As the Amgen Tour of California brings world-class racing to the United States next week, nine ProTour teams representing 27 nations will be on hand to illustrate the growing interest in American cycling.
After racing full-time in Europe for the past seven years, Tour de France stage winner Dave Zabriskie (Salt Lake City, Utah/Slipstream-Chipotle) is happy to see the U.S. become a destination for European teams.
“For me, it’s the best thing that can happen. I like being in America and it’s a top-notch event they have here,” he said. “Imagine being French and just going to race the Tour de France. That’s what it’s like for me to race in California.”
One of only three Americans to have won a stage in each of cycling’s grand tours; Zabriskie was second overall in the inaugural edition of the Tour of California in 2006. He was also one of the first USA Cycling National Development Team riders to live and race in Europe under the guidance of former pro Noel Dejonckheere through USA Cycling’s Belgium-based resident program.
Graduates of the National Development Team’s European Resident program represent nearly a decade of USA Cycling’s efforts to grow interest in American cycling by feeding talent into the European peloton. As that growing interest takes center stage in Palo Alto on Sunday, Zabriskie will be one of 18 graduates of the program to line up with the 136-rider field for 650 miles of California racing.
The alumni will range in experience from Zabriskie to 2006 graduate John Murphy (Athens, Ga.), a second-year rider for the Health Net pro cycling team who will get his first taste of top-level racing in California.
“This is definitely the biggest race I’ve ever done,” the 23-year-old said. “But working with Noel and his staff showed me what it was going to take to be a professional, ride at that next level and really be competitive against the best riders in the world.”
Murphy looks forward to applying what he learned in Belgium to a USA Cycling Pro Tour race. He’ll make his way to California with roommate and fellow Health Net rider Matt Crane (Athens, Ga.), a 22-year-old graduate of the Belgium-based program.
Following two seasons with the National Team in Europe, Crane contested his first event against top-caliber riders in 2007 as a first-year pro with Health Net.
“Last year I did the Tour of Missouri which was my first race with ProTour teams,” he said. “I was really nervous until I got to training camp but as soon as I got on the bike with the Health Net guys, it was natural. With everything I learned from the National Team and from Noel, I knew what I was doing.”
“If you take the whole program in Belgium and get the most out of it and learn from it and race well, then they’ll set you up for a pro career. If you look at the history, it puts more Americans on ProTour teams,” Murphy added.
Zabriskie is one of eight Americans placed on ProTour teams through the program since its 1999 inception.
“It’s just good to spend time in Europe especially at a young age,” he remarked about how the program prepared him to ride at the ProTour level. “It kind of gives you the best idea of what you’re getting into. If you don’t do it and end up over there anyways, you’d be in for a big surprise.”
Zabriskie rode for USPS and Team CSC before returning to the States this year where he and Tyler Farrar (Wenhatchee, Wash./Slipstream-Chipotle)will ride with the U.S.-based Slipstream-Chipotle squad. Like Zabriskie, Farrar launched his career from the USA Cycling house in Belgium and by age 22 was riding Europe’s cobbled classics with the French ProTour team Cofidis. The two will share their experience at cycling’s top levels with four other National Development Team alumni riding as their teammates in California – Danny Pate (Colorado Springs, Colo.), Tom Peterson (Snoqualmie Wash.), Steven Cozza (Petaluma, Calif.), and Lucas Euser (Napa, Calif.).
In addition to Zabriskie and Farrar, the Tour of California roster includes two other National Development Team graduates that went on to secure ProTour contracts: Michael Creed (Colorado Springs/Rock Racing), who rode the classics with the USPS Pro Cycling Team, and Aaron Olson (Santa Barbara, Calif./Bissell Pro Cycling), who rode with Saunier Duval-Prodir and T-Mobile.
The Tour of California joins the Tours of Georgia and Missouri as three stages races in the U.S. that attracts European ProTour teams.
“Europeans can better understand the sacrifices Americans make to race in Europe when they also travel a couple continents away to race an event like this,” Zabriskie said about the west coast race.
With 27 riders planning to race with the National Development Team’s Belgium-based program this year, USA Cycling hopes to continue integrating American cycling with the European race culture and fueling the unprecedented growth seen in the U.S. in recent years.
“I think American cycling is growing at a good rate,” says Zabriskie. “It looks pretty healthy.”