In theory, Evan Huffman and his Rally Cycling team weren't even supposed to be in the Amgen Tour of California for it's inaugural WorldTour edition because of UCI rules that say only WorldTour and Pro Continental teams are eligible.
But an exception granted for the first-year WorldTour event allowed the race to invite US Continental teams Rally Cycling and Jelly Belly-Maxxis, and Huffman parlayed the opportunity into two stage wins and the jersey for the most courageous rider.
Huffman scored his first stage win on day 4 in Santa Clarita after he and teammate Rob Britton infiltrated the day's breakaway and the finished first and second. The 27-year-old from El Dorado Hills, California, scored his second win of the week on Saturday during the final stage finish in downtown Pasadena.
"I feel exhausted," Huffman said in the post-race press conference. "I felt actually pretty bad at the start today, but it was our plan to go in the breakaway again and try and upset the field sprint. I feel really, really good, and I'm kind of in disbelief that I was able to do it two times."
Huffman was joined in the Saturday's breakaway once again by Britton – who won the most courageous jersey for his long solo breakaway during the Queen stage on Thursday – Team Sky's David Lopez, Cofidis' Nicolas Edet and Dimension Data's Lachlan Morton.
The powerful quintet was able to hold off the bunch once again to spoil the day for the sprinters and their teams, allowing Morton to regain the Best Young Rider jersey that he lost the day before after suffering a mechanical right out of the start house.
"I decided to let it all hang out today," Morton said. "We were lucky we had four really committed guys. One was a passenger in the Sky guy, but Evan rolled him anyway, so tough luck."
Indeed, Huffman had hoped to put Lopez on the front in the finale, but when the Sky rider dove for the right side of the road, Huffman powered up the other side and the drag race was on.
"Like Lachlan said, Lopez was sitting on; he didn't take a pull all day," Huffman said. "So I knew that he was going to go for it. At 2km out I kind of swung out and decided I was going to sit on his wheel. I knew my teammate Rob would keep it from completely stalling out and keep us going to the line.
"I kind of got stuck on the front anyways with Lopez," Huffman said. "He was on the right side and I was on the left. We started sprinting really early. It was kind of like a slow-motion sprint and I barely was able to outmuscle him at the end. It's unbelievable to win two stages, especially like that. It's crazy."
Not so crazy was the idea that US Continental teams would be able to hold their own in the WorldTour race. Huffman's victories proved that the race's time was well spent in its efforts to gain an exception from the UCI allowing the Continental teams in.
"It was something that was important to us right at the beginning before we were even elevated to WorldTour status," said Kristin Bachochin Klein, race president and executive vice president of AEG Sports.
"We were in constant communication with the UCI and USA Cycling. It was very important to us to continue to provide a platform for these Continental teams in the United States. I'm happy that we were successful and I'm happy also that the UCI also believed that these Continental teams bring a lot to his race. It was quite evident this week just by the overall competition and the results. The results speak for themselves."
Morton, who rode at the Continental level with Jelly Belly-Maxxis for two years after leaving the Garmin WorldTour program, certainly noticed and appreciated the Continental riders in Saturday's breakaway.
"It was great because there were only two domestic teams in this race and one of them won two stages," Morton said. "I think they proved they deserved a spot in this race. They were always animating."
The opportunity to race a WorldTour event in his home state was especially important to Huffman, who spent two years on Astana before coming back to the States to race on the domestic circuit.
"I think that's part of why I was able to achieve such success, being at home is more relaxed, the whole lead up to the race," Huffman said. "You're just at home training and you don't have to worry about travel. It's really cool to win here with so many friends and family here at the race and at home watching as well."
Huffman is also hoping the WorldTour team managers were watching and are currently considering what kind of offer to make him at the end of the season.
"I would imagine I'll have an offer, but obviously not yet and I haven't made any decisions yet," Huffman said. "I'll wait to see what the options are and take the best fit for me. So maybe, maybe not.
"There's been a lot of talk about the team upgrading to Pro Continental next year, and that is definitely an option I would consider."
For now, however, Huffman will make the short trip home to relax and consider his accomplishments this week, winning two stages in a race he wasn't even supposed to be in.
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