The flat landscape approaching Drayton Valley, 135 miles southwest of Edmonton, Alberta, is dominated by oil fields, pump jacks and pick-up trucks. It’s also where Evan Huffman last September pedaled to a career milestone.
Huffman had already won five lower-tier races last season. But he darted to the front in the final seconds of a four-hour ride on the main street of the hamlet, population 7,000, and claimed the highest-ranked stage win of his career.
A small, enthusiastic crowd witnessed the 112-mile stage 3 road race of the Tour of Alberta that also elevated the El Dorado Hills rider into the race lead. But the former multi-sport athlete at Elk Grove High School lost his advantage the next day and finished third overall in the five-day race, seven seconds behind winner Rob Carpenter.
Huffman, 27, who will lead Rally Cycling beginning Sunday in the 12th edition of the Amgen Tour of California, downplayed the stage victory via his quiet demeanor. Regardless, the win provided a hefty injection of confidence. The cyclist’s prior three seasons were often chaotic.
“I made breakthroughs personally; I’d say it was a second breakout season for me,” said Huffman, who first attracted international attention with several time-trial victories and an under-age-23 national championship in 2012. “I had a few lackluster years and then really came into my own last year.”
Huffman, who won the Tour of California best climber’s jersey last year, has continued his improvement this year. He won the time trial stage and the overall title of the five-day Tour of the Gila last month in New Mexico, the highest-ranked stage race victory of his career.
Huffman’s world is also expanding off the bike. The Sacramento-area cycling community acknowledged the rider last October with a small, appreciated gesture. Bike Dog Brewery in West Sacramento introduced a limited draught called Huff Dog Passionfruit Session.
More importantly, Huffman became engaged to his girlfriend in November, with their marriage scheduled in October. The couple share a life of faith.
“Faith is part of my cycling career in that it’s not cycling,” said Huffman, who dons a tattoo on his inner forearms and another across his chest, all designations of his Christianity. “It gives me something else to focus on. One of the things I figured out last year is that performance-based identity is an issue for a lot of riders.”
“It (faith) is a good thing for me. When I have a bad day or things aren’t going well, it’s not the end of my world. I don’t feel like I am less valuable as a person because of what I don’t do on the bike. Somehow, ironically that makes me a better rider. It kind of gives you freedom to fail.”
With limited international experience, Huffman surprisingly joined Astana, then the sport’s No. 1-ranked WorldTour team, in 2013. The government-supported team based in Kazakhstan was steeped in doping problems.
The team was sponsored by Specialized, the bicycle component manufacturer based in Morgan Hill, and it wanted one American on its lengthy roster.
Huffman enthusiastically signed for two seasons with a healthy guaranteed contract. But he was largely forgotten, raced infrequently and had few notable results. He returned to California dejected and without a contract for 2015.
Huffman eventually raced the season for SmartStop, an entry-level pro team from Southern California that couldn’t meet its payroll and folded. He’s now well into his second season with Rally. It’s also a lower-level pro team, classified as Continental, but it’s well-funded by a Washington, D.C.-based digital health company. The rider’s stalling career was rekindled by team director Jonas Carney and assistants Eric Wahlberg and Pat McCarty.
The management trio, all former pro cyclists, worked on Huffman’s confidence, race tactics and the rider’s career-long, self-assessed shortcoming. He has a fear of crashing.
“Evan had an amazing season last year,” Carney said. “He was on form for the whole year and he was one of our go-to guys. We could rely on him and he was extremely consistent. I know he wants to go back to the WorldTour and I think he can make it there.
“But he has some work to do, and I think he knows that and we’re doing everything we can do to help him in the areas in which he’s struggling. For him, it’s just learning to be comfortable in the peloton and putting himself in a good position in the critical times in the race.”
Huffman is more direct about his shortcomings. Cycling is a high-risk sport. Hesitation causes crashes and careers can end abruptly.
“There are some really experienced guys on the team who are good at that stuff and they know I have a legitimate fear of crashing,” Huffman said. “I’ve always said it of myself, and probably always will, that it’s my biggest weakness.
“But they all see the potential I have to get over that fear. They push me in positive ways to improve that. I think I’ve done better and it goes hand-in-hand toward with my overall confidence now.”
Amgen Tour of California
Sunday through Saturday
Stage 1: Sunday, 11:25 a.m.
Start/Finish: State Capitol
Thursday through Sunday
Stage 3: Saturday, 10:35 a.m.
Start: Elk Grove Regional Park
Finish: Downtown Sacramento
Stage 4: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
Start/Finish: State Capitol