Months of speculation over whether Continental teams – which are normally ineligible for WorldTour events – would be granted an exception to compete were answered when the 2017 start list contained US Continental squads Jelly Belly-Maxxis and Rally Cycling.
The bad news, of course, is that there are currently four US Continental teams, including Axeon Hagens Berman and Holowesko-Citadel, that have a history with the race and have legitimate claims to deserving a roster spot.
Over its 11-year history, the Tour of California has become the biggest showcase for professional cycling in the US, and the handful of Continental teams that have been part of the event every year since its inception have come to count on participation in the race to recruit and keep riders and sponsors alike.
Unfortunately, WorldTour races are normally restricted to WorldTour and Pro Continental teams. Initial news last fall that the race would jump up to WorldTour level caused considerable consternation in the domestic peloton.
Michael Roth, a spokesman for race owners AEG, told Cyclingnews before Thursday's announcement that the organisers worked very hard to secure an exception to the rules from the UCI, allowing the race to invite the two teams. A statement the UCI sent to Cyclingnews on Thursday confirmed the international governing body granted the exception for the race's inaugural year "with the aim to support the development of cycling in the country."
Holowesko in the dark on selection criteria
While Rally Cycling and Jelly Belly celebrate their inclusion, Axeon and Holowesko are processing the bad news and wondering why they were left out of the race. Both teams have represented themselves well in California over the years, with Axeon's participation dating back to 2012 and Holowesko getting its first go in 2015.
Holowesko, racing as Hincapie Sportswear in 2015, won a stage with Toms Skujins and led the race for three days. In its California tenure, Axeon has had two riders finish in the top 10 overall, including Neilson Powless' ninth place last year as the race's best young rider. Rally, meanwhile, has competed in the race since 2008, taking a stage win with Will Routely in 2014 and adding the KOM jersey last year with Evan Huffman. Jelly Belly's participation in the race dates back to 2006.
AEG would not go into its selection criteria or comment on the picks, but as a commercial enterprise it's clear that mores goes into choosing the start list than just looking at statistics and results alone. Both Rally Health and Jelly Belly Candy Company have had a presence in previous race expos, and both, along with Maxxis, are listed as race sponsors on the 2017 Tour of California website. Axeon Hagens Berman's and Holowesko's sponsors are not currently listed as sponsors.
Holowesko-Citadel director Thomas Craven said a lack of transparency about the selection criteria put him in a difficult position moving froward.
"Here's the hard part," Craven told Cyclingnews earlier this week after learning his team would not be invited. "We have to explain to all of our sponsors and to you why we're not in the race, and we don't know why we're not in the race. It's easy if the UCI rule was enforced that says no Conti teams. That's sort of easy. It's like, OK, we understand. No Continental teams are allowed, which is what the rules say. And then here come to find out that two teams were allowed in."
Craven said team owners George Hincapie and Rich Hincapie had been in contact with the race organisers, including Kristin Klein, race president and executive vice president of AEG Sports, for months before receiving word via email that they would not get in this year's race.
"We got an email that just said, I don't remember the exact words, but I read it, and it said, 'We had tough, tough decisions this year in that we were only allowed two Continental teams, and unfortunately, you guys didn't make the cut. We're sorry and we respect everything you do, blah, blah, blah'," Craven said.
"What the criteria is, I have no idea. Because as you probably know, we won the team classification for the UCI America Tour. We've led that race before. We won stages in every major stage race in the country except that race last year. We won the Tour of Alberta. What else do you have to do? It's unfortunate that we don't know what the formula is to get into the race," Craven said.
Axeon misses the cut
Axeon Hagens Berman owner Axel Merckx expressed a similar frustration of not having a clear idea why his team did not make the cut.
"We tried to engage our sponsors to activate and do things like that and try to find a way to get our team there if we got the green light form the organization, and then we just got a notice yesterday or the day before that we didn't make the cut," said Merckx, who added that he had also been in communication with Klein and AEG for months about his team's potential participation.
"It's a little bit strange and frustrating because we kind of have the feeling that we didn't get a chance to sit at the table and figure out how we could get there," Merckx said. "When I asked what the reason was or for an explanation, the only answer I got is that it was a tough decision to make."
Like Craven, Merckx also complained that the lack of transparency in the selection process made it hard to know what he needs to do moving forward.
"Our results speak for themselves," he said. "With Powless being from Sacramento, [Adrien] Costa being second at the Tour of Utah [in 2016] and both of them being some of the biggest potential US stage race riders in the making, not wanting those guys at the start line kind of raises my eyebrows a little bit."
Jelly Belly, the longest running team in the US, won the Tour of Utah last year with Lachlan Morton, who has since moved on to Dimension Data. In Morton's absence, the team recruited Serghei Tvetcov, who finished third at the USA Pro Challenge in 2014, while Rally has Huffman and Rob Britton, who was 10th in California in 2015 and third at the USA Pro Challenge in 2015.
"We all wanted to be there, and that's fair that everybody wants to be there," Merckx said. " But it would have been nice – especially based on the work relationship that we've built over the years with the race, off the bike as well as on the bike with sponsorship activation and stuff like that – if there had been more communication and transparency. It would have been more professional, I think."
Both Craven and Merckx said that after their initial reactions they will move on and focus on the rest of the season.
"We're upset, but we're going to continue to do our thing, go to races and win the races we got to," Craven said. "We're not going to bitch and moan all the time about Tour of California. We would have preferred to have been invited to the party, but we didn't get an invitation, so we're going to move on."
Merckx said he and his riders will turn the California disappointment into fuel for the rest of the season.
"We have Tour of Utah, also, and that's a big goal with what Adrien did their last year," Merckx said. "We want to perform really well, and it's going to be a motivator for the riders, too.
"I told them they can get something out of this and actually show the organisers how wrong they were by just racing the way they've raced this year already at the beginning of the season, by being aggressive and winning, placing against big teams and even WorldTour riders. Results speak for themselves on the sports level. I'm looking forward to a great season, and it's just too bad that sport didn't win in the end here."