The Amgen Tour of California has, in its seven year history, become one of the most important races for the North American teams, and sponsors expect to see their logos on the California roads each May. However, when a team fails to be invited, it can mean lost prestige, lost sponsors and in a worst case scenario, the end of the team entirely.
Race organiser AEG's Michael Roth explained that just as each year the race has to leave out qualified host cities, every year the tough decisions regarding the teams leaves out capable teams.
"There are very few teams which have been in the race every year," Roth said. "Our goal is to make half of the field WorldTour teams, and after that the criteria becomes which teams will be the most competitive."
Even the composition of the WorldTour teams is different this year, with Saxo Bank disappearing and AG2R-La Mondiale stepping in. The team of world champion Mark Cavendish, Team Sky, won't be appearing, but GreenEdge will.
"In addition to assembling a competitive field, we have to consider our international television audience, and look at which teams resonate with the viewers," Roth said. "We think AG2R will be very competitive, and also will have a positive impact on our European television market."
While few teams have competed in the Amgen Tour of California for each of the past six years, the only Continental team to have taken part in each edition has been the Jelly Belly squad.
Team manager Danny Van Haute was disappointed his team was not invited back for a seventh year, and noted the race's additional importance as preparation for the US Pro national championships. "The Amgen Tour of California [is] one of the most important and respected races in the world. The team has always appreciated the opportunity to compete against the world’s best and we remain optimistic that we will return to the Amgen Tour of California in the future.
"In the meantime we have a full calendar of races to focus on to deliver the results that our fans and sponsors have come to expect from us. We are considering several options to fill the void in our race calendar to get the boys ready for Nationals."
The Tour of California peloton was further impacted by the reduction in size from 18 teams last year to only 16 this year. Roth explained that the decrease was actually a return to the previous years' size, "for logistical reasons", and that AEG decided that eight WorldTour and eight Pro Continental/Continental teams was "a good mix".
Team Type 1-Sanofi shocked
Only one of the three North American professional continental teams was left off the list and that is Team Type 1 - Sanofi, which has taken part in the past three editions.
"We are shocked and disappointed," team founder Phil Southerland said in a press release. "So far this season we are the most successful Professional Continental team in the United States, with a deep race program that goes around the world."
But while Team Type 1-Sanofi has earned prestigious invitations to Milan-San Remo and other events, the lack of an invitations for the smaller Continental teams cuts deeper.
Make or break deal for sponsors?
Competitive Cyclist's Francisco Mancebo won the overall USA Cycling National Racing Calendar, including four domestic stage races and the Tour de Beauce but still, the team did not meet AEG's criteria despite improving the depth of its roster.
Director Gord Fraser was philosophical about his team's exclusion, but relieved to have a sponsor who will continue to stand behind the squad regardless of its calendar.
"We'll just have to do what we did last year, and that's win races," Fraser said of how he will try to turn things around for next year. "Nobody did it better than us. The main thing for me is that we have this great sponsor and they have stuck by us even despite this disappointment of not getting into a race where they want to promote their brand. So we're just really appreciative of Competitive Cyclist."
While the Bissell and Optum Pro Cycling/Kelly Benefit Strategies teams have proven themselves worthy of another invitation through past performances and aggressive racing, and Project 1t4i was well established in the peloton as Skil-Shimano, the inclusion of Colombia Coldeportes, Team Exergy and Bontrager-Livestrong was a surprise to many racing fans.
"With the amount of climbing in this year's race, we felt that they would perform well," Roth said of the Colombian team, but would not speak to the factors which led to the inclusion of Bontrager-Livestrong or Team Exergy.
Chad Thompson, manager of the Kenda-5 Hour Energy team, was confused as to why his team was not even approached regarding an invitation, despite its title sponsor Kenda having inked a two-year deal with the Amgen Tour of California as a supporting partner.
"We received zero communication until the week of our training camp when we were told that our team 'did not meet the continental team invitation criteria'. We are not sure what that means and no one seems to know what exactly that criteria may be," Thompson said, adding that the team had a potential sponsor offering up six figures to the team if it was invited to the race.
"This same company would have invested in the event, too. So, we both lost there. We hope the company will become a sponsor at some point this year or next, despite not participating in Tour of California."
Thompson further underscored the importance of the race for the Continental teams, saying that teams who are invited have companies seeking them out to offer sponsorship. "Which is so different than having to hunt and pray for them," Thompson said. "The event makes and breaks continental teams."
"We are not angry, are not pointing fingers and blame no one. We are simply disappointed and our riders have been let down," he continued. "Mostly though, we are feeling our sponsor, Kenda, was hit the hardest and that does not sit well with us. They pay for what we do and we want to showcase our team and their product at the best events possible."
As with Fraser and Van Haute, Thompson said he respected AEG's decisions, and vowed to work hard this year to earn an invitation to the 2013 race. "We will focus on trying to get an invitation to Utah and let our performance speak for us. We hope Medalist and the race promoter of Utah notice."
Pat Malach also contributed to this story.