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Riders set to tackle Cali World Cup this week
Since the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, where Marty Nothstein won gold in the men's sprint, the United States has had little success on the world stage when it has come to the discipline. That could all be set to change since USA Cycling hired another Olympic champion, Jamie Staff, to head up its sprint program.
The addition of Staff, a member of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games gold medal-winning sprint team from Great Britain, has brought new life to the previously disorganised group, although he expects it will be several years before top level results will come.
The team will get its first taste of competition under Staff's guidance in this week's World Cup in Cali, Colombia. "It's early days," Staff told Cyclingnews after the US championships in October. "I'm really looking at Rio [the 2016 Olympic Games]. If I can get to London [in 2012] with athletes, that will definitely be a job well done.
"I love a challenge, and it's going to be a really good challenge."
Staff was happy to be able to return to live and work in the Los Angeles area, where his wife Malia grew up and where his children were born. While he moved the family to the UK during his build up to the Beijing Olympic Games, he always intended to come back to the USA, and is excited to be able to work in the sport with USA Cycling.
"I love the environment, I love the energy, and I'm very fortunate that I am able to remain in this environment at the elite level, and hopefully make a difference to the sprint program over here."
Staff, a former BMX world champion, made the transition to the track before the Athens Games, winning a keirin and team sprint world title along the way. After a heartbreaking disqualification in the keirin in Athens, his Olympic gold medal finally came in Beijing in 2008 where he set the world's fastest opening lap in the team sprint to help his team take the win. Britain would go on to dominate the games, winning seven of the 10 gold medals on offer.
Having been inside the makings of the British team as it made the impressive leap from contenders to world domination, Staff said it wasn't just the strong funding that made the difference, but the early successes by riders like Chris Hoy that helped to inspire the others.
"They had the talent, and that talent just needed to be nurtured and supported and guided. Chris Hoy, Jason Queally and myself, the talent was there, it's not that they had some money and all of a sudden they made Olympic champions.
"It's structure and good support. They went out and sourced the best coaches in the world, the best sport scientists in the world. Dave Brailsford did a fantastic job of putting people in the right jobs.
"It's amazing once there's energy and momentum – they invested in the technology and sport sciences, and we got guided and started seeing results. One person gets results and the rest start to believe, and it's amazing what that does."
Staff said that this type of magic can happen anywhere, and that with time, the US program will get results.
"I believe it has a lot to do with attitude. The rider's approach, their attitude and mental approach – I've learned a lot over my 27-year career, and I'm trying to instil belief in these riders that they can do it. It's going to be hard work, and I'm going to teach them what hard work is, and they're dreading it," he said.
"I've already seen great progress in a short amount of time, but we definitely have a lot of work to do. There's no reason why US cycling can't be on top of the world again."
First test in Cali
With the changes to the track cycling Olympic program, there is an added emphasis on the sprint events. Previously women had one and men had three races, now they each have the team sprint, keirin and individual sprint, and the race to qualify for the London Olympic Games is already starting.
New rules mean the countries qualifying for the team sprint also earn automatic spots in the individual sprint and keirin, while those not making the team cut have to qualify the other spots individually - a much harder route.
"It's already started – if I can, I'd like to get a couple riders just to experience the Olympics. It can be an overwhelming experience – if I can get them to realise it's just another race, it will help in Rio. I'm really looking to the under 23s who we can develop towards 2016."
Coming from the highly successful British program, Staff said the focus of the US riders has been too internal and he will be pushing them to perform at the international level. "The riders were just competing against each other. You have to look at the world stage. I don't want them to be the best American, I want them to be the Olympic champion or the best in the world. You have to set your sights higher or you're not going to go anywhere.
"It's great to win a national title, but you have to look at the bigger picture. It's the World Cups and the world championships that are going to count, and they know that."
Towards that end, Staff has been working on preparing Giddeon Massie, Dean Tracy and Kevin Mansker for the team sprint at the Cali World Cup. Not only has the team never competed together before, it will be the first World Cup for Mansker and Tracy.
"We're going to set a time we can try to beat next time. Are we going to beat the British and the Germans the first time out? Of course not. But if we can set some personal records, we'll be happy," said Tracy.
"It makes a huge difference to have a coach who's been there before as a rider, especially a rider who's made it to the very top like Jamie has. It makes it very easy to trust his direction, because the guy obviously knows what he's doing, and what it feels like. It's very motivating. I get the feeling that if I just stick with this I could go very far."
Jimmy Watkins, who will compete in the individual sprint and keirin as part of the OUCH team, has been working with Staff at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, and is optimistic about the progress.
"Just from what I've seen, the people down here are committed. If you look at the growth that they've had, already there's a big improvement in quality of training and how they're progressing as riders. It's not going to be overnight, but within the next few years we'll be leaps and bounds better."
While the US team now has guidance to add to its enthusiasm, Staff said that there are still some aspects that will never match the likes of the British program.
"One thing I found in the US is people care a lot about the sport, and are willing to donate a lot of time and money to the program. US cycling is in a very healthy position financially. The money is there. The hard thing is they want to see returns before they invest. In the UK they invested and hoped they saw returns," he said.
In the UK, athletes could completely focus on training since they didn't have to worry about holding down a job to make ends meet when they were a part of the program. In the US, things haven't quite made it that far.
"I have guys living in mobile homes, living out of a suitcase just so they can come here and train. I can't ask for any more. I would love to be able to pay them a salary so they can just not worry about that and come train, but until they get certain results, that's not going to happen."
The first chance to earn their keep comes this week, December 16-18, at the World Cup in Cali.