The USA has assembled its strongest squad for the UCI world championships in Melbourne this week, and its women are looking to continue a streak of success in the time trial which includes three gold, one silver and two bronze medals over the past five years.
While 2008 time trial champion Amber Neben will be hoping to overcome her difficult season to put in another top result, newcomer Evelyn Stevens is one of the top contenders for a rainbow jersey when the women take to the time trial course on Thursday.
Neben started out the season well with wins in the time trials at the Women's Tour of New Zealand and the Redlands Classic, but a serious muscle pull at the Tour of Flanders put her on forced rest for several weeks in the spring. A second place to Stevens in the US time trial championship was followed by another setback - a broken collarbone sustained in a crash at the Giro Donne in July.
Neben told Cyclingnews that she is excited for the world championship race in Geelong. A win in the Memorial Davide Fardelli time trial earlier this month was a good indicator that her form is returning.
"I have been working hard and staying patient with the recovery and build process," Neben said. "I have also been very focused and motivated. I know that I have had a very challenging year, but I still have high expectations for myself."
The US has won the rainbow jersey in the time trial three out of the past four years, with Kristin Armstrong (2006 and 2009) and Neben in 2008. To gain a second gold medal, Neben said she would need "that perfect day where everything works in sync... my head, my legs, and my heart", but that she will give everything she has. She tipped Stevens for the time trial win.
"I can only focus on my race. I will go and do my best, and see where the result lands me. Evie is primed to have a fantastic day, and I hope she does!"
The national championships in Bend, Oregon, proved to be a good selector for the Geelong course, which most riders are finding to be more challenging than originally thought.
"Bend had a fairly steady, sustained more gradual climb out and then back. This course is a bit more surge-y, less rhythmical in places. The climbs are steeper. It is also very windy," she said.
US looking to break road race drought
While the US women have had plenty of success in the time trial at the world championships, the road race has been a different story: it has been 30 years since Beth Heiden won the rainbow bands, and the last medal was a bronze in 1994 by Jeanne Golay.
National team coach Jim Miller is confident that his development program is paying off, and that team USA can and will bring home the rainbow jersey - it's just a matter of when.
"The results haven't been there [in the road race world championships], but the process in those races has been right - we've always factored in the road races," Miller said.
"Going back to 2006, we've always had girls in the final break, we always have girls in the final selections. We have girls who can set up the race and I think a lot of countries key off of us and look to us for how they're going to race. Eventually we're going to get a result."
The team is missing a few top riders, including Giro Donne winner Mara Abbott, who gave up her spot after falling ill, but Neben believes the US has a good group assembled for Saturday's road race.
"We will obviously miss Mara as she showed at the Giro what a special rider she is. However, we still have a good, cohesive unit. Evelyn is an engine and can climb with the best. Theresa [Cliff-Ryan] and Shelley [Evans] are capable of finishing out of a bunch. The rest of us are willing and able to do what we need to do for the USA."
Evans, the winner of the Women's Tour of New Zealand and the team's fastest finisher isn't intimidated by the hilly circuit. "The circuit is hard, but I like it. Philly [Liberty Classic in Philadelphia] and our national road race were also challenging courses and I was able to get good results there. We have a great team, and I will try to have a chance in the final, but the most important thing is that Team USA wins."
Stevens agreed that the course was challenging and said, "I am really looking forward to an exciting race. The USA has a very strong team, and I know we are going to go out there, give it our all and race hard and smart."