Rob Britton went into his seventh Amgen Tour of California this year knowing he'd be riding for Rally UHC Cycling teammate Brandon McNulty, the 21-year-old American who was seventh in California last year and just recently won the Giro di Sicilia. But when an illness that McNulty picked up in Italy knocked the young rider out of the California general classification hunt early on, Britton stepped up and ably filled his shoes, keeping the Rally jersey in the GC fight to the top of Mt. Baldy on the penultimate day.
The first signs of trouble for McNulty showed up early on stage 2, the 214.5km climb from Stockton to altitude at South Lake Tahoe. He was unable to go with the moves at the tip of the race and instead languished in 57th, finishing with a group that came in more than eight minutes back.
One of the biggest targets for McNulty's third season with the US Pro Continental team was suddenly out of reach, but Rally's hopes were still in the general classification hunt with the reliable veteran. Britton stayed with the GC group as the front end of the race was slowly whittled down to a handful of contenders, eventually finishing seventh alongside Astana's Jonas Gregaard, 27 seconds behind winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and new race leader Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First).
Britton found himself sixth overall, 33 seconds behind the leader. In his six previous tries at the Tour of California, Britton's best result came in 2015, when he finished 10th with Team SmartStop. Now he was in position to better that after having initially showed up to ride for McNulty, as he did in Sicily when he helped shepherd the young rider to overall victory.
"I think I was always coming here in the best possible form, and I've done a good GC at this race pretty much every year," Britton told Cyclingnews before the final stage in Santa Clarita. "It's what I've spent the better part of my career doing, so it's easy to switch on.
"I've really enjoyed riding for Brandon and doing that as well," Britton said. "That's something that actually came more naturally to me than I thought. It was a bit of a switch, but there was always that possibility. We knew he was ill coming in, so I wasn't naive to that being a possibility, and it just sort of worked out that I got in the move on Tahoe and Brandon lost time."
Although McNulty remained in the race until the queen stage to Mt. Baldy, even infiltrating a large breakaway on stage 5, he was well out of GC contention. The team switched gears to riding in support of Britton, a role his teammates were familiar with. Things went to plan for Rally and Britton until the windblown fifth stage, when Britton miscalculated his effort in the closing kilometres and lost time in the bloc headwind run to the finish.
"I F'd it up on stage 5 pretty badly," he said. "I put a little bit too much effort into the actual climb and didn't account for the kind of winds we had from the top of the climb to the finish. So I kind of blew my load there and then lost contact with the front group. All that time I earned on Tahoe went down the drain. Now I'm sitting in 12th instead of seventh. That kind of stinks."
Britton finished 27th on the stage, 24 seconds behind stage winner Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida) and a group of 26, including most of the race's GC contenders. He slipped 12 places to 18th overall, 57 seconds behind the leader with just the stage to Mt. Baldy and a sprint stage to Pasadena remaining.
Rally UHC's Rob Britton, Brandon McNulty and Emerson Oronte ride in the main peloton during stage 2 (Getty)
Britton redeemed himself the next day on Mt. Baldy, making the selections as the yellow jersey group whittled itself down to a select few. Britton finished the stage in ninth, alongside Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) and Jepser Hansen (Cofidis), all of them 47 seconds behind stage winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and runner-up Sergio Higuita (EF Education First). Britton's effort nearly saw him crack the GC's top 10, moving him up six places to 12th at 1:38 behind new race leader Pogacar.
The final day from Santa Clarita to Pasadena didn't provide any launching pads to shake up the general classification, leaving Britton just outside the top 10 in the final GC, proud of his effort but ruing one bad moment at the end of stage 5 that probably cost him his best-ever finish. The 34-year-old understands the season is still young and the year is long, however, and he's taking good signs from last week's race.
"I don’t know, I keep getting older but I keep eking out another one or two per cent every year, so that's been pretty cool," he said. "It's nice to know I still have potential. Even if this is as good as it gets, I was still in pretty good company [on the climb to Mt. Baldy] and then also at Tahoe, being with those guys in both breaks at the end and sticking it out there when I was cramping pretty bad."
Britton will take his confidence from California back to Europe for more WorldTour racing, then he'll return to the States to try and add another Tour of Utah title in August to go with the one he took in 2017.
"With the Tour de Suisse just down the road, if I can stay healthy, I think I'll be sitting in a good spot there," he said. "And, obviously, the Tour of Utah is there."
At this point, Britton, sitting in the back hatch of one the team cars in a mall parking lot in Santa Clarita on a clear spring day, stopped to think about the season ahead, and then he lightly chuckled.
"So I'll just peak for the Tour de Suisse and Utah. No problem," he said.