Rally UHC Cycling will take another step in its continuing growth Wednesday when the US Pro Continental team starts Flèche Wallonne – the midweek WorldTour Ardennes Classic that is the transition race between Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The Minnesota-based team jumped to the Pro Continental ranks last season after 11 years at Continental level, and Flèche Wallonne marks the team's biggest European race to date. Rally has also secured invitations to the Tour de Suisse in June and has thrown its hat in the ring for a Grand Tour nod at the Vuelta a España in September.
"You know, it's all kind of part of the plan," Rally UHC Performance Manager Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews earlier this spring. "We're trying to grow things at a sustainable rate. Last year was kind of our first transition year to Europe, and this is kind of our second transition year, and we wanted to get some big ones.
"We were pretty unproven and pretty unknown over there last year," Carney said, "so it wasn't easy as a first-year team to get bigger invites, so we kind of just focused on what we thought would suit our team and sort of ease our guys into that level of racing without overdoing it. This year we're trying to bite off a little bit of a bigger piece. We're not trying to get into 20 WorldTour races; we just want to get a handful of big ones so that we can continue moving in that direction."
The team also brought in French former pro Stéphane Heulot in the off season to manage the European operations from his home base in Belgium. The 47-year-old previously ran the Sojasun squad from 2009 to 2013, and was a performance director for Cannondale in 2014. Heulot has deep connections among the organisers and race directors in Europe and has been instrumental in securing the race invitations. Rally UHC is the first US Pro Continental team to get a wildcard invitation for Flèche Wallonne since the now-defunct UnitedHealthcare team raced Paris-Roubaix and Flèche in 2014.
Rally UHC started its 2018 season in Spain and the Middle East, before taking on a handful of lesser one-day races and the Tour de Langkawi. The Tour de Yorkshire was a highlight of Rally's European season, along with the RideLondon Classic, the Tour of Denmark, the Arctic Race of Norway and the Deutschland Tour, among others.
So far this season, the team's European schedule has seen the all-North American roster take on the Challenge Mallorca, the Volta a Valenciana, the Vuelta a Murcia, the Tour of Oman, the Clasica de Almeria, the Vuelta a Andalucia, a handful of one-day races in France and the Giro di Sicilia, where 21-year-old Brandon McNulty scored his first professional win by taking a stage and the overall victory.
McNulty also finished ninth overall in Oman, starting a nice run of results for the team that included fourth for Adam de Vos at the Classic Loire Atlantique and second for Robin Carpenter at the Trophée Harmonie Mutuelle – both one-day races in France. New recruit Gavin Mannion continued the team's results with eighth at the three-day GP Beiras e Serra da Estrela in Portugal, and Kyle Murphy was 10th overall at the Presidential Tour of Turkey after he and teammate Rob Britton finished seventh and 10th, respectively, on the WorldTour race's 'queen stage'.
Rally UHC added only four new riders for its second season at Pro Continental level, with Mannion, John Murphy, Pier-André Coté and Svein Tuft all coming on board after the team lost three riders to retirement and one via transfer. Carney said Tuft's experience, coming from 10 years on WorldTour teams, was crucial for the Rally roster and the team's growing ambitions.
"He's very well respected across the sport, and he's also going to help our young guys like Brandon McNulty and Colin Joyce, and guys like that, to transition over to Europe and, hopefully, kind of speed up their process," Carney said.
"I think with Danny Pate retiring, we absolutely needed to have a veteran rider with the WorldTour experience that would fit into our programme, and Svein was the natural choice," Carney said. "But we're also looking to fill some roles and and strengthen ourselves in different areas. And so in the end we made the best choices that we could to fill those positions."
Tuft will lead the Rally roster Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne – a 195km race from Ans to the top of the Mur du Huy, which is a 1.3km ascent that averages just over nine per cent and hits painfully steep gradients of 26 per cent in some sections. The Canadian strongman will be joined on the roads of Belgium by Ryan Anderson, Carpenter, De Vos, Joyce, Mannion and McNulty.
Although race organisers ASO have altered the run-in to the Mur du Huy this year to encourage early attacks, the winning move usually comes on the final climb of the day. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) won the race last year ahead of four-time winner and current world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). That's some of the highest level of competition a team can face in cycling. Rally has earned the invitations with a consistent display of steady growth, and now the fledgling Pro Continental team has the opportunity to prove it's ready to party with the upperclassmen.
Rally UHC Cycling for Flèche Wallonne: Ryan Anderson, Robin Carpenter, Adam de Vos, Colin Joyce, Gavin Mannion, Brandon McNulty, Svein Tuft