What will be the lasting storyline from the 2017 Amgen Tour of California? It’s still tough to say. The seven-day race from Sacramento to Pasadena delivered a plethora of compelling tales. Overall winner George Bennett taught us the vague definition for the term “twisting a nut” after his impressive time trial. Andrew Talansky finally ended Cannondale-Drapac’s two-year winless streak on the WorldTour when he won stage 5 at Mt. Baldy. Rally Pro Cycling turned lemons into lemonade by winning two stages after their GC hopes were destroyed by crashes and mechanicals. And yes, team Katusha had a really poopy time in Big Bear.
In lieu of these amazing tales, here are my five takeaways from the week:
1. ToCA becomes Tour prep for classics and sprint teams
With its lumpy (but not too mountainous) parcours and mid-May date, the Amgen Tour of California’s inaugural WorldTour edition attracted more stars from the Belgian classics than grand tour honchos. A quick glance at the rosters from the WorldTour squads not named Cannondale and Lotto-Jumbo revealed a long list of sprinters and cobbled specialists: John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb), Zdenek Stybar and Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step), Ella Viviani (Sky), Matti Breschel (Astana), and of course every Bora rider other than Rafal Majka. For many of these riders, the race was the first leg shaker since Paris-Roubaix way back on April 9, and the official start of Tour prep. Fast guy Tour prep is potentially the new identity for California. GC guys like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador will likely bypass California for the traditional Romandie/Dauphine preparation model, due to timing and the mountainous routes of those races. For the fast men, California presents the perfect opportunity.
2. It’s time for Rally to step up
Rally Pro Cycling stole the show at this year’s Amgen Tour of California. Full stop. Evan Huffman won more stages than anyone else in the race (2), Rob Britton dusted his WorldTour breakaway companions on the climb up Glendora Mountain Road, and Sepp Kuss then climbed alongside the best in the race. It’s difficult to think that, just two months ago, there was a debate within U.S. cycling about whether Rally even deserved to have one of the race’s two Continental berths. Now there’s a new conversation to be had around Rally, and that is whether the team should step up to the Pro Continental level. The step from Continental to Pro Continental is not simple, and would require a few hundred thousand dollars in sponsorship and the addition of riders and staff. The success in California is validation that the team is ready. According to team sources, there is already talk of making the step up in 2018. If the team wants to hold onto Huffman and Kuss, it’s a necessary step.
3. LottoNL-Jumbo gets its reward
Overall winner Bennett was undoubtedly surprised after his fourth-place ride in Saturday’s individual time trial. Yet it was no surprise to see Bennett take the overall. His LottoNL-Jumbo team was strong, with a singular focus on the climbs. Other European WorldTour squads came to the race toting classics contenders and sprinters. LottoNL-Jumbo brought pint-sized climbers, several of whom are U23 riders. When asked how he believed the final stage would play out, Bennett said, “[Majka] will be heading up the inside for sprints, with my team of 15-year-old climbers on the front chasing them down.” The team put its climbing strength on display during stages 2 and 5; during the latter stage it thinned down the bunch before unleashing Bennett. So while it was Bennett’s unlikely time trial that eventually brought him the victory, LottoNL-Jumbo’s decision to bring along those “15-year-old climbers” is what put him in the position to win.
4. Talansky’s Tour prep on track
Cannondale-Drapac’s Andrew Talansky was perhaps the strongest GC rider at the race. He won the stage 5 summit finish and then finished third place in the individual time trial. Talansky is likely still kicking himself for his blunder on stage 2. He decided not to follow Majka, Ian Boswell (Sky), Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), and eventual overall winner Bennett when they attacked over Mount Hamilton. Talansky later said he expected the group to come back. It didn’t, and the riders put 37 seconds into the American. Did the decision cost Talansky the overall? Perhaps. Still, his performance over the weeklong race points to strong form heading into his final preparation for the Tour de France, the race that he famously skipped last year after a spring wrought with sickness.
5. Morton, Boswell ready for leadership
Boswell and Morton came into the race leading WorldTour squads for the first time. Both men showed they were up to the task when they broke free from the peloton on stage 2 over Mount Hamilton alongside Bennett and Majka. While both men eventually fell out of podium contention, they showed grit and class along the race. Perhaps sensing he was bound to lose his podium position in Saturday’s time trial, Boswell gritted out the summit finish to Mount Baldy, repeatedly fighting his way back to the front group. Morton suffered a mechanical just seconds after starting his time trial. The ensuing slow time pushed him to ninth overall and second in the race’s best young rider’s jersey. The next day, Morton attacked into the breakaway. He helped drive it to the line, grabbing back the best young rider jersey and slotting into seventh overall. Whether the two will be given race leadership duties again this season is yet to be determined.