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Did You Know! ATOC Edition

Twelve years in... what’s this race all about anyway?

Amgen Tour of California - Stage 8 - Sacramento Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Not many people know this but... the Amgen Tour of California is about to start! I know, right?! I mean, it’s the middle of the Giro d’Italia, and there’s only so much one can consume in the way of cycling media before you reach capacity. But while you’re reading about Jungle Bob and Gaviria and weird stone houses and Italian beach fronts, another pretty decent chunk of the cycling world is gathering in California.

This fact has been a sore spot at the Cafe. I am the lead on the Giro this year, so I talked with my co-editors about covering this race while I dealt with Italy. Conor said he’d do it if I could give him one good reason why he should be excited about the race. So I called on Andrew, and he promised to cover the race as soon as I covered the Tour de Yorkshire first. Basically, it was talk to the hand.

I don’t blame them. They’re European, and this is still the ultimate American race. By which I mean there will be way too many people running around in ridiculous costumes. People in Europe see cycling as a hardman sport, a way out of the farming life or the mines that, in its own way, is every bit as hard as the life left behind. Americans see it as a circus coming to town, and for some reason we think that’s an invitation to join the circus, not just watch it. That’s hard for Europeans to accept. Sure, it’s all in good fun, until they pause and ask, “Wait, you’re telling me those people just pulled off a 241-year run of democracy?!” It just doesn’t make sense.

Megan Guarnier wins ATOC opener
Ezra Shaw/Getty

Did you know! That the Amgen Tour of California started Thursday? You might not have, even though all the truly great races start on a Thursday. Seriously, WTF? Yes, WTF. As in Women To the Front! Yep, the ladeez started with their opening stage in South Lake Tahoe (won by Megan Guarnier, last year’s overall winner) for two days of racing, then a third one from Elk Grove to SACTO, where they hand off the baton to the men. Katie Hall’s win in stage 2 gave her the overall lead as of this writing.

Is there any race in the world that uses a women’s event as an hors d’oeuvre to the men’s competition? They pretty much always run on the same day, like La Course by Le Tour de France. Or they are cordoned off as separate events... like the Tour de France Feminin (RIP). And there’s a perpetual debate as to which is better, glomming on to the men’s audience as a way to emphasize their equal merits or giving them their own place. Anyway, this is pretty unique, and shows a bit of muscle flexing by ATOC with its commitment to the gals, letting them have their own stage (and paying for it) but using it in conjunction with the men’s event.

Oh, and it has a separate name that I can’t repeat because of space limitations, but to hear them tell it you should avoid heart disease, ride SRAM parts, buy whatever medications Amgen sells, and vacation in California. Somewhere in Belgium a kit designer for continental teams salivates at the challenge...

Back to the boys, they don’t start til Sunday, which is brilliant because nobody has stuff to do Sunday afternoon, after getting up at 5 to watch the Blockhaus stage. And dealing wi... uh, celebrating Mother’s Day. Actually it’s not a terrible plan, if you have to run up against the Giro. Week 1 is a big draw; Week 2 is a mix of maybe one or two huge stages, a day off, and transitional stuff that we’re sick of by now; and the ATOC gets the hell out of the way for Giro Week 3. I guess that’s the best you can do at this point.

Did you know! That the ATOC started off as a February warm-up race? For a lot of you the answer is “duh!” but perhaps a straggler or two here might not have been paying attention to American stage racing before 2010. That idea was one chapter in the never-ending story about how to find a place on the top-level cycling calendar for a stage race. February was too early; Southern California is pleasant enough but it’s not the tropics. May emerged as Plan B, when some of the mountain passes would be open and the only real drag is going up against the Giro. Then you have Utah and Colorado races in August, post-Tour events for people who probably didn’t race the Tour... which by rule means nearly all of the world’s best will be unavailable.

That format follows the old Coors Classic, the original Colorado tour that expanded into a mega-tour of the West, with stages in California, Nevada, Wyoming and Hawaii (!) at different points, until the bubble burst. Then there was the Tour de Georgia, which ran in late April, up against the Ardennes Classics and a bit close to the Giro, but in the early 2000s it was a decent building block for the Tour. That race unofficially succeeded the Tour DuPont, which succeeded the Tour de Trump (I know), which ran in early May, more or less in line with the start of the Giro.

There was something called the Thrift Drug Triple Crown, which concluded in October, but included the USPRO race which was in June. That’s all I can think of for major US races, certainly for stage races.

None of those slots present an opportunity for the US to host a race on the level of the Tour de France, which I think is what some American audiences expect to have handed to them. The Coors Classic came closest, sometimes allowing riders to get fit for the World Championships, and anyway riders back then didn’t feel as entitled to a vacation after spilling all their physical resources over the roads of France. Hinault, LeMond and a few other big names got there and seemed to race for real, but who knows?

LeMond and Hinault, 1985 Coors Classic
David Madison, Getty

The point is, you can’t have it all anywhere except at the Tour, or in the major Classics. You can pick any of the spots available on the calendar and take what’s available then and there. The ATOC took what it could get: classics guys coming off vacation, summer sprinters rounding into form, and climbers who for the most part aren’t about to win the Tour and/or are American, but don’t have any reason to go to the Giro (again, American), and what the heck, maybe they’ll do something at the Tour? It makes sense having a big(ish) stage race up against the Giro, as long as the race itself and the people watching it know what it is and isn’t.

By the way, one thing it isn’t is a place for teams at the Continental level. As of this year, the ATOC is a World Tour race, which means it can only invite World Tour teams and Pro-Conti wildcard invites. Previously it was 2.HC, by which it could invite up to 23 World Tour squads, plus Pro Conti and even Continental teams from the host nation.

The single biggest difference in changing from 2.HC to WT is that the race went from being able to showcase American riders from U23-based teams like AXEON-Hagens Berman, and give those riders exposure to the top level, to now where it’s just a WT race for everyone at that level no matter how little they care about coming to the US. Fortunately I think a lot of those teams do care about coming to California and saying hello to important sponsors and wealthy consumers who are increasingly taking up the sport as a flashy hobby. So it’s not that bad. But I really wish I could see AXEON racing this week, and have no interest in what Cofidis or UAE have in store for us.

Amgen Tour of California - Stage 4 - Morro Bay Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

So who’s here?

Sprinters abound. Peter Sagan is the big star, but he has little chance of keeping up with Marcel Kittel. Alexander Kristoff has a chance at that, since Kittel is just beginning to wind his form up for his main goal of Tour stages. John Degenkolb, Danny van Poppel and a few others might get involved but it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone stopping the big German.

For the general classification, it’s a lot harder to picture. Sagan is a former winner, but on a fluky course, and this year’s Baldy climb plus two other stages with hard ascents means he won’t get lucky again. The real contenders are Brent Bookwalter, Rafal Majka, Andrew Talansky, Lawson Craddock, maybe Tao Geoghegan Hart, Bobo Gesink, and a few more I’m not thinking of.

Not the most inspiring lineup, but with Cannondale-Drapac’s WT non-winning streak alive, it could be news when Craddock or Talansky light up a stage. They have easily the strongest team in attendance, top to bottom, with Nathan Brown, Alberto Bettiol and Taylor Phinney for support. Bettiol is a huge talent, but DNF’d his last two races, having maybe run out of gas after a strong spring. Chances are he’s working his way back up again. Certainly Talansky and Phinney will be threats at the Big Bear ITT.

It’ll be a fun week. We don’t need to dwell on what isn’t happening. It’s a fun race with plenty of intrigue. But damn, I wish AXEON were here.

Alberto Bettiol in Dwars door Vlaanderen
Tim de Waele