Early in the morning in a small hotel room on the outskirts of Pismo Beach, three Rally Cycling directors huddled together to flesh out tactics they would deliver to their riders in a few short hours. The race so far had not been a good one. Just two days prior, in a nightmare of mechanicals, crashes, and mishaps, they had lost their sprinter, as well as any hopes for the good placement on the overall. Morale had been lifted slightly the following day when cagey veteran Danny Pate slipped into the day’s breakaway, eventually getting reeled in only 15km from the line. It was difficult to decide what to do next. Today’s stage was pegged as one for the sprinters, and surely the breakaway would not be given much leash. The flat, straight run-in to Santa Clarita was a perfect set-up for the fastest finishers in the world, and their teams would surely combine efforts to bring everything back before the line.
On May 16th, 2016, after spending all day working in the breakaway on a hilly stage two at the Amgen Tour of California, Evan Huffman was pipped at the line by fellow American Ben King. Now, 366 days later on a course with the very same Santa Clarita finish, Huffman was putting the throttle down. Thoughts of that defeat were going through his mind as he forced his body into overdrive, legs pounding the pedals, producing power-to-weight numbers he’d never seen before. He was in the escape group again, this time driving it hard up the first categorized climb to break the UnitedHealthcare-lead chase. His efforts paid off, and the frustrated peloton finally eased off the gas and allowed the break to go up the road. With the gap firmly established, Huffman’s five breakaway companions, including Rally’s strong all-rounder, Rob Britton, were now ready to ride.
Rally had somehow managed to put their two best riders into a World Tour breakaway. All-out was taking on new meaning.
It’s a conundrum: you’ve got to catch the breakaway to give your sprinter a chance to win, but you can’t climb so hard during the chase that you drop your sprinter. On a stage with four categorized climbs spread out over 70km, this becomes a serious problem for the teams who want their thoroughbred at the line. As Huffman and Britton crested the Balcom Canyon summit – the final ascent of the day - with just over 60km remaining in the race, the pack had managed to bring back just two minutes of the original eight-minute gap.
As the race dropped down from the mountains and headed east on the flats toward Santa Clarita, the west wind picked up, allowing the breakaway riders to motor along at a brisk 56km/hour. The pack failed to consider the affect a strong tailwind might have. They simply did the math and assumed the break would come back in the closing moments of the race. Now, with the wind whipping at their backs, it would take a frantic chase to bring the race back together. This same tailwind gave the exhuasted breakaway a bit of wind in their sails, quite literally.
Initially, Quick Step, Sky, and Katusha each lent a couple riders to the chase, but despite their incredibly hard efforts, they could only reel in meaningless chunks of time. As the fire began to die out among the chasers, Quick Step put their entire team at the front, driving the pace at auto speeds along the long, flat highway. It didn’t matter. The break was going to the line.
The scene at the Rally bus was incredible. The little North American team had done it, becoming the first continental squad ever to win a UCI World Tour race. Journalists interviewed the team, fans crowded around to get autographs, riders and staff embraced, and race officials whisked the riders away for podium presentations and press conferences. The team had risked it all to go from the lowest low to the highest high in the span of three days. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is why they all do it. And why they’ll give it a go again tomorrow on the steeps of Mt. Baldy.