If anyone doubted Rally Cycling's merits as the US Continental team makes plans to jump to the Pro Continental level next year, the team has put any scepticism to rest with its performances this year, most recently capping off the North American season with an overall victory at the Tour of Alberta this week.
Evan Huffman, who won the overall at the UCI 2.2 Tour of the Gila in April before winning two stages at the WorldTour Amgen Tour of California in May, seized the lead of the four-day race in Alberta during the stage 1 climb to Marmot Basin, and then the 27-year-old never looked back.
Huffman's stage win and overall victory in Alberta were only the latest results for the team, which also include two stages at the Joe Martin Stage Race, four stages and the overall at Gila, two stages in California, two stages at Tour de Beauce, the Canadian road championship, two stages at the Cascade Cycling Classic, a stage and the overall in Utah and now a stage and the overall in Alberta. That list doesn't include the miscellaneous criteriums and other national calendar events.
"I think this is by far the best results the team has had in its history, and it's been around for a long time under different names," Huffman said. "I think especially a lot of people have been commenting on how we've been winning, and the way we're racing is fun to watch.
"We're either going for GC, and if not, we're riding aggressively for breakaways," he said. "We always bring a strong team to the biggest races, and we always race to win. Hopefully we can keep that going for next year and continue riding bigger races and maybe do more international events with the Pro Continental status, but we'll see."
In Alberta, Rally stacked the breakaway on the first day with both Huffman and Sepp Kuss, setting up Huffman's solo move at the bottom of the 14km Marmot Basin climb where he took the stage win as Kuss followed him in for second. Huffman and Rally were never really challenged for the overall after that, eventually taking first and second overall with Huffman and Kuss, while Cannodnale-Drapac had to settle for third and fourth with Alex Howes and Tom-Jelte Slagter, respectively, both 31 seconds back.
"We had a really strong team here, and that was our goal going in," Huffman said. "We wanted to come through that first stage with a lot of options, and we did that, having five guys in the first 11. Luckily, that breakaway worked out in our favour and we had enough of a gap that we could just play defence.
"If not we had a lot of options to be aggressive if we were coming from behind with those five guys being really strong," Huffman said. "That's the way we've been racing all year, with Tour of the Gila and Rob [Britton] at Tour of Utah. We bring a really strong team to races and we take control. We race to win, and it's been a really good season for me and the whole team."
Kuss, who finished the general classification 15 seconds behind his teammate, said the team wanted to be in the driver's seat after stage 1, and they accomplished that goal with himself and Huffman in the top two spots.
"Once we had Evan in that position after the first stage, as a team we were pretty used to defending and being in that position where we assume control of the race," said the 22-year-old from Colorado. "I think we showed that over the next three stages. We were never under too much pressure and we were all super confident in all of our riders. It was pretty awesome to finish it off for Evan."
The final stage was a perfect example of Rally's ability to take control of a race. When a large breakaway went away early in the 124.1km circuit race in Edmonton's city centre, Britton bridged to the move and was the highest-placed GC rider there.
Britton's presence took some pressure off Rally and put it on other teams who needed to protect their own podium spots and general classification positions. Rally kept the breakaway in check at about one minute, while Britton rolled through and kept the team's options open.
"Honestly, in hindsight we probably could have let the gap go out even more, and probably should have with him being the best guy on GC, but, yeah, that was the plan," Huffman said. "There were a lot of guys who were about a minute back on GC, and it was to our advantage to have guys like Rob cover those moves and normally kill 'em, but they ended up rolling with him, and he was just sitting on going for the bonus points.
"It was good for us to take some pressure off," Huffman said. "We just rode steady behind and tried to let them sit there at about a minute all day."
Matteo Dal-Cin eventually bridged up to the move, adding more pressure to the other teams, and when the breakaway was eventually reeled in at the beginning of the final lap, Dal-Cin attacked again and was off the front until the final kilometre, allowing Colin Joyce to set himself up for third in the bunch kick at the finish. It was atypically aggressive day for the orange-and-black squad.
"We're either going for GC, and if not, we're riding aggressively for breakaways," Huffman said. "We always bring a strong team to the biggest races, and we always race to win. Hopefully we can keep that going for next year and continue riding bigger races and maybe do more international events with the Pro Continental status, but we'll see."
Huffman, who rode with Astana in 2013 and 2014 before moving to SmartStop and Rally, has flourished in his current team. It's a good fit, and he's signed on for two more years.
"I think for me, personally, it's just being in an environment where I feel really highly valued," Huffman said. "There's always some pressure to perform; it's a competitive sport. But the directors are really good about kind of letting you do your own thing and go to races that are good for you and have opportunities.
"It's been good this year having a core group of guys race together all year," he said. "We haven't changed our rosters too much. I think seven of the eight guys here have done almost all of our races together, so we race really well together and it's a selfless group. If it's not one guy winning, it's another guy, and everyone is happy to work for each other. In the long run we end up winning a lot more races that way."
Rally will have a few more opportunities to win races this year as the team has one more European trip planned for the fall. Then it's on to Pro Continental status next year.