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Four US Continental teams got the nod for the Amgen Tour of California's start list when the race announced its route and remaining teams Thursday afternoon. A new UCI rule allowing races to invite more WorldTour teams cut into the Continental ranks slightly, with one less domestic team receiving an invitation this year.
Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, Jamis-Hagens Berman, Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis and Axel Merckx's reformulated Bissell Development Team will represent the division-three teams in California May 11-18 for the UCI 2.HC race.
Jelly Belly will be back in the race for the first time since 2011, and the California-based team is coming into the season with its strongest roster ever. Team manager and director Danny Van Haute said his staff and riders are excited to put on a good show in the team's home state.
"We have three former [WorldTour] riders in Jacob Rathe, Freddie Rodriguez and Matthew Lloyd, and they're no slouches, they're pretty good bike riders," Van Haute said. "I think it's the first time in our history of the Tour of California that we have a chance of winning a stage and maybe - I'm not saying we could win the Tour of California - but we have a good chance of making a top 10 in the GC."
Jelly Belly's Serghei Tvetcov, who last season raced in the USA Pro Challenge, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the Tour of Alberta while on Jelly Belly, will compete in his first Tour of California. The two-time national Moldovan time trial champion said he is looking forward to the experience.
"It's a style of life that's different, and everyone in Europe is watching TV and thinking about Hollywood and L.A., so it's different and everybody wants to see it," he said. "The weather is amazing, and the training roads are amazing."
The Bissell Development Team, which is a continuation of Axel Merckx's former Trek and Bontrager program that has now brought Bissell on board as the title sponsor, will return to California for the third consecutive year.
The team graduated Lawson Craddock - who finished eighth overall in 2013 - Nathan Brown and Jasper Stuyven to the WorldTour following the 2013 season, but Merckx has reloaded the team's quiver and should have the new-look squad ready to go in May. He thanked the race via Twitter after the announcement, writing that he was happy to bring the Bissell "boys" to the race. "I think this program deserved it but grateful to be invited! #proveit," he concluded.
Jamis-Hagens Berman earned its 2014 spot in the race with an outstanding performance last year, when Janier Acevedo, who is now with Garmin-Sharp, took a stage win and wore yellow for two days. He finished third overall, the first Continental rider ever to make the race's final podium.
Optum has been one of the top US domestic teams for several years, placing Chad Haga, who has since moved on to the Giant-Shimano WorldTour team, 10th overall last year. Optum's Mike Friedman, who will be making his fifth appearance in the race, was at the official announcement and thanked race organisers for the chance to compete again.
"It's something that's very special and meaningful, and I'm proud to be a part of," he said before making reference to the eight-day, 730-mile course with 40,000 feet of climbing. "Every year you guys say this is going to be the hardest edition ever. So I say a few choice swear words myself and then own up to it, and then here we are ready to do this."
The reduction from five Continental teams last year to just four this year has obviously left some of the hopefuls out in the cold. 5-hour Energy will not return to the race this year after losing former team leader Francisco Mancebo to a Continental team in Dubai. The former Bissell Pro Cycling team folded at the end of last season, leaving Hincapie Sportswear and Team SmartStop as the only other US Continental teams that have previously been invited to one of the four big North American UCI 2.1 or 2.HC races, but which did not get an invitation to California this year.
SmartStop director Michael Creed said the team was obviously hoping to go to the race but will turn its attention to the domestic schedule and proving itself worthy of an invitation to the remaining three North American 2.1 and 2.HC races.
Thursday must have been a bittersweet day for the team, which captured its first-ever win in a UCI race just hours before the California announcement when Eric Marcotte and Rob Britton finished first and third during stage 1 of the Vuelta Independencia Nacional (2.2) in the Dominican Republic.
"We're disappointed, but we knew it was a long shot, so we're not surprised," said team director Mike Creed, who was preparing to fly to the Dominican Republic. "Disappointed, not surprised, but we're confident in the team's roster, and we look forward to proving that not only are we worthy, but that we deserve a spot. I don't think anybody on the team feels slighted or angry. I think everyone knows we have something to prove to Medalist and Amgen."
Both Creed and Van Haute supported the race's decision to take advantage of the UCI rule change and invite another WorldTour team, even if that move came at the expense of the Continental ranks.
"Amgen went for it, and I'm glad," Van Haute said. "Our country needs WorldTour teams like that to participate in North America."
Creed said he competed in the very first edition of the race, and he respects the growth Amgen and Medalist have brought to the event. "I've seen when they really had to ask WorldTour teams to come, and now they're fighting them off," Creed said. "They deserve to choose whatever teams they want."