UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling's Rory Sutherland is seeking his fourth straight victory at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, but only a late allowance by the International Cycling Union (UCI) enabled the US-based Professional Continental squad to participate.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix, a six-stage event taking place June 15-19 in Minnesota's Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, is not a UCI-sanctioned race and according to the UCI rule 2.1.009 "Only the UCI continental teams of the country, regional and club teams, national teams and mixed teams may participate in national events. Mixed teams may not include riders from a UCI ProTeam".
UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling moved from the Continental to Pro Continental ranks for the 2011 season and should have been ineligible to start, but extraordinary circumstances persuaded the UCI to grant the team a one-time exemption on Friday.
Sutherland and his teammate Adrian Hegyvary took the top two spots in the opening time trial.
"The UCI gave exceptional permission for this specific case based upon the arguments the team put forward such as development for the mid and long term of cycling and supporting the sponsorship of this Pro Continental team," the UCI told Cyclingnews.
The squad's title sponsor, UnitedHealthcare, is local to the Nature Valley Grand Prix and the team is competing in the interest of the UnitedHealthcare Children's Foundation, a non-profit charity which issues grants to provide financial relief for families who have children with medical needs not covered or not fully covered by their medical plans. The team will donate all prize money earned in the Nature Valley Grand Prix to the charity.
"We spoke with Sean Petty over at USA Cycling and he helped lobby for us at the UCI," Mike Tamayo, UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team director, told Cyclingnews. "We submitted an official exemption to request to do the Nature Valley Grand Prix, that got sent into the UCI and then it got approved for us to go compete in the race. It was pretty straightforward."
Tamayo emphasised the role of UnitedHealthcare, not just to its support of his team but to the sport as a whole.
"The extraordinary measures of why we got the exemption is because of the locale of our sponsor," said Tamayo. "UnitedHealthcare is based out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, they have 30,000 employees in this area alone, they're a 90 billion dollar corporation and the largest sponsor that's ever been involved in the sport of cycling. They're not the largest sponsor of a team, but the largest company that's ever been involved in the sport of cycling. They're bigger than Motorola, US Postal, Discovery and all these other companies.
"Currently UnitedHealthcare sponsors the Tour of California, works with the Tour of Utah and the Tour of Colorado so it's much more than just a team sponsorship. The opportunity to keep them excited about the sport and the opportunity to keep them engaged in the sport is really what the Nature Valley Grand Prix is all about for us.
"While everybody thinks we might be here just so we can come and win the race it's actually much bigger than the team, much bigger than other teams, it's about the sport."
UnitedHealthcare's presence at the Nature Valley Grand Prix is not without some controversy, however, as Continental teams, who rightfully can compete, are bewildered about the UCI's enforcement of its own rules.
"Our team collectively thinks that the rule should be changed for North American racing, because it's totally different than European racing. We just don't have enough UCI races," Jonas Carney, team director of Continental squad Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth, told Cyclingnews. "However, we think that whatever the rules are, the rules should be enforced.
"We made our decision to stay Continental based on the rules and based on what we were told by USA Cycling and the UCI. We want the rule enforced straight across the board with everyone treated equally, that way we can make the best decision for our team and our sponsors whether we should be Pro Continental or Continental.
"We're pretty in the dark as to how the rule is being enforced and had we known it wouldn't be enforced we would have made different decisions. It was genuinely a tough decision for us this year [to remain Continental]. We lost a lot of key riders to Pro Continental teams and we still need to operate within the parameters of a Continental team.
"We don't have a problem racing with UHC, and we think that the rule should be changed, but we also think there should be consistency."