Road

UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis chasing the elusive California stage win

While they dominated U.S. racing for much of the last decade, UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis (known under variatious sponsors' names) has, since 2005, struggled to find a stage win in one of the country’s major stage races. The team will get another shot when they take the start of stage 1 at the Amgen Tour of California.

Rory Sutherland takes the prologue. Photo: Mason Ibas
Rory Sutherland won the prologue at last month's Vuelta de Bisbee. Photo: Mason Ibas

While they dominated U.S. racing for much of the last decade, UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis (known under various sponsors’ names) has, since 2005, struggled to find a stage win in one of the country’s major stage races. The team will get another shot when they take the start of stage 1 at the Amgen Tour of California.

“We’re after a stage win,” said director Gord Fraser. “We know that there are enough new stages that hopefully California won’t follow the same script as it has over the last few years; that’s domination by ProTour teams in the bunch sprints and then overall being controlled by Levi (Leipheimer) and his team for the GC.”

Fraser himself delivered the team (then known as HealthNet-Maxxis) its last major tour win in 2005, taking the stage 6 bunch sprint at the Tour de Georgia over teammate Greg Henderson. The win gave Fraser his third Georgia stage, having bookended the 2004 race with stage 1 and stage 7 wins. The Canadian rejoined his former team this offseason after spending 2009 as an assistant director at Team Type 1 and hoped to deliver the team’s first Tour of California win from behind the wheel.

With five new road stages in 2010, Fraser looked to the resulting uncertainty as a boon to the chances of his and other U.S. domestic teams.

“Hopefully there are enough intermediate-type stages and, with where theyare in the race, that it opens up for some breakaways, a little bit more chaotic-type racing,” he said. “That’s obviously what a domestic team needs; if they’re dictated to by the ProTour squads, the chances are we won’t win much.”

Rory Sutherland has come close to a win in California twice, finishing second on the Pasadena circuit in 2008 and following George Hincapie in for fourth from the first chase group in the eighth stage in 2009. Sprinter Andrew Pinfold nearly ended the drought in the final stage bunch sprint at the Tour of Missouri last year, slotting in between third place Thor Hushovd and stage winner Martin Gilbert.

“I think any domestic team, or Continental team for that matter, would kill for a win like that,” said Sutherland. “It is what every team looks to, and what every sponsor dreams of, given the size of the world stage on which we’re racing. It starts or furthers careers. On a personal level it’s obviously a dream. And again the same goes for any domestically based rider in the USA. For me as a rider, it is the highest accolade I could achieve in this country.”

Regardless of whether the stage win comes, Fraser will push his riders to animate the race throughout the week. “Hopefully we can go after at least a stage win and then, you know, if we had someone in the top ten overall, that would be awesome as well,” he said. “Number one is just to be present in the race – getting into breakaways, go for a jersey or two and at least attempt to win a stage or two.”

Sutherland is a frequent protagonist on the U.S. circuit and will approach the race like any other. “I understand how many things need to go right to win a stage there,” he said. “I don’t ever like predicting what I am going to do, so for me, it is, in some sense, a race like any other. You go to do your best, you compete to try and win. And then hope for that bit of luck.”

“We have the depth and the strength to actually do something at the race,” said Fraser. “You know, it’s been a while since the team has enjoyed success at that race, so we’re hoping it’s time we get some good results there and we’re in a good position for that.”