The Amgen Tour of California has announced the teams for the 2015 edition of the race. As expected, a number of UCI ProTeams will contest the race, including BMC, Etixx-Quick-Step, Cannondale Garmin, Trek Factory, Tinkoff-Saxo, Team Giant-Alpecin and Team Sky. Two domestic Pro Continental Teams, UnitedHealthcare and Team Novo Nordisk, will be there and a number of domestic Continental teams, including Axeon, Hincapie, Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, Jamis-Hagens Berman p/b Sutter Home, and Team SmartStop.
Not on the list of invitations was Chris Horner’s Airgas-Safeway team. To say the team’s omission was a shock would be making a subcompact from an SUV. Had Airgas-Safeway been chosen, The Amgen Tour of California would have assured fans of three things: the attraction of a still-popular rider, the presence of a bona fide grand tour winner and racing from the 2011 winner of the race.
Tour of California organizers don’t publish the criteria by which they choose teams; certainly, they aren’t obligated to. But in not choosing a team many cycling fans expected to receive an invite and by not communicating the criteria by which they made their decisions, the public is left with little recourse other than conjecture.
Horner is among the top-ranked U.S. riders. Without a history of performance to fall back on, Airgas-Safeways admission would have been based solely on Horner and he had already stated publicly that because he had been unable to either renew with Lampre-Merida or find a spot on another ProTour Team, he had decided to focus his season on the Tour of California, so at minimum, the organizers knew that in Horner, they had a capable rider gunning for victory.
So why not invite him? Well, in 2014, the rider (now 43 years old) didn’t win much. He only managed to notch an eighth overall at the Volta ao Algarve and second overall at the Tour of Utah, two finishes that—let’s be honest—many riders would be more than pleased with. Compared to Team Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, which couldn’t manage a top-10 finish on a single stage at the Tour of California in 2014, Horner would at least have helped animate racing. A guy with that record, barring injury, would be capable of a good ride. Maybe it’s because George Hincapie implicated Horner in doping in his book, “Loyal Lieutenant.” That would be a capricious move on their part, though, as Horner isn’t even under investigation for doping. A stance like that would—if applied equally—see the organizers not invite a number of teams.
This wouldn’t be the first time that organizers didn’t invite a team to ride because one or more members had some amount of controversy splattering their name. That was true for both Rock Racing and Floyd Landis’ Ouch teams. Both teams needed the appearance at the Tour of California to help justify their existence and the lack of invites helped spell the death of both teams.
In Horner’s case, there is an unease about his Dorian Gray fitness, that he’s able to compete against riders young enough to be his kids. And while it’s fair, even necessary, to ask questions about why he is more fit at 43 than most of us could achieve in our 20s, his situation is far different than those of Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis. To our knowledge, Horner isn’t even being investigated for previous doping; except for his ongoing screening, he is in the clear, so there’s no good reason he shouldn’t be at the Tour of California. And before you say that his team is likely to be diced up like ham in an omelette, let’s remember that Horner is the master of making deals on the course. He’s famous for making sure that everyone in a breakaway gets something useful so that the break works together to reach the finish ahead of the pack. Even if his team is so toasted the fire alarm goes off, Horner can figure out how to work with other teams to stay in the general classification.
There is a larger problem, however, in the snub to Airgas-Safeway. It is one of a handful of teams in the U.S. whose major sponsors come from outside the sport. Safeway is one of the largest corporations to give cycling a try following the sponsor exodus that inevitably occurred in the wake of the melt-through of the Lance and Postal myths. Between its Safeway and Vons stores, it has more than 500 locations in California, and it controls some 22 brands. Airgas has roughly 100 outlets in California alone. Either company dwarfs the combined forces of Trek, Giant and Cannondale. Just think of all the TV advertising that could have been sold to Safeway during the Tour of California.
Safeway’s decision to enter cycling didn’t come without some challenging conversations. Even football (soccer) doesn’t have the capacity for self-embarrassment that cycling does. And it’s easy to imagine the conversation in which the sponsors were told, “Yeah, we just signed Chris Horner, a previous winner of the Tour of California. We’re a shoe-in for an invitation now.”
Imagine that follow-up call. “Yeah, you know how I said we’d be a shoe-in for the Tour of California? About that….”
The degree to which Trek, Giant, Cannondale and Specialized have stepped up to sponsor professional racing can’t be lauded sufficiently. They saved the sport. Without them, the implosion of team upon team would have left two few teams to run a proper grand tour. Honestly, who did you think was going to do the heavy lifting—Colnago? It takes a company selling everything from $10,000 fully-spec’d road bikes to $200 mountain bikes and even kid’s bikes to have the muscle necessary to take on a title sponsor role for a team with name-brand riders. Cervelo is a Pon brand because they spent themselves to the point of bankruptcy because they couldn’t sign non-endemic sponsors to help shoulder the Cervelo Test Team.
If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, this might: In a recent interview with Cyclingnews, Floyd Landis closed his comments with this observation about some of the sport’s current sponsors: “… it’s not surprising that virtually all legitimate sponsors have fled the sport. It is now financed primarily by bored wealthy men who need a reason to give their wives about why they spend so much time with young leg-shaving men in tight pants.”
Rich guys are known to be capricious with their diversions, so while Trek, Giant and Cannondale aren’t very likely to leave the sport to sponsor a bass fisherman, there will come a day when Oleg Tinkoff tires of cycling.
Which brings us back to Airgas-Safeway. Now that they know their investment won’t garner the TV exposure they thought would happen, do you think they’ll extend their contract? Anyone want to drive to Vegas for that bet? I’m willing. The smart money says they’ll flee the sport and never look back. What would you do? You don’t really have to spend all that much money to field a team of Cat. 1s to contest Redlands, Tour of the Gila, Joe Martin, etc. And without that invite to the Tour of California, all that Airgas-Safeway may have to show at the end of the season is Horner cleaning up at a bunch of races that are, frankly, beneath him.
The Tour of California organizers are under no obligation to reveal the criteria by which they made their decision. Indeed, there may be no criteria to reveal. But in not revealing objective criteria, we’re left not just to wonder, but to second-guess, to doubt. Having the sport’s fans doubt such a decision doesn’t help the search for sponsors. We need companies like Safeway to see cycling as a positive force—the idealized extension of a healthy lifestyle.
Without that, we might as well give up.
Image courtesy Team Airgas-Safeway