USA Cycling today announced the five discretionary picks who will join Megan Guarnier on the Olympic Games road team later this summer in Rio, with Kristin Armstrong and Evelyn Stevens slated to compete in the women's time trial, and Mara Abbott and Guarnier joining them to form a strong and experienced quartet for the road race. On the men's side, Taylor Phinney and Brent Bookwalter will compete in both the road race and time trial.
Guarnier earned an automatic selection by placing third last year at the world championships in Richmond. Olympic rules mandate that the riders who compete in the time trial must also compete in the road race.
“I think we have a really good team,” said Jim Miller, USA Cycling vice president of athletics, in an interview with Cyclingnews on Thursday. “We have really experienced teams with athletes who are at the age where they can realistically produce medals. We have a really experienced staff that has been together for a couple of quads, so I think we're in a good position to have the possibility of doing something exceptional. But this is the Olympic Games. Winning world titles is very difficult; winning Olympic titles is even more difficult. I think we're in a great position, but it is tough.”
Following the withdrawal from consideration for the men's team by Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky, Miller said, the selection process was fairly clear cut. Criteria established more than 18 months ago dictated that the time trial selections be prioritized over the road race, and with just two spots for the US, the time trial selections also comprised the entirety of the road race team.
“Had Tejay and had Talansky not withdrawn from consideration, then you have a serious conversation,” Miller said. “But when they do, then the conversation kind of goes away.”
Miller said USA Cycling began the selection process nearly two years ago under the pretense that it would have five spots for the road race, but that turned out not to be the case.
“It turned out that the qualification process is based on nation strength and rank of WorldTour teams in the year 2015 – totally different than how they do it in every other discipline,” he said. “Then you have a host of injuries and some sicknesses, you have some unfortunate things that happen to your Grand Tour riders, and we find ourselves at the end of 2015 ranked 18th in the nations ranking and only two spots.”
The time trial route in Rio, which the men will traverse two times, is considerably lumpy, with two significant climbs [one of which is 6km] and a rolling section of unengineered roads that follow the coastline's topography. The parcours call into question how well Phinney, who recently won the US time trial championship in North Carolina, will fare. Miller expressed confidence in the chances for the 25-year-old American, who was second at the 2012 world championship time trial in the Netherlands and fourth in the 2012 London Olympics road race and time trial.
“It was really lumpy and a really hard time trial, not that unsimilar to this time trial in Rio, with the exception that this Rio course has one climb that's considerably longer,” Miller said of the 2012 worlds course. “Other than that, it's pretty lumpy like that, and Taylor was [second]. I think with time trialists, ultimately, no matter where you put the time trial, no matter what the terrain, no matter what the course, the good time trialists still produce good results. So I think Taylor will be fine on this course.”
Phinney most recently raced at the Ster ZLM Toer, where he finished second to LottoNL-Jumbo's Jos Van Emden in the 6.4km opening race against the clock. He told Cyclingnews that following that Dutch race he was returning to his home in Boulder, Colorado, to train specifically for the Olympic time trial.
“One thing about Taylor is – some guys are really good trainers and some guys aren't, they just prefer to race – Taylor happens to be a phenomenal trainer, and when he says he's going to do something, he's gonna go back and hibernate and 'Rocky' style the camp, so you know he'll show up prepared,” Miller said.
Armstrong gets another shot at Gold
The selections for the women's time trial and road race will likely be more controversial than the men's, with Carmen Small recently winning the US time trial championships in Winston-Salem but not making the cut for the Olympic team. Small beat Armstrong, who was third in Winston-Salem, by more than a minute. Stevens was sixth, nearly two minutes down.
Miller, who recused himself from the women's selection process because he coaches Armstrong, said the selection committee removed any subjectivity from the process and based its decision “bullet point for bullet point” from the printed selection criteria.
“We don't have the luxury of professional opinions or subjectively making a choice,” he said. “We have to objectively evaluate those bullet points, and say, 'Who checks the box?' Prior arbitrations have made it crystal clear that top international results take precedent over top domestic results. In our own printed athlete selections we have a paragraph discussing that, and it's clear.”
The top set of criteria involve medal capability, including top finishes at the most recent Olympic Games. Armstrong, who has twice won time trial gold at the world championships and Olympics, checked several of those boxes with past performances, including a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, while Small was third at the 2013 world championships.
Nevertheless, Armstrong's admittedly lacklustre performance at nationals last month called into question her ability to continue to perform at a “medal-winning” level, another part of the selection criteria. Armstrong appeared to wither in Winston-Salem's heat and humidity, conditions she's likely to face again in Rio.
