The Amgen Tour of California means different things to different teams. For the riders of US squad, Rally UHC Cycling, it’s the big chance of the year to play on the big stage – as we found out in our Road To California film series. But for WorldTour teams the objectives are different. One of these in particular has a very special relationship with our race, and not just because it won a stage and the overall at this year’s edition with Tadej Pogačar.
In recent years, UAE-Team Emirates has scooped up some of the best young talent showcased at America’s greatest bike race, adding them to a promising roster of international riders at the sport’s highest level. It’s fascinating to observe the big budget organization’s approach to building for the future, signing mainly riders under 24 years old in the last two transfer seasons. It’s obvious that UAE wants to be winning everything they can in a few years time.
The team’s newest additions include ferociously talented time trialist, Mikkel Bjerg, and the Arizonan, Brandon McNulty, who shows huge promise as a general classification rider. Both have been major protagonists on their current teams (Hagens Berman Axeon and Rally UHC Cycling, respectively) and both have two Tour of California appearances under their belts.
McNulty showed his GC colors in 2018 when he came seventh overall, just six places behind Egan Bernal, and we all know what he went on to do… McNulty’s race this year was marred by illness, but he has demonstrated phenomenal consistency at home and abroad all season – more than enough to attract the attention of UAE-Team Emirates and secure his move to the big leagues.
When he signed in August, McNulty had this to say:
“My initial feelings about joining the world tour are pure excitement. I’ve been patient with my development over the last few years, and now I can say that I feel I am ready to make the jump and I’m excited for the challenges to come. There’s obviously already a very strong crop of young riders on the team which is exciting for the future.”
As for Mikkel Bjerg, he put himself in the shop window with consistent, white-hot time trial performances – last year he successfully defended his U23 World Championship title – and multiple breakaway efforts, including the epic Mt Baldy stage of this year’s Amgen Tour of California. At just 20 years of age, this awesomely talented young star is one we’ll be hearing about for many more years. After two years under Axel Merckx’s famous guidance, Bjerg will bring a truckload of power to the UAE-Team Emirates line-up.
He should feel quite at home at his new team, not least because he’ll join a handful of other graduates from the Axel Merckx academy. Belgian sprint prodigy, Jasper Philipsen, and Portuguese twins Ivo and Rui Oliveira, all transferred from Hagens Berman Axeon for the 2019 season after performing well above their years in 2018.
Philipsen and Ivo Oliveira both raced the 2018 Amgen Tour of California, each powering to top-10 stage finishes against a WorldTour field, proving that they were there to do far more than just get round. This year, Philipsen in particular has proved an asset in UAE’s lead-out in support of Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian sprinting sensation. And guess what? He has history at the Tour of California too.
The 2018 edition boasted some of the world’s very best sprinters – Peter Sagan, Caleb Ewan, Marcel Kittel – but only one came out on top. Every. Single. Time. Then racing for Quick-Step Floors, Gaviria surged to three victories, monopolizing the flat stages and taking home the points jersey. By the end of the season, he’d signed a three-year contract with UAE-Team Emirates. Coincidence?
You just have to look at the meteoric rise of their Slovenian hotshot, Tadej Pogačar, to recognize that UAE-Team Emirates are onto something. They really seem to know how and where to look for talent, and why not California? The attritional pace and challenging terrain of the event demand a great deal from every rider who takes the start, so everyone must be at their very best.
Look at Julian Alaphilippe. Look at Egan Bernal. Look at Tadej Pogačar. Look at Sergio Higuita. The Amgen Tour of California is a proving ground for the next big thing and we’re excited to see what’s next.