Tour of Cashifornia: Amid growing popularity, Amgen Tour of California to trade talent for prestige

Up-and-coming Roseville rider becomes a victim of tour’s transition to elite-only squads

Professional cyclist Neilson Powless, 20, of Roseville, wasn’t invited to this year’s Amgen Tour of California despite his team’s past success in the race.

Professional cyclist Neilson Powless, 20, of Roseville, wasn’t invited to this year’s Amgen Tour of California despite his team’s past success in the race.

Photo courtesy of Davey Wilson

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the May 11, 2017, issue.

When the 12th Amgen Tour of California convenes Sunday in downtown Sacramento, Neilson Powless will be in the crowd watching friends and former teammates pedal past him. The best young professional rider in the Sacramento region, Powless and his Axeon Hagens Berman teammates weren’t selected to compete in the annual cycling event despite their strong performance last year.

“California was definitely … my biggest goal of the year,” Powless said in a recent phone interview from Italy, where he found early success this season. “Unfortunately, we won’t be given the opportunity to show ourselves there.”

Based on merit alone, the team should be in the race field for the sixth straight year. But the increasing popularity of the Tour of California—by far the largest cycling event in the country—is crowding out the young, hotshot riders who once gave the race its luster. Indeed, this may be the last year that young riders aiming for the top peloton will be included.

Success has vaulted the Tour of California under the Union Cycliste Internationale’s WorldTour brand. The Swiss-based UCI is the world governing body for the sport of cycling, and its WorldTour is the premier umbrella for road cycling races around the globe. But with growth comes compromise. The new designation already means there are no lower-tier women’s squads in this year’s race. For the men, Amgen was mandated to select at least 10 WorldTour teams this year. It chose 12. The five remaining teams were picked at discretion from second- and third-tier pro teams.

That meant fewer spots for teams with small budgets, limited corporate sponsorships and tiny staffs—but loads of talent—like Axeon Hagens Berman.

Sponsored by a London-based finance company and a Seattle law firm, the squad finished second in the Tour of California last year. Powless, 20, of Roseville placed ninth overall in his first participation. He won the best young rider’s division. He has two wins this season, both in Europe.

Powless’ teammates include Geoffrey Curran, the current under-23 national road and time trial champion, and Adrien Costa, who finished second in the Tour of Utah last season. Rob Carpenter, who rides for Holowesko-Citadel, another lower-level pro team not selected to compete in the Tour of California, won the Tour of Alberta last September. Several other young pros with aspirations for top-level contracts ride for teams also not selected.

The absence of younger Tour of California riders marks a departure from the race’s objective when it debuted in 2006. That first field included eight teams from Continental and Pro Continental teams and eight WorldTour teams. Seven of the top 30 finishers in the race were non-WorldTour riders. The possibility of a young pro succeeding against veteran riders gave the race its charm.

The once-independent Tour of California has partnered with Amaury Sport Organization, owners of the Tour de France, since 2012. A French team, Cofidis, was selected to compete, as were four teams with vastly different levels of success in recent years. The discretionary teams have sponsorship or relationships with race organizers.

Axeon Hagens Berman does not.

Race organizers say there is no pay-to-play aspect in the competition.

“We do not comment on the number of teams that applied to the fill the [12] team positions, and we do not require or ask teams to pay to be selected,” said Kristin Klein, the event’s president. “Our teams are selected based on a number of factors, including their current ranking, past performances at the Amgen Tour of California, their commitment to bringing their team’s top riders to our race, and their overall commitment to promoting the sport of cycling in the United States.”

But this year’s discretionary selections weren’t all logical. UCI Pro Continental selections included Novo Nordisk, the U.S.-based team sponsored by a Danish pharmaceutical company, which had no wins last year and only one since 2013.

Axeon Hagens Berman owner Axel Merckx, the son of cycling icon Eddy Merckx, was a long-time professional and knows cycling as well as anyone. He said he appreciates the Tour of California’s increased prestige, but also warned against the diminishing number of races in which developing teams can compete.

“I know that we have two of the biggest talents the U.S. has ever produced in Costa and Powless. To deny that to the fans and to those guys at such a young age is very unfortunate,” he said. “To be honest with you, it doesn’t look like we had a chance at all. My biggest frustration is that it wasn’t really communicated.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the annual race, which runs May 11-20 this year, featured the unexpected.

In 2008, flamboyant Italian star Mario Cipollini emerged from retirement at age 41 and sprinted to a third-place finish in Sacramento against a field half his age. A year later, Lance Armstrong, now defrocked of his seven Tour de France titles, also returned to cycling at the Tour of California only to have his bike stolen in downtown Sacramento.

Among a handful of other young American riders, Powless, Costa and Curran are hoping to make WorldTour squads, perhaps as early as next season. They’ll have to if they want to compete, as the Tour of California will accept only WorldTour teams next year. For now, that leaves the talented Powless a spectator of a race he grew up watching. He says he’s made his peace with that.

“I’ll just be with my friends and family and wish I was there,” said Powless, who will train in the Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe areas this month before returning to competition in Europe. “But it’s OK. It will be interesting to see it from another perspective.”