But Miller said not too much should be read into the nationals performances from Armstrong and Stevens, who holds the current UCI Hour Record. Both were coming off tough races at the Tour of California, a race Small did not compete in.
“Because I do coach Kristin, I can tell you the issue in Winston-Salem – there was the heat and humidity – but I think it had a lot more to do with the Tour of California,” he said. “You saw this with Evelyn, too. They raced really hard at the front for that GC. They took big shots at each other. That was a pretty big load in terms of kilojoules that they came with, and then they all flew directly to North Carolina.
“I'm sure they were all doing their own heat acclimation programs to prepare for Winston-Salem, but then they all went to Tour of California, where they stayed in relatively cold weather, and that will kill your heat acclimatization.”
Miller said Armstrong's power files from the national time trial showed a rider who came into the event fatigued.
“She didn't make any excuses for it, by the way, but she gets there and she gets in the heat and, just looking at her power file, there's a pretty linear decay in power throughout the course of that time trial, so that was the deal,” he said. “Whether or not they debated this in the selection, I don't know.”
With Armstrong and Stevens selected first for the time trial, and Guarnier having earned an automatic qualification for the road race in Richmond, for all practical purposed the selection committee had just one more rider to pick for the road race. Given the hilly nature of the Rio route, Abbott was a natural selection for the team.
“Mara is unquestionably the best climber in the world,” Miller said. “I don't think there's any room for debate from anyone. Her climbing and her results stands by itself when it goes uphill.”
Although the course is well suited for a climbing specialist like Abbott, Miller said, Guarnier, who currently leads the Women's WorldTour after winning the Tour of California and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, has been riding phenomenally.
“She's on great form and she's been on great form,” Miller said. “She's the first or second best road racer of the year. Between her or Lizzie [Armitstead]. And it really depends on their team who they are going to ride for to get the result.”
The team for the women's road race is heavy on experience and is tactically savvy, Miller said, providing the US with flexibility once the race begins to play out.
“I don't want to give away too much of the tactics,” he said, “but I think it gives us the ability to race multiple tactics and to be able to call audibles and migrate through a progression of options and still be a player at the end of the game.”
Given that experience and strength, the women's road team is going into the race as one of the favourites, and considering the men have only two spots, clearly represents the best chance for a road medal during the games. That's a lot of pressure from a country pining for high-profile international success that the Olympics provide, but Miller said all four riders are up to the task.
“All four of these women have raced their entire careers with a lot of pressure and a lot of high expectations, not only from themselves but from others,” he said. “They haven't gotten to where they've gotten because they can't manage pressure or high expectations."
2016 U.S. Olympic Cycling Team:
Mara Abbott (Boulder, Colo./Wiggle-Honda): Women's Road Race
Kristin Armstrong (Boise, Idaho/TWENTY16-RideBiker): Women's Road Race, Women's Individual Time Trial
Brent Bookwalter (Asheville, N.C./BMC Racing Team): Men's Road Race, Men's Individual Time Trial
Megan Guarnier (Queensbury, N.Y./Boels Dolmans Cycling Team): Women's Road Race*
Taylor Phinney (Boulder, Colo./BMC Racing Team): Men's Road Race, Men's Individual Time Trial
Evelyn Stevens (San Francisco, Calif./Boels Dolmans Cycling Team): Women's Road Race, Women's Individual Time Trial
Track (announced March 18)
Matt Baranoski (Perkasie, Pa./Custom Velo): Men’s Keirin
Kelly Catlin (Arden Hills, Minn./NorthStar Development): Women’s Team Pursuit
Chloe Dygert (Brownsburg, Ind./TWENTY16 p/b SHO-AIR): Women’s Team Pursuit
Sarah Hammer (Colorado Springs, Colo.): Women’s Omnium*, Women’s Team Pursuit
Bobby Lea (Mertztown, Pa./Custom Velo): Men’s Omnium
Jennifer Valente (San Diego, Calif./TWENTY16 p/b SHO-AIR): Women’s Team Pursuit
Ruth Winder (Lafayette, Calif./UnitedHealthcare): Women’s Team Pursuit
Lea Davison (Jericho, Vt./Specialized Factory Racing)
Howard Grotts (Durango, Colo./Specialized Factory Racing)
Chloe Woodruff (Prescott, Ariz./Team Stan’s NoTubes-Niner)
Brooke Crain (Visalia, Calif./Haro Bikes-Dans Comp)
Connor Fields (Henderson, Nev./Chase BMX-Monster Energy)
Nic Long (Lakeside, Calif./Haro Bikes-Dans Comp)*
Alise Post (Chula Vista, Calif./Redline USA)*
Corben Sharrah (Tucson, Ariz./Daylight Cycle Co.)*