Travis McCabe may not have won the opening stage at the Tour of California, but placing second to three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was good enough for the American sprinter. Racing for the USA National Team, McCabe started his final sprint from further back, hitting out in pursuit of Sagan, and finishing second by less than a wheel length in Sacramento.
"I felt great," said McCabe, who celebrated his 30th birthday on the WorldTour podium. "I was in a perfect position with one kilometre to go, and I knew that this finish was slightly uphill with a bit of a headwind. I was on the right wheel, following Peter, and was able to open it up. I had the legs, so I'm ecstatic to get second place and represent USA Cycling."
McCabe told the press following the race that he hadn't expected to challenge for the final of stage 1 because it was better suited to the pure sprinters, and he instead was eyeing lumpier stages later in the week. His teammate, Tyler Stites, represented the national team in the all-day breakaway, winning the first intermediate sprint and then securing the Best Young Rider jersey, which allowed McCabe the luxury of sitting in the field and conserving his energy for the three finish circuits in downtown Sacramento.
Asked if he thought he could beat Sagan, given that the finish was close, McCabe said, "Maybe. I thought that I could beat him. I had good legs, a lot of speed, but I was a little bit further behind,and was maybe coming from two wheels back from Peter.
"I'm happy with second. It doesn't matter where you start the sprint; it only matters where it ends. I'm happy with second. It's a great birthday present for me."
The Tour of California made the jump up to the WorldTour in 2016, and no longer supports Continental teams. Allowing USA Cycling to field a roster provides valuable opportunities for American riders who would not otherwise earn a starting spot at the seven-day race.
USA Cycling announced its team last week to include McCabe – a seasoned sprinter on the American circuit racing for Floyd's Pro Cycling – along with Aevolo's Stites, Michael Hernandez and Alex Hoehn, all 21, and Keegan Swirbul (also Floyd's Pro Cycling) and Sam Boardman (Wildlife-Generation-Maxxis), who are both 23, while Miguel Bryon (Arapahoe-Hincapie) is 24.
"This means a lot for us because this was a huge opportunity given to us by USA Cycling," Stites said. "I'm trying to make the most of this chance, and so I went in the breakaway."
Stites formed part of a four-rider breakaway that included Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Michael Schar (CCC Team) and Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk). They were off the front for more than 100km, with Stites earning the Best Young Rider jersey after picking up time bonuses in the first intermediate sprint and Planet earning the Most Courageous Rider award.
Near the end of their breakaway, De Vreese and Schar sat up and dropped back to the main field. Stites also sat up and waited for the field when it was clear they would be caught.
"I decided that, since the gap had come down, I wanted to go back to the group, save some energy and finish in the group to get the Best Young Rider jersey. That's why I sat up at the end," Stites told the press.
The peloton barreled onto the streets of Sacramento for the final three circuits around Capitol Park with the bigger teams like Deceuninck-QuickStep and Katusha-Alpecin taking control of the lead-out trains in the closing kilometres. McCabe said he knew the course well and planned on starting his sprint later given the slightly uphill and long drag to the finish line.
Sagan launched his winning sprint off of Team Ineos' Kristoffer Halvorsen in the final few hundred metres. While he was powering toward the finish line, McCabe came from further back and pulled up alongside the Slovakian, challenging him to the line.
McCabe said he has no regrets about losing the race to Sagan. Instead, he was pleased with the USA National Team's overall success on the first day of racing – something he credited to their support from director Mike Sayers and because the riders all know each other well.
"It worked out with the team we have here because we all know each other, we train together, and we've been teammates before," McCabe said. "As Tyler said, it's an opportunity for everyone. I'm used to floating through the field and fighting for it, and today it worked out well.
"The team is riding great together, and no one is showing any selfishness. We are here to represent the United States, and we will all have our chances to get results. It all came together today. It's clicked from day 1."