photo by Matt Brown, www.336Creative.com

“I’ve been racing against Israel since they started,” McCabe said . “I tried to connect with them when UHC was folding but it didn’t work out, but they have known who I was.”

McCabe’s deal with Israel Start-Up Nation marks an exciting chapter in his decade-long racing career. McCabe began his racing career at age 20, living out of a team van traveling the circuit of the National Racing Calendar (NRC) with teammates of the elite Arizona squad, Landis Cyclery (no relation to Floyd).

In 2013 he joined the fledgeling UCI Continental team Smart Stop, and thrived under the direction of retired U.S. rider Mike Creed. McCabe had a breakout season in 2014, finishing second at the U.S. National Road Championships and winning the Winston-Salem Classic. In the ensuing seasons with the Holowesko-Citadel and UHC squads, McCabe blossomed into a versatile sprinter who could survive medium- to longer climbs and still sprint to victory.

He won four stage wins at the Tour of Utah, three stages of the Tour of Langkawi, and the U.S. Criterium national title, among other victories.

McCabe scored big international wins, including three stage wins at the Tour of Langkawi. Photo: Daebong Kim

Of course racing in the WorldTour will present a steeper challenge for McCabe. Other Americans have made the jump to the WorldTour peloton after spending years in the U.S. scene—Kiel Reijnen joined Trek-Segafredo at age 27. McCabe is 30. He joins the squad alongside another North American racer, Canadian James Piccoli.

Piccoli, 28, and McCabe, 30, are breaking the mold of WorldTour teams signing Under-23 North American riders, and skipping over older ones.

“I came in a little later but I’m not the only one who has done it,” McCabe said. “There is a little bit of ageism in the sport, especially now, everyone wants the next Quinn Simmons or Remco, but I don’t let my age define me. I don’t feel 30. I think a lot of people think I’m too old but I’ve only been in it for 10 years.”

McCabe is also no stranger to European racing. In 2018 UHC completed a block of European racing in the springtime, and McCabe was one of the riders chosen for the races. The racing block did not go great. McCabe crashed multiple times and returned to the U.S. with a handful of DNFs on his stat sheet.

The crashes had a major impact on McCabe’s racing. He likely suffered a concussion during a major pileup at the Belgian classic Scheldeprijs, yet he continued to race, as the team had the minimum riders needed to compete.

In the ensuing races, McCabe felt himself making little mistakes during races that he was not accustomed to making.

“I don’t think we realize how detrimental concussions are, or how much it affects you psychologically,” McCabe said of the injury. “In Scheldeprijs, I crashed again and concussed pretty bad which made things really difficult.”

In 2018 McCabe embarked on a European classics campaign, and suffered a head injury in a crash at Scheldeprijs. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Three years removed from that setback, McCabe is ready to re-enter the breakneck European peloton. He wants another crack at the races, to show he can compete.

“Everything happens for a reason. If anything, it has given me more motivation for me to come back and prove myself, to show that’s not going to define me as a European racer.”

Israel’s merger with Katusha-Alpecin was not finalized until the end of October. Team management did not know whether the squad would remain UCI Pro Continental or move up to the Worldtour level. They were also waiting to see how many Katusha riders would come on board.

McCabe waited patiently for an answer as days and weeks passed, and the calendar drew closer to the period when riders need to ink deals for the next season, or retire.

McCabe (in green) will help Israel Start-Up Nation in the sprints. Photo: Rebecca Reza

“[Ian] Boswell was also a possibility as an American on the team, so I was just biding my time,” McCabe said. “I kept emailing and talking to Kjell Carlström (Team Manager), once a week asking the team, trying to see what was happening. I went from not really having a job anymore to going to the WorldTour.”

McCabe does not yet know his full racing calendar for 2020, however he is likely to participate in one-day classics alongside German strongman Nils Politt. McCabe’s strength in the sprints will also make him a valuable lead out man for German sprinter Andre Greipel.

McCabe will begin his season at the Tour of San Juan in Argentina, before racing the Tour Colombia 2.1, Strade-Bianche, and Tirreno-Adriatico.

Then, it’s on to the spring classics.

“I don’t know what Classics I’ll do, probably not Roubaix, but they will be a tester to go and see if I can hold my own,” McCabe said. “Then, I’ll have more opportunities. The Giro is the plan now that California is gone.”

It’s a dream realized after years of setbacks and sacrifice.