The Amgen Tour of California debuted on a sunny February afternoon 12 years ago in downtown San Francisco. It started as a fresh idea for cycling, with half of the teams featuring young American riders pedaling for eight days against veteran squads honed in the Tour de France.
But the race’s underdog-vs.-top dog theme, one of its best attractions for the past 11 years, will be diminished this year. The event’s status has grown to include multimillion-dollar cycling teams while crowding out up-and-coming young riders from California and across the country. When the expected field of 136 begins pedaling Sunday near the state Capitol, it will be part of the WorldTour, cycling’s top circuit of riders, for the first time.
Spectators will see Peter Sagan, the flamboyant Slovakian, cycling’s highest-paid rider, a two-time world champion and record 15-time Tour of California stage winner. And there will be many other internationally prominent cyclists who ride for teams with big budgets, large staffs and customized motor homes.
To include some younger riders, the Tour of California petitioned for a one-year exemption to the rule that all WorldTour events include only WorldTour teams. The compromise: At least 10 of the 17 teams participating in the Tour of California must be from the top-tier circuit. Event organizers chose 12 WorldTour teams, with only five lower-level pro teams competing.
With the discretionary selections, several previous Tour of California teams featuring a half-dozen of the country’s best young cyclists, including Neilson Powless of Roseville, weren’t picked.
Powless, 20, employed by a non-WorldTour team, finished ninth last year and was named the Tour of California’s best young rider. His team, Axeon Hagens Berman, co-sponsored by a London-based finance company and a Seattle law firm, won 17 races last year. The team competed in the Tour of California for five straight years and finished second overall in 2016.
“I’m pretty upset, but I think I will have another opportunity to race it in the future,” Powless said. “It’s a bummer, and I really don’t understand why.”
How Tour of California organizers picked the five lower-level men’s teams is a mystery.
The event doesn’t reveal how many teams apply. It only details that teams selected by discretion are chosen by a combined criteria: past performances, current ranking, a guarantee of a top rider’s participation and how a team advocates cycling. Tour of California officials deny teams pay to ride.
The Tour of California operated independently for six years, but since 2012 it’s had a business relationship with Amaury Sport Organization, a French media group that organizes the Tour de France. It assumed the Tour of California’s technical responsibilities last year.
The five non-WorldTour teams selected this year for the Tour of California have had varying success in recent years. Three teams have one thing in common: They are all race sponsors – UnitedHealthcare, an American team based in Minneapolis; Jelly Belly, the Fairfield-based confectionery; and Rally Cycling, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based digital health company. Also selected were Cofidis, a French team; and Novo Nordisk, an American team sponsored by a Danish pharmaceutical company with one race win since 2013. It’s a global advocate for athletes with diabetes.
Axel Merckx, the owner and general manager of the Axeon Hagens Berman team, is upset his team was not selected. He said he wasn’t given an opportunity to discuss race sponsorship.
“It was a hard blow for us,” said Merckx, son of cycling icon Eddy Merckx. “It’s tough … I tried to ask for the reason. The only answer I was given is that it was a tough decision, but they didn’t tell me the basis of the decision.”
Powless was 8 when the Tour of California began and participated in stick-and-ball sports before he followed his parents’ enjoyment of endurance sports. He watched the Tour of California for years as its cyclists raced through Northern California.
Last year, Powless had four victories, five runner-up placings and five third-place finishes. His 2017 results include two wins, an individual time trial on April 2 in France and a one-day road race in Italy two weeks later. He has more races scheduled later in Europe and the United States.
This year, instead of racing in his hometown event, Powless will be watching while friends and former teammates ride for a week from Sacramento to Pasadena.
Powless and other pros know cycling is a business. They’re usually content to race their bikes and let teams, international governing organizations and race owners negotiate the specifics. But as the riders pedal by in a high-speed blur this year, some might wonder if the Tour of California, marketed as “America’s Greatest Race,” has lost sight of its original attraction of showcasing talented and promising riders.
Sacramento freelance writer James Raia, co-author of the book “Tour de France For Dummies,” has reported on cycling for many publications, including The Bee, since 1980. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.