American Professional Continental team UnitedHealthcare will field a roster of opportunity at the Tour of California WorldTour event that kicks off in Long Beach on Sunday. Leading the seven men is Gavin Mannion, who will target a top-10 place in the overall classification, Serghei Tvetcov for the time trial, Travis McCabe in the sprints.
"We are bringing a well-balanced team to the Tour of California," UnitedHealthcare's director Sebastian Alexandre told Cyclingnews.
"We will intend to take any opportunity we may have, to be in breakaways, to go for KOMs, and every year there is probably one stage that the break can make it, so we want to have good representation."
Mannion is the team's logical choice for the overall classification after he placed second overall at the Tour of Utah last year. He proved to be in good shape this spring with second overall at the Tour of the Gila, after winning the final mountain stage to Pinos Altos, and he more recently placed fourth at Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Mannion will look to have top performances on stage 2's summit finish on Gibraltar Road and stage 6 from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe. The penultimate stage is considered the queen stage because the peloton will climb nearly 16,000 feet over four KOMs before finishing uphill at the Heavenly Mountain Resort.
"Mannion is our GC guy at the Tour of California," Alexandre said. "He is climbing well and also time trialling very well, finishing second in the time trial at the Tour of the Gila behind Serghei Tvetcov."
Tvetcov is a new addition to the team this year, hired specifically for his strengths in the time trial. The Romanian has had a good run at the top American stage races in the past placing second overall at the Colorado Classic and third at both USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah. Although he hasn't had the chance to test his legs against the WorldTour ranks this year, Tvetcov won the 26km stage 3 time trial at the Tour of the Gila, which is a good indication of his overall form against the clock.
He will look for a top placing in the stage 4 time trial in San Jose. The race is lengthy at 34.7km and includes an uphill, two technical descents and sections along open highway.
"Serghei is getting better and better since the beginning of the season, so yes, the time trial at the Tour of California will be his target."
This year's Tour of California has attracted the best sprinters in the world who are looking for wins on the flat-to-punchy routes; stage 1 at Long Beach, stage 3 at Laguna Seca, stage 5 into Elk Grove and stage 7 in Sacramento.
UnitedHealthcare's American sprinter, Travis McCabe, will have support from his Argentinian teammate Sebastian Haedo, but the pair will be up against the likes of world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).
"As far as the sprints go, we know that top WorldTour sprinters are coming and it's going to be very difficult in the flat stages," Alexandre said. "We bring some good riders for it, but we have to be realistic."
The team also includes Jonny Clarke, Tanner Putt and Lachlan Norris.
Clarke to roll the dice in California breakaways
If the goal is to seek out opportunities for success during the seven stages at the Tour of California, the team can no doubt trust their Australian all-rounder Jonny Clarke to read the races and fight to be in the breakaways.
The team will also rely on Clarke for his ability to support Mannion in the mountains and McCabe on route to the sprint finishes.
"I wouldn't say that the team has a lot of weight on me, but I think that I'm coming into good form now, and so they are expecting a good performance from me," Clarke told Cyclingnews.
"I'm not a guy that goes into races protected, but I can sneak up the road, and sometimes the GC or special jerseys eventuate from there."
He expects few breakaway opportunities to happen during the sprint stages due to the quality of sprinters looking for stage wins, likewise, on the route to Gibraltar Rd because it will be the first place for climbers to separate themselves in the overall classification. He does anticipate a breakaway to succeed during the stage 6 route to Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe.
"Stage 6 has a big chance for a breakaway to go because the decisive days like Gibraltar and the time trial are over," Clarke said. "There might be a couple of guys up the road that are 30 minutes down, and so given a bit of leash."
Clarke had had moments of success at the Tour of California, most notably four years ago when he rode into the winning breakaway and placed sixth on the day, earning the most aggressive rider jersey.
"In the small US races we can definitely go for general classifications," said Clarke, who just finished a US block of racing that included Joe Martin Stage Race, Tour of the Gila and Redlands Bicycle Classic. "At the Tour of California, though, the majority of the team, including myself, will look more for opportunities."
In his nine years with the UnitedHealthcare team, Clarke has had some of his best performances in the last three seasons. On home soil at the 2016 Herald Sun Tour, Clarke finished third in the final stage to Arthurs Seat, behind stage winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Damien Howson (Orica-GreenEdge). Froome secured the overall title ahead of teammate Peter Kennaugh and Howson, but Clarke's performance bumped him up to sixth overall in the final classification.
Last year, he finished fourth at the Sibiu Cycling Tour and seventh at the Tour of Utah. In his eleven years as a professional, however, he only just scored his first opportunity to wear a leader's jersey at the five-day UCI 2.1 Tour of Taiwan in March.
He found himself in the breakaway in stage 2 and stage 3 and finished third both days. Those results earned him in the yellow jersey by two seconds ahead of Japan's Yukiya Arashiro.
"I wasn't in stellar form in Taiwan, but I like the racing in Asia because it's a little more crazy and so a little more open. Guys are attacking everywhere and the racing isn't as scripted," Clarke said.
"I was very, very happy to have been in the leader's jersey. I've been a pro for 11 years, and that was my first time wearing a leader's jersey."
The penultimate stage 4 was the final mountain stage and was expected to seal the overall classification since the final day was one for the sprinters. His teammates Daniel Jaramillo, Sebastian Haedo, Serghei Tvetcov and Lachlan Norris worked hard to make sure Clarke was in the best position to win.
A breakaway of three riders got away and looked as though they would eat up the time bonuses offered to the top three stage finishers that day, increasing the likelihood that Clarke would win the overall title by the end of the stage.
However, one of the breakaway riders crashed in the closing metres of the race, and Arashiro sprinted for third place behind the winning breakaway of two. He collected the four-second time bonus for finishing third, which put him in the lead by two seconds ahead of Clarke. He carried that lead through the final sprint stage and secured the overall title.
"I had a giggle to myself because what are the chances that a guy in the breakaway just falls off inside the last kilometre? Well, it happened in Taiwan. That's cycling. I'm still pretty stoked to have finished second overall."
You win some, you lose some. A rider like Clarke has to be willing to roll the dice to create his own opportunities for success. Look for him in the breakaways again at the Tour of California.