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ELK GROVE, California (VN) — There was a time in the not-so distant past when North America’s fastest sprinters often contended for the podium during the Amgen Tour of California’s flat stages.
Those days are long gone.
Since 2010 the race has attracted an increasing number of top sprinters from cycling’s WorldTour. The race now boasts perhaps the strongest international collection of sprinters outside of the Tour de France, with Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, and Marcel Kittel—among others—arriving each year. For 2018 California’s sprinter lineup has gotten even stronger, with the addition of Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).
“It’s harder to win [a sprint stage] than the overall,”said Patxi Vila, sports director at Bora-Hansgrohe. “The field here is as good or better than sometimes at the Tour.”
So what does that mean for the star sprinters of the North American scene? The opportunities to win have simply dwindled. Travis McCabe of team UnitedHealthCare used to battle for the podium at this race. Now, a top-10 finish is his metric for success.
“The opportunities to win have dwindled,” McCabe said. “If you do get a result then it’s really great because you probably had to beat a world champion in order to do it.”
McCabe is one of the most successful sprinters in the North American scene of his generation, having won bunch kicks at two stages of the Tour of Utah, Tour of the Gila, and other races. During Thursday’s 176.5-kilometer stage into Elk Grove, McCabe battled near the front of the peloton in the waning kilometers. As the peloton thundered into the final kilometer McCabe tucked himself into 17th position, right beside his teammate, Lucas Haedo. The UHC riders were perhaps a bit too far back in the group to win the stage, however a podium from that position was not out of the question.
In the final kick to the line, however, the raw power of the WorldTour lead-out trains took over. Quick-Step’s Max Richeze surged to the front of the group ahead of Gaviria. In the last few hundred meters it was Gaviria, Ewan, and Sagan. Haedo crossed the line in seventh, and McCabe was 10th.
“We don’t have the power to have a train,” McCabe said. “So you end up taking someone else’s train and just crossing your fingers.”
The high point for domestic sprinters at California came in the race’s first few editions. Domestic fast men like Gord Fraser and Alex Candelario battled shoulder-to-shoulder with the Europeans in the hectic kick to the line. Ivan Dominguez even won the final stage of the 2007 race in a wild sprint finish into Long Beach. Dominguez’s win still stands as the only one by a domestic rider in a Tour of California bunch sprint.
Back in those days, the ProTour peloton’s fastest riders often raced the first half of the Giro d’Italia to build form for the Tour. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was tradition to see Erik Zabel, Alessandro Petacchi, and even Cavendish split from the Giro once the race hit the high mountains. California now gives these riders a chance to build their form in warm weather, away from those hectic roads in Italy. And the Giro’s first half often includes enough punishing terrain to tax the sprinters’s legs.
“The Giro is too hard for preparing for [the Tour de France],” Kristoff said. “It’s a high class field [in California] and you want to make your lead-out work for the tour de France.”
The last time a domestic North American team scored a podium in a Tour of California bunch sprint came in 2013, when Ken Hanson (Optum-Kelly Benefits) finished second to Tyler Farrar in the race’s fourth stage. Since then, John Murphy has been closest to the podium, racking up two fourth-place finishes in 2015. On Thursday, Murphy crossed the line in fifth position, just two steps away from the podium.
“Today was maybe my biggest result because of the strength of the field,” Murphy said. “You look at the start list and feel pretty happy when you can pick off one or two of those guys.”
Murphy said domestic sprinters will always be at a disadvantage in the bunch kicks, due to the strength of the WorldTour lead-out riders. Quick-Step and Mitchelton Scott, for example, are racing with a deep lineup of support riders for their respective sprinters. Murphy’s Tab-Citadel team, by contrast, has one or two riders it can use for the sprints.
“Their lead outs are so dialed in so they get to start their sprints from the front of the field,” Murphy said. “We’re starting our sprints from behind. That’s just how the hierarchy falls.”
So is it worth it for the domestic sprinters to even show up? Murphy and McCabe believe so. Axel Mercxk, owner of the Hagens Berman-Axeon team, believes the hectic sprints teach his riders how to properly navigate the peloton. While his under-23 riders lack the top-end speed of the fastest finishers, they can still gain confidence from each kick to the line.
Indeed, Hagens Berman’s young sprinter Sean Bennet crossed the line on Thursday in sixth place, just behind Murphy. Bennett said he and the other domestic riders look to the top sprint teams to control the dynamics of each sprint. The key to competing, he said, is to seek out opportunities in those final few meters.
“We leave the [lead out] to the big boys,” Bennett said. “You see some guy going up the side, hop on, and just see where it takes you.”