UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling has officially debuted its colours on the WorldTour stage, showcasing breakaway performances at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. On Wednesday, the American pro continental outfit will head into its third Spring Classic at La Flèche Wallonne prepared to push its limits and learn from the best riders and teams in the world.
The team is more than a decade in the making and has been strategically, and realistically, pursuing the WorldTour ranks. Although it did not receive the invitation it was hoping for at the Giro d’Italia this year, it did secure wildcards to three of the Spring Classics.
American John Murphy was recruited last year in part for his previous experience at the WorldTour level with BMC. He’s raced a handful of the Classics including Paris-Roubaix in the U23 version and twice at the professional ranks. He knows the overall effort needed from the team’s management and its riders if they want to experience success at the top.
“We’ve been pushing hard for more invites in the bigger races in Europe,” Murphy told Cyclingnews. “We’re continuing to grow in every capacity and the WorldTour races are very important. Not only have the riders stepped up, but all of the staff and sponsors too. We’ve had to get our feet wet while lining up against the best riders in the world. We’re making sure to take notes about what it will take to race at this level day-in and day-out. This is the level UHC is aiming for and we’re rising to this level as an entire team. It’s not possible to do these races without a well-oiled team, and we are only getting better.”
The team’s Dutch rider, Marc de Maar, rode into the nearly all-race breakaway during Milan-San Remo, a 298-km race that took place under brutally cold and wet weather conditions. Murphy entered into a similar move during Paris-Roubaix. The two performances were considered important milestones for the team as it heads into La Flèche Wallonne.
“Looking back on our first two Classics starts, I would say that we have tasted a good level of success,” Murphy said. “The main goal, aside from trying to get the best results as a team, was to make sure we were antagonists and to be involved in the race from start to finish. Being represented up the road in both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix was very important because it showed that we respect our invites to the major races and that we were ready to race from the gun.”
Luck can play a big role in a race like Paris-Roubaix and Murphy had a lot of bad luck during his two previous starts. This year, the race was a major season target and he worked with his longtime coach Jason Tullous for months in order for his form to peak during the month of April.
He rode into the early move with Kenny de Haes (Lotto Belisol), Andreas Schillinger (NetApp-Endura), Clément Koretzky and Benoit Jarrier (Bretagne-Seche Environement), David Boucher (FDJ.fr), Tim De Troyer (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Michael Kolar (Tinkoff-Saxo). He passed most of the body-jarring cobbled sections until there were only four riders left in the move. Unfortunately, luck was not on his side and two successive flat tires end his chances of making it any further.
“Being in the break and having that good time advantage early on was huge,” Murphy said. “We didn’t have to contest the crazy fight into the first sectors of pavé. We were able to ride smoothly and not panic. Our eight-rider break didn’t have those panicked crashes that tend to split the field up, which happen on every sector of stones in the bunch.
Murphy noted that the most defining moment in his race was when the breakaway reached the Arenberg Forest. The critical point in the race where if a rider still feels good, he needs to make it through unscathed in order to continue.
“The fans were incredible,” he said. “All the cheers took the jagged harshness away from the stones. That sector was so ruthless, so it was an amazing feeling to have made it out of there in one piece. Unfortunately, three sectors later my luck changed and I flatted. My legs were totally tapped and I was more than happy to just make it into the velodrome to finish the race.”
Although Murphy is not listed on the Flèche Wallonne start list, he is expecting UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling to use the same antagonistic approach as it enters its third WorldTour race with Alessandro Bazzana, Jonny Clarke, Marc de Maar, Lucas Euser, Davide Frattini, Chris Jones, Martijn Maaskant and Keil Reijnen.
“We will race with the same tenacious attitude we have for all the major races we do,” Murphy said. “We will be active in the race at all times. I think a big WorldTour result is right around the corner for us, and I’m excited to see it coming.”