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California WorldTour status has domestic teams worried

Will the Amgen Tour of California's new WorldTour status bar Continental teams from competing? Outlook is grim for grassroots outfits.

Directors and riders from domestic Continental cycling teams are crossing their fingers that they will have access to the 2017 Amgen Tour of California.

Earlier this week it was revealed that the California race will join the UCI WorldTour in 2017. The new classification puts the Amgen Tour of California alongside the world’s biggest races, such as the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

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The WorldTour status brings a caveat: Only WorldTour and Pro Continental teams can compete, per current UCI rules. Smaller Continental teams are forbidden from competition. So next year, the race could feature Sky, Movistar, Ag2r La Mondiale and the other WorldTour squads.

For the collection of North American Continental teams, such as Jelly Belly, Holowesko – Citadel, Axeon Hagens Berman, and others, the WorldTour status could bar them from the Tour of California.

At the Tour of Utah, riders, team directors, and marketing officials with Continental squads agreed that the news was disheartening.

“I think this will be worse for American cycling,” said veteran rider Danny Pate (Rally). “There could be as few as 10 American riders in the race under those rules.”

The door is not entirely closed for the Continental teams, yet. In June, it was revealed that the Professional Cycling Council would vote on a plan to require a minimum of 10 WorldTour teams to participate in the new WorldTour races for 2017. The Amgen Tour of California is one of 10 new races to join the WorldTour next year.

Multiple directors of Continental teams, however, said they are worried about losing entry to the California race. Sponsors view California as the largest platform for reaching media and fans. Losing access to the race makes it nearly impossible for some sponsors to show a return on investment.

“A lot of our sponsors are relying on our participation in those races, said Thomas Craven, director of Holowesko — Citadel, a team that’s won two stages so far in Utah. “If the [races] go away, the teams go away too.”

With the recent news that the USA Pro Cycling Challenge will not return, the teams have fewer stage race options.

Axel Merckx, who directs the Axeon Hagens Berman development team, said the California race is a fundamental event for developing the county’s up-and-coming talent. At this year’s race, Axeon had three riders finish inside the top-15.

“If this was Europe, there would be other races that we could [participate in]; it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Merckx. said. “There just aren’t enough races for us to do in the USA.”

Danny Van Haute, whose Jelly Belly team is sponsored by the Fairfield, California-based jelly bean manufacturer, said the news could force his team to look overseas.

“We race in front of 4-5 million people [in California],” Van Haute said. “If we lose that, my job is to look elsewhere, maybe Asia.”

None of the directors said they were equipped to make the jump up to Pro Continental status. Continental teams commonly have a total budget in the low to mid six-figures. Pro Continental teams often boast a budget of more than $1 million.

“That’s money I don’t have right now,”Merckx said. “We can’t have a system where the rich teams get richer and the small teams go away.”