Tour of California kicks off in Mission Bay

You pull up to the location of the only professional cycling team in San Diego County and you'd swear there's a bike yard sale going on. There's cycling shoes strewn across the lawn, backpacks filled with cycling hats, gloves, socks, energy bars and drinks.

San Diego's lone pro cycling team isn't based in some fancy warehouse or gleaming bike shop. It's run out of Danny Van Haute's San Marcos home.

Van Haute is the team manager for the Jelly Belly Cycling Team. To draw a baseball analogy, Jelly Belly competes in the Continental division, cycling's equivalent to the Double-A minor leagues.

In one of cycling's oddities, minor league squads occasionally go handlebar-to-handlebar with the big boys, and on Sunday, Van Haute's Jelly Belly team mixes it up with some of the WorldTour best in the first stage of the Amgen Tour of California . 

The 106-mile stage begins at Mission Bay's Ski Beach, heads toward Balboa Park, through the Gaslamp District, south to Imperial Beach before winding east to the backcountry and back to a Mission Bay finish.

For the 10-man Jelly Belly squad, the Tour of California is its Super Bowl.

"It's an opportunity for all the riders to show themselves against the absolute best in the world," said 24-year-old Aussie Lachlan Morton, the team's lead rider. "The reason we do the sport is to race the best guys. That's the dream."


Morton may be the team's best rider, but Jelly Belly's heart, soul and founder is Van Haute, who grew up in Chicago, played hockey by winter, pedaled his bike when the Windy City wasn't blanketed by snow and became an Olympic and professional cyclist.

It was Van Haute who nearly two decades ago pitched Jelly Belly, the Northern California candy company, on supporting a pro team. Jelly Belly is now in its 17th season sponsoring a pro team, the longest title sponsorship in the United States.

Van Haute, 58, who has never held a job outside of cycling, has been the team's director all 17 seasons.

"Danny's special in that he embodies everything that we're looking for in people who represent us," said Stephanie Scott, Jelly Belly's event marketing manager. "He's likable, he's approachable, he's fun, he's got a good sense of humor.

"And he's got a drive to win bike races."

Van Haute has developed 11 riders who have gone on to ride in the three grand tours ( Tour de France , Gyro d'Italia and Tour of Spain .) Six of those riders have pedaled in the Tour de France and one, Tyler Farrar , won a stage in the Tour de France.

Van Haute's job description most closely resembles that of an NFL, NBA or baseball general manager, except that in addition to evaluating and signing cyclists, he also negotiates sponsorship deals, plus plays traveling secretary, booking hotel and airline reservations, even driving the lead truck on trips to races in California and Arizona. The team races 100 to 120 days a year.

"He's a one-man show," said Greg Demgen, head of sales for Carlsbad-based Squadra, Jelly Belly's clothing sponsor.

Demgen and Van Haute go back more than 35 years. They were teammates on the 7-Eleven pro cycling team in the early 1980s and are still best friends, godfathers to each others sons. 

"I don't think Danny paid himself more than a couple thousand dollars a month to manage the team until more resources became available the last few years," said Demgen. "Danny would look at his budget and contract the best riders he could within his means. Sometimes that meant not paying himself."


Van Haute's best trait, though, isn't stretching a dollar.

"The biggest thing is he really cares about the riders as people," said Morton.

Van Haute resigned Jacob Rathe for 2016 even though Rathe missed most of last season because of an artery condition that limited blood flow to his left leg. After Morton struggled for two years on the WorldTour, Van Haute signed him, thinking the Aussie could rebuild his confidence. With solid results the past the past two seasons, Morton seems destined to return to the WorldTour, if he wants.

"It's such a nice team that it makes you rethink whether you want to go back to that level," said Morton. "Danny has never once put pressure on me to get results."

When the Tour of California debuted in 2006, Van Haute's team was not as talented. His strategy then was to send out riders on early breakaways, guaranteeing TV exposure, which pleased sponsors.

That's not the goal anymore. He thinks Lachlan is capable of finishing fifth overall in this year's Tour of California.

Standing on his lawn a few weeks back, rearranging the team trailer for another road trip, Van Haute said, "I think he's got a very good chance."

Norcross is a freelance writer in San Diego.

Amgen Tour of California

What: Stage 1 of bike race, including 106 miles with an elevation gain of 6,700 feet
When: 11:30 a.m. Sunday
Where: Depart from Mission Bay traveling through Balboa Park then south toward downtown and the harbor. The race's first sprint will take place in Imperial Beach then head toward East County and circle back around to the coast. For a complete map, go here.
Online: amgentourcalifornia.com

Where to watch

Four places that will offer prime viewing of Sunday's Stage 1 of the Tour of California.

Ski Beach: It's the start, a chance to see the sinewy cyclists in their colorful jerseys. And ogle their expensive two-wheeled toys.

Laurel Street: The Adams Avenue Bicycle Club will be hosting a watch party on the ascent into Balboa Park.

Civita on Friars Road: The residential village will host military veterans, offer games for children and broadcast the race on big-screen TVs. Oh yeah, the cyclists will whiz by, too.

Honey Springs Road in Jamul: Site of the stage's biggest climb, more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain over 6.5 miles. It's where the costumed crazies turn out to cheer their favorite riders.

Source: DiscoverSD

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