Although the USA team for the UCI Road World Championshipselite men's road race has only six members, it could be the most cohesive unit the country has put together for the race in years. With Alex Howes as the likely team leader, and Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Brent Bookwalter, Kiel Reijnen and Eric Marcotte in support positions, the team represents a generational shift when compared with past teams.
At 34, Marcotte, the USA Pro champion who earned his spot with the national title, is the oldest of the squad, followed by Bookwalter, 30. Aside from Reijnen (28), the other three were all born in 1988, making this the youngest team USA Cycling has fielded in years.
"We're not the favourites, we're underdogs. We have a young team," Bookwalter told Cyclingnews. "I'm excited, this is the first year we've had entirely this new generation of riders, we've been racing together a long time. It will be good to have this new group."
"There's certainly plenty of fresh blood on the squad," Reijnen told Cyclingnews. "It's always hard to pick a well-rounded squad when you only have six slots to fill, but I think the six of us cover a wide range of riding styles. We have plenty of cards to play on Sunday. A one day race is always a bit of a guessing game but I'm confident that we will be able to make an impact no matter how the race turns out."
Reijnen and Howes each took stage wins in the USA Pro Challenge on tough courses that were similar in nature, if not distance, to the Ponferrada road race course. Although neither rider has been fully tested on a race as long as the 254.8km event they will face on Sunday, Bookwalter says the team will remain optimistic.
"There are only a handful of races that are 260km, that have over 4000m of climbing," Bookwalter said. "It's going to be a really strong guy with good form, who has a diverse skill set that wins. It's probably not going to be a Cavendish or a great climber, it's going to be someone who's versatile and is in the form of their life, as is usually the case at Worlds.
"Howes and Reijnen have a good acceleration for a few minutes deep into the race. They're not proven at 260km, but we'll go in optimistic and we'll get a little extra power from our camaraderie and our experience together."
Although riders on national teams aren't as familiar with each other as they are with their trade teammates, Most of the Americans have spent years in the USA Cycling development program together or racing in the domestic events against each other.
"I've raced against all these guys, some since I first started as a junior," Reijnen said. "Alex and I spend a lot of time training together so we know each other on and off the bike as well as anybody. I've never had the chance to race on the same team with any of the boys yet, but I'm looking forward to the opportunity come Sunday. The peloton is a bit of a travelling circus and even if we don't all race on the same team we are all part of the circus."
Working class hero
The one rider who has spent the least amount of time in the circus is Marcotte. At 34, and with a full time career as a chiropractor, the US Pro champion earned his bid automatically, and was a bit on the defensive over some criticism regarding his inclusion in the team.
"I absolutely never expected to be selected for Worlds. I never even expected to race nationals, let alone win. I'm determined to make the most of it," Marcotte told Cyclingnews. "If there had been a 20km climb on the course, I would have refused my spot, but I feel like I can help."
While all of the other riders have European racing or world championships experience, the farthest Marcotte has gone to race a bike was the Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic (he won a stage and led the race for four days). The Arizona resident said he feels overwhelmed, but confident he can handle the racing distance and intensity.
"People might not know who I am, but I can do the work to take care of my teammates and help them stay fresh for when they need to work," Marcotte said. "It's a big distance, and it's going to test me, but that's good. I want to prove myself."
Marcotte's US championship helped his SmartStop team get into races like the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and Tour of Alberta. He used Alberta to condition himself for Ponferrada while working to get teammate Jure Kocjan into the UCI Americas Tour leader's jersey.
"In Alberta I sat in the wind the whole race. To do that work is a good block of training. I've been doing longer rides and short, powerful intervals to help with the kind of effort I'll be doing to respond to surges."
"I want to be part of the race and not just pack fodder. I want to support Kiel and Alex and affect the outcome of the race. I want to know I did the best I could to prepare, and I want to be proud of what we've accomplished."
Marcotte won the national championship by going away in the breakaway early in the race, and staying up there when his teammates Travis McCabe and Julian Kyer bridged across with the select group of favourites. Marcotte was leading out McCabe but ended up winning, with McCabe in second ahead of Howes. In his dream scenario for Sunday, he would like to duplicate that effort.
"It would be awesome to ride in the breakaway all day like at nationals," he said. "It took the pressure off the team - we had a really good shot with Travis for the win. We had an idea of how it would play out when the selection came across." Like the national championships, he said Sunday will be a race of attrition. "You're on the pedals most of the time on the circuit, which is good for me."