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Tour of California: Will WorldTour interest pressure US wildcards?

With March upon us and the Spring Classics picking up pace in Northern Europe, the annual gnashing of teeth across the pond is also intensifying for US teams hoping for a wildcard invitation to the Amgen Tour of California in May.

The race's move last year to WorldTour status tweaked the formula that had developed over the first 11 years, when a handful of WorldTour teams rode alongside the best of US domestic and Pro Continental racing.

The heightened UCI status led to increased interest from WorldTour teams, which in turn put pressure on the US teams that had come to count on flying their team - and sponsor - colours in the country's biggest race.

Organisers had to get a special dispensation last year from the UCI to invite just two Continental teams, which are normally not allowed in WorldTour races, but even then there were several teams left out.

That precipitated the off-season moves to the Pro Continental level by Hagens Berman Axeon, Holowesko-Citadel and Rally Cycling. Joining UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk, the US now has five Pro Continental teams plying the trade.

"It was a big part," Holowesko-Citadel director Thomas Craven told Cyclingnews when asked what role potential Tour of California invitations played in the team's decision to jump a rank in 2018.

"Last year was a big blow for us not to do it," Craven said. "Even though it's not a guarantee at all, you have to be considered."

Long-time Axeon manager Axel Merckx echoed Craven's thoughts about the race and why his own team moved to the Pro Continental level after Seattle law firm Hagens Berman increased its support.

"For sure, we knew that if we wanted to have a chance to get into Tour of California in the long term we needed to be Pro Conti," Merckx told Cyclingnews by phone last week. "It's all fine and nice to say you want to go Pro Conti, but you really need to have your partners really want it."

The few spots available for Continental teams at the Tour of California over the years have always been highly sought after, but the US Pro Continental teams - given their historically low numbers - could usually count on an invitation. That changed this year.

Now with five US Pro Continental teams to choose from, the race has less reason to seek another dispensation allowing Continental teams into the race; the point is mostly moot. Jelly Belly-Maxxis, which has a California-based sponsor and is the longest running Continental team in the US, would obviously disagree.

In its second year on the WorldTour and with a new wealth of US Pro Continental options to choose from, however, the race could simply draw the cut-off line there, putting the Tour of California in line with all the other WorldTour races that don't allow Continental teams and lowering its profile on the difficult decisions about which teams have to stay home.

But the race has always been a supporter of the lower-tier US teams, especially ones from California, so Jelly Belly could still be in with a chance.

Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman and Rob Britton finished first and second on stage 4 last year.

No guarantees for US Pro Continental teams

Even if it turns out that Continental teams are out of the running this year, there are no guarantees that all of the US Pro Continental teams will make the cut.

Cyclingnews confirmed that Novo Nordisk is not seeking an invitation to the 2018 race. The all-diabetic team will line up at Vuelta a Aragon and Tour of Estonia in May instead.

Phil Southerland, CEO and co-founder of the team, acknowledged the important place the race plays in US domestic teams' programs and business plans, and so, he said, the team and sponsor decided to skip a year and improve the other teams' odds.

"Many sponsors invest solely because of the Tour of California - the race invite is an essential part of the sponsor/business side of the sport," Southerland said in an email to Cyclingnews.

"We spoke at length with our title partner, Novo Nordisk, and made the strategic decision to skip the 2018 Tour of California understanding that it could help other domestic teams grow and achieve their goal of securing one of the coveted Tour of California wildcard invites," he said, adding that the team was already eyeing a return in 2019.

The race hosted 12 WorldTour teams last year after UAE Team Emirates was a last-minute addition. Cofidis joined UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk from the Pro Continental ranks, while Rally and Jelly Belly collected the two Continental invitations, for a total of 17 teams.

Rumours among the teams vying for wildcard spots this year say that interest from WorldTour teams, which the race must invite, has increased.

"California is getting bigger and bigger every year, so I think that most of the WorldTour teams want to take part in it," UnitedHealthcare director Sebastian Alexandre told Cyclingnews.

"For all the US teams and for the US cycling and the growth of the sport in the US, I think it's very important to have all the Pro Conti teams from the US," he said.

The race has always fluctuated between fields of 16, 17 or 18 teams. There were 16 in 2013 and 2014, for example, followed by 18 the next two years.

Cyclingnews understands 13 WorldTour teams have accepted invitations this year, so a field of 16 to 18 teams would allow for three to five wildcard invitations. With four US Pro Continental teams vying for the remaining spots, the difference is crucial.

An 18-team field would leave room for them all, plus one more. A 16-team field would mean at least one of them misses the cut. And that's assuming the race would prioritize US teams over international teams like the Irish-based Aqua Blue Sport squad of US pro champion Larry Warbasse.

All of the teams Cyclingnews contacted about 2018 invitations said they had not yet heard one way or another from the race, or they would not comment on invitations. But the general sense is that the news will be good for the US Pro Continental teams this year, maybe less so for the Continental teams.

A spokesman for race owner AEG declined to comment for this article.

Race organisers announced the team selections on March 9 last year, but there is no word yet on when they plan to announce the 2018 field. Alexandre said sooner is always better.

"With the Tour of California, we are really focused on that, so the sooner the teams know, if you let me know in advance then I can plan something else," he said. "If I think I'm going to race, and then not, we have nothing. That's not good for the team."

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Pat Malach
Pat Malach

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.