When Bissell Pro Cycling's Jason McCartney took the start line in Escondido for stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California on May 12, he joined a very exclusive list of riders who have competed in all eight editions of the US stage race. But 2013 will be the first year McCartney is riding California for a Continental-ranked team.
McCartney, 37, started his pro career on US domestic teams, riding for Nutra Fig and Jelly Belly through 2002. He signed with HealthNet-Maxxis in 2003, and his stage win at the 2004 Tour de Georgia netted an offer from the ProTour Discovery Channel team in 2005. He rode with Discovery for three years and then signed with Bjarne Riis' Danish CSC team for another three years. He moved over to RadioShack for the 2010 and 2011 seasons and then UnitedHealthcare in 2012. He signed with Bissell in the offseason.
"I'm just happy Bissell gave me the opportunity to keep racing," McCartney said before the race rolled out of Escondido last Sunday. "I had a little bit of a rough spot last year. I had some tooth problems, and so my form wasn't great until the end of the year when I won a stage in Portugal. But it's great to be on this team and be here and be around this kind of excitement, this new blood that is all excited about wanting to go to the ProTour and the Tour and all this stuff."
McCartney, who has ridden five Grand Tours during his career, finished third overall here in 2007 while riding with the Discovery Channel team, his best overall placing in California. He followed that result with a stage win at the Vuelta a Espana later that same year.
McCartney got off to a rough start during stage 1 of this year's California race, finishing nearly 20 minutes down in a laughing group that also included former World Champion Thor Hushovd (BMC), 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp) and Omega Pharma-Quickstep's Stijn Vendernbergh.
Now he's committed to helping 24-year-old teammate Carter Jones hang onto the mountains classification jersey through the finish atop Mt. Diablo on Saturday. It's a big change from the days when McCartney showed up for the race with intentions of launching teammates like Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer onto the top step of the overall podium.
"When we came to the race on those [ProTour] teams, we came with big ambitions to win as far as the overall," he said. "We didn't really care so much about the stages. So the way you kind of approach each stage or the whole race is different than say at Bissell. Stages are more exciting for us now and going for jerseys and just getting the name out there. This is one of the biggest races of the year for us."
McCartney's role and the goals of the team he rides for are not the only things that have changed over the eight years of racing in California. The move from February to May has really boosted the race's prominence on the calendar, McCartney said, and the race now draws more Tour de France riders looking for an overall win and some good preparation for that July Grand Tour.
"Before it was kind of like, 'Oh, we're going to use it for a pre-season training race to get ready for the stuff in the spring,'" McCartney said. "And now this is a race we want to win, all the sponsors here in America. And now everyone from around the world is coming here to race. So it's a pretty cool thing."
McCartney has also been on hand to witness the rise of a new generation of stars in US cycling. Three-time winner Leipheimer missed the race for the first time this year, and Horner is sitting out with injury.
"It's just a changing of the guard," McCartney said. "We've seen that, and we've seen some of the young guys coming up. We've had some Tejays (van Garderen) and those guys with breakthrough performances, and then all of the sudden they're the guys that are doing the overall. It's definitely a changing of the guard, a new generation."