Marin Bikes and Horner. No ride in California.
Everybody seems to agree that for whatever reason the Amgen Tour of California organizers made a huge mistake by not inviting Chris Horner and his Airgas-Safeway team.
As a long time resident of California and having covered the last five Tour of California’s for Cycle Sport magazine, I’m torn about that omission. I can guess at a few reasons why but in the end I’m disappointed.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Horner’s little band of kids was way under-powered and in my opinion not worthy of an invite based on previous results. Other than Horner, you pretty much have a development team like Axel Merckx’s re-branded Axeon squad and the Hincapie outfit. This was old man Horner dragging the little ones on a field trip with marginal preparation. So we get that rationale for leaving them off the party list.
However, the rest of the potential arguments seem weak and flawed. There are so many benefits to having Horner at the Tour of California. He’s a huge fan favorite, outgoing with spectators and the media and always generous with his time. He’s the kind of positive spirit you want spreading good vibes.
He’s an attacking rider with unsurpassed tactical knowledge of stage racing and the TOC in particular. He was guaranteed to put on a show and had plenty to prove after nobody else would give him at contract at age 43. He was as motivated as any contender in the race. He’d stated months ago that California was the top priority and was going to blow up the race one way or another. Now, those fireworks never happen.
In particular, there was a classic sports storyline that everybody loves. The grizzled vet with his misfits doing battle with the big WorldTour powerhouses. How would Horner play his cards? Could he get his kids to ride over their heads and abilities? What tactical games would he play and where would he make his moves? He was a loose cannon and that always creates drama.
Finally, as everybody has already noted, major sponsor Safeway has something like 300 stores in California. Their HQ is located in the state. That’s a huge presence and Airgas apparently is also surprisingly good-sized. Horner himself lives and trains part of the year in San Diego and has for ages. The team rides bikes from Marin, another California company. How many connections to the state do you need? Along with those big points, yes, pro cycling is a sport desperate for big sponsors outside their narrow little world of bike companies and rich guys like Oleg Tinkof (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Andy Rhys (BMC).
In the end, somebody always feels cheated out of an invite and this year is no different. When we scan the list of who made the cut, we see two teams that might have been dropped in favor of Horner’s Airgas-Safeway boys.
Do we really need two development teams in the Tour of California? Merckx’s squad has been to the race a number of times and always made an impression with riders like Joe Dombrowski and Lawson Craddock. It seems to us that the Hincapie dev team is the weaker choice but then again George Hincape has his own connections to the TOC and his apparel company used to be the official supplier for the race. However, they lost their top rider from last year — Joey Rosskopf — when he signed with BMC. It wouldn’t have upset me if Horner’s team got the nod over Hincapie.
The other weak selection, in my humble op, was Team Novo Nordisk. They also have a history with the race and a fabulous and unique story — all their riders have diabetes — and that is a laudable mission. That said, they’ve never racked up any notable results in the race that I can recall. I’d be much happier with the feel good story from MTN-Qhubeka, dropping Novo Nordisk and inserting Horner and Airgas-Safeway.
Oh well. We don’t have details and specifics on why Horner won’t be at the Tour of California — the guy who won the 2011 edition and a recent winner of the Vuelta a Espana. As an old friend on mine used to say, “somebody dropped the meat in the dirt.”