And then there was one. When Matthew Busche turned professional with the nascent RadioShack team in 2010, he was one of seven Americans in a squad headlined by Lance Armstrong. Four turbulent seasons later and after a number of reconfigurations, the Wisconsin native is the lone US rider left on the revamped Trek Factory Racing team for the 2014 season.
“It’s an honour in one sense to be the sole American, but I don’t think it exerts any extra pressure on me,” Busche told Cyclingnews at the team presentation in Roubaix last week.
Last year, Busche had two compatriots for company at RadioShack-Leopard. Ben King has moved on to what ought to be more amenable pastures at Garmin-Sharp for 2014, but surprise Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner remains without a contract for the coming season.
“I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t have a contract but I don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes with that stuff,” Busche said of Horner. “He’s obviously getting older so maybe people don’t want to take a risk, thinking that if he had an injury or something, that could be it for him. But that could happen to anyone.
“He’s proven he’s definitely still got the ability to ride well, given that he won the Vuelta only five or six months ago. It’s a little surprising he doesn’t have a contract, whether it was here or at another team. Whatever happens, I hope he can find a contract and continue to ride as long as he wants.”
In winning the Vuelta just shy of his 42nd birthday, Horner became the oldest Grand Tour winner in history, and his shock victory was met with no small degree of scepticism. He was even moved to publish his blood values in a bid to allay suspicions, but Trek Factory Racing decided not to match his wage demands and other avenues pursued over the winter have led only to dead ends.
“We stay in touch a little bit, and he’s been doing well,” Busche said. “You know how he is, he’s kind of carefree, or at least puts off that vibe, but I’m sure he’s a little bit stressed about what’s happening. We’ve seen the news about him switching agents [Baden Cooke has taken over from Michael Rutherford – ed.], so I don’t know what’s going on there. Obviously he still wants to ride and he’s going to try and get back in the peloton whatever way he can. He’ll be back.”
While undoubtedly a significant factor, Horner’s struggles to secure a deal for 2014 are not predicated solely on his advanced years. The fall-out from Lance Armstrong’s belated confession to doping continues to be felt, and after initially avoiding the question, in November Horner denied that his was a redacted name in USADA’s Reasoned Decision on the case. Indeed, having turned professional on a team that was emphatically Armstrong’s, Busche is keenly aware of the concept of guilt by association.
“It’s unfortunate that I’ll forever be associated with that name because I was on RadioShack with Lance and Johan [Bruyneel] or whatever, but again, there’s nothing I can do to fix that,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate it hurt the sport so much, but you have to have that if you want to clean it up. For the future, I think it’s very important that it did come out so that we can learn from it and grow from it.”
Though now 28 years of age, Busche remains comparatively young as a cyclist, given that he only made the switch from collegiate athletics six years ago, when, by his own admission, he realised he had reached the outer limits of his potential as a runner. “I’d just picked up the bike and seen a good amount of success at it at lower levels, so I decided to give it a shot,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Now in his fifth year at WorldTour level, the 2011 American champion believes that he still has ample margin for improvement. “I’m still relatively new to the sport, so hopefully I’m not at my full potential,” he said. “It’s been slow over the four years I’ve raced already, but I have improved a little bit each year, and I’m hoping I can keep going in that direction.”
Busche begins his 2014 campaign at the Tour of the Mediterranean, and is set to ride Paris-Nice, the Tour of the Basque Country and the Ardennes classics before his first major objective of the 2014 campaign, the Tour of California. He finished in 6th place last year, but just 24 seconds shy of the third step on the podium, and is hopeful that he will be in the mix again in May.
“I think I can get on the podium if I race well,” he said. “Racing is partly luck but also experience and being in the right place at the right time. If everything works out fine, if I avoid any crazy bad luck, if I stay alert and race well, then the podium is very realistic.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether a strong ride in California would be enough to earn Busche a berth at the Tour de France for the first time. The American has two Vueltas a España in his legs – he was part of the team that helped Horner to victory last year – and with a Trek Factory Racing’s roster weighted towards helping Fabian Cancellara in the cobbled classics, there are comparatively few climbers on board in 2014.
“We don’t have a lot of true climbers, so assuming Andy and Fränk [Schleck] are going for it again, they’re going to need guys to help them in the mountains, so hopefully that adds to my chances to get there,” Busche said. “If I perform well in the beginning of the season, I’m hoping I can be there, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the directors. I guess we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”