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Rally-UHC rides into the most important part of its racing calendar with some confidence-boosting tailwinds.
The U.S-registered team scored a milestone victory last month when Brandon McNulty won a stage and the overall at the Giro di Sicilia. OK, the Giro di Sicilia isn’t the Tour de France or a WorldTour event, but it was a huge moment for the team.
Colin Joyce then won Great Britain’s Rutland-Melton Cicle Classic, a punishing 198.5km UCI race that includes steep climbs and gravel roads.
With the team entering its second season of its European presence, these victories confirmed to everyone that the team is capable of competing and winning at the sport’s highest levels.
“We’ve had some success since turning Pro Conti, but the overall win at Sicily was a breakthrough for the team,” said team manager Jonas Carney. “That win was a long time in the making and it’s incredibly rewarding for everyone who has worked so hard to build this program.”
The victory capped an important string of high-profile European appearances for the program. Rally-UHC is firmly committed to racing in Europe, and the team’s been doing the right things behind the scenes to position itself to earn invitations and wild-card bids to some of Europe’s most important races.
This spring, the team snagged a slot to race in La Flèche Wallonne and the Tour de Suisse in June. The team didn’t disappoint in Belgium, and placed Robin Carpenter into the day’s long breakaway.
“Having the opportunity to compete in Flèche Wallonne is a big milestone for our program,” Carney said. “To see our all-North American team line up at one of the most legendary races in the world is special. It will take a while to get accustomed to racing at that level, but our guys are gaining the experience they need.”
The Giro di Silicia win and the Flèche Wallonne start stand as major steps forward for the program. The team has come to Europe for short stints in the past, but in 2018 it committed to racing a long block throughout the spring and summer. The team struggled in some of the early events—hard stage races like Spain’s Ruta del Sol.
This year, however, the team’s confidence has been much higher at the events.
“Honestly, I think we’ve progressed more in the first three or four months of this year than we did in the entire three or four years prior,” said veteran rider Rob Britton. “We’re doing harder races this year and the team is performing at a higher level.”
Britton pointed to the team’s performance in Sicily as proof. McNulty won the third stage, which put him into the leader’s jersey. That meant the whole team had to defend the lead on the final day, which finished up Mt. Etna.
“[Joyce] did this massive pull up half of the mountain, and we still had myself, Gavin [Mannion], Kyle [Murphy], and Brandon left, and all we had to do was maintain that tempo,” Britton said. “Everybody rode perfectly. If we want to win with one guy, it’s going to take six guys to end up being buckled.”
Rally-UHC is using the string of one-day and one-week stage races this spring as part of a larger effort to patiently build its European program. It’s been a multi-year process, with the long-term goal of racing in Europe’s bigger races, including grand tours.
And the hits keep coming. Up next is the Tour de Yorkshire, a popular week-long race that will see the official colors of Ineos be introduced to the peloton. While all eyes will be the Team Sky transition, Rally-UHC will come into the race with big ambitions.
“Like last year, Yorkshire is a major target for our team,” Carney said. “We are always grateful for the opportunities that the organizers provide us and we do our best to show up to those events ready to compete.”
Right after Yorkshire, the team heads back to home roads to race in the Amgen Tour of California. The U.S. race is one of the top goals for the team and will cap its spring campaign. And then it’s back to Europe this summer for the Tour de Suisse, considered by many as cycling’s “fourth” grand tour due to its length and difficulty.
The push into Europe has come after years of planning. Carney and other team officials have quietly been networking with key European race officials over the past couple of seasons. They’ve traveled to the Tour de France presentation in October to schmooze with ASO officials.
“We’re still in that transition [to Europe] and we’re getting more comfortable with it,” Carney said. “We can sense we’re getting more respect in Europe after racing a full year last year at this level.”
Looking to bolster its roster coming into 2019, the team signed veteran Svein Tuft, one of the most experienced and durable riders in the peloton. The team’s younger riders have been learning from Tuft, who rode at the highest level of the sport for more than a decade.
Britton said Tuft’s leadership has helped take the team to a new level.
“In North American races we have the strongest guys, and in Europe we’re the small fish again and we have to treat these races with respect,” Britton said. “Svein has been really crucial in guiding us through how to use the resources we have.”
And the team is further committed to solidifying its European footprint by founding a European-based service course, near the thriving cycling hub in Girona, Spain. It rented out 7,000 square feet, with team cars, mechanics trucks, a team bus and three full-time staffers in Europe.
“There’s a ton of stuff that goes on behind the scenes, as an American team to try to set up in Europe,” Carney said.
Things like insurance, paperwork and contracts are puzzles that need to be deciphered as the team creates its Euro-side infrastructure.
“We’ve been coming to Europe for 11 years, for a week or up to six weeks, but every year,” Carney said. “Last year was the first transition year. This is the first year we can genuinely say we’re based in Europe.”
Carney and other team officials are growing the team organically, slowly building up relationships with sponsors to secure financial support and work behind-the-scenes on infrastructure to allow the team to grow and evolve into a European-centered team. It has a long-term plan and is taking a calibrated approach to the future.
“We’re growing at a sustainable rate and we’re realistic about what we can accomplish,” he said. “One of the most important things we’ve been working on, besides being in the competition, is to build the foundation so everything can continue to grow and run smoothly.”
With everything in place both on and off the bike, the team is hoping for some big performances over the next several weeks. The eventual goal is to earn a grand tour invitation within the next few years.
Rally-UHC has been a North American fixture, racing in its 13th season. Its confidence is growing with each passing race.
“It’s pretty exciting to have come from pretty humble beginnings to start some of the biggest races in the world with a full North American roster,” Carney said. “Europe is always where we wanted to be, but we’ll always be a North American team. We want to be America’s and Canada’s team.”