Not content to rest on their laurels with two consecutive world championships already in the bag, USA Cycling and newly hired head track endurance coach Garry Sutton have embarked on a series of track talent ID camps in hopes of finding some hidden gems in cycling's fringes and even among other sports.
Sutton and staff recently hosted 12 women at the velodrome in Colorado Springs, where they put the diverse group through testing in the lab and riding on the track.
"Even though we're the current world champions, we still need more numbers, and there's so much talent out there," Sutton told Cyclingnews.
"A great indication was the first camp we just had, and we've come across some outstanding athletes that hadn't been on the track before," Sutton said. "We'll work with them during the next six to 12 months and reassess at the end of that time. But I was very surprised with the amount of talent that came last week."
Ages among riders at the camp ranged from 15 to 39, with 15-year-olds Bridgette Tooley and Katherine Seiler representing the youth movement, and 39-year-old cyclo-cross star Katie Compton attending the camp for training and to provide some on-the-track mentorship for the younger riders. The camp also reflected a diversity of disciplines beyond the typical road and track riders, reaching into mountain biking, skiing and rowing to find new talent.
The camp included multi-time world champion Chloe Dygert, Allie Dragoo and members of the men's team, but the focus was clearly on the women's ID camp and trying to find new talent to stock the rider pool.
"There were quite a few who put their hand up in many ways," Sutton said. "Every one of those ladies were talented in some area. We're looking basically for people who can join the Team Pursuit group."
Sutton was duly impressed with Emma White, who rides for Rally Cycling on the road and with Cannondale in cyclo-cross. The 20-year-old had never been on the track but picked it up quickly. The USA Cycling coach also mentioned Maddie Godby from the sprint side of track racing. He's hoping she can transfer her power and speed to the endurance side to support the back end of the Team Pursuit.
"So they'll be invited back into the camp," Sutton said of White and Godby. "Like Christina Birch, she was outstanding last week, and I was impressed with young Bridget Tooley, she's a young junior for the future. Daniele Morsehead was very impressive in the lab, etc., so there's someone we'll certainly be working with for the future as well."
Sutton's goal is to create a pool of track riders that will keep USA Cycling in good stead long after he has moved on. He told Cyclingnews he wants to leave a legacy with the federation.
"I just feel that it's a great opportunity for the young juniors, to bring two or three of them to each camp.," Sutton said. "They get an opportunity to see the elites, because they are our future as well, and I want to make sure that after 2020 the USA is in a position with some good young talent coming through. That's why we had three young juniors coming last week as well."
Diamonds in the rough
One of those juniors is Camille Syben, a 17-year-old mountain biker who lives in Lake Tahoe. Syben's background is in Nordic Skiing, a sport she started at just nine years old, but she raced mountain bikes in the NorCal High School and got the attention of Nicola Cranmer, who offered her a spot on the Twenty20 junior team and recommended her for the track camp.
"When I first went in I was honestly pretty terrified," said Syben, who had never ridden on the track previously. "That's no lie because I 'd never been on a fixie, and I don't have the best bike-handling skills I'd say, especially on a road bike. I think it was incredibly fun, though, and I really enjoyed it. It's a very unique sport, that's for sure.
"I definitely enjoyed the challenge of it and the teamwork as well," she said.
Morsehead, who was a high school rower and continued the sport through her sophomore year at Brown before taking up cycling, had a similar lack of experience on the track, although her curiosity had been piqued for some time after seeing the captain of the Brown cycling team displaying a track bike at a club activities fair.
"I walked up to him because he had this weird-looking bike with no brakes and one gear, and I had no idea what it was," Morsehead said. "I thought, 'That does not look like my bike that I have at home.' So I walked up to and started talking about the track."
The team captain told Morsehead she should try track racing because of her endurance sport experience with rowing, but not having a velodrome nearby meant there was little opportunity. She did pick up road racing, however, and she signed a contract with Twenty20 in November.
She did her first pro race in Australia at the Tour Down Under, where she was able to stick with the best in the world and gain confidence in her new sport. Cranmer also recommended Morsehead for the camp.
"My very, very early initial impression is that I felt like I was on a different planet," Morsehead said. "I could not believe I was starting a whole new sport again. Walking into the velodrome you have to go through a tunnel and it opens up into this big bubble, and it totally felt like a different planet. It was pretty weird.
"I also had this idea coming in that I'd just be riding in circles and it wouldn't be that dynamic, but I quickly learned that there was a lot that I didn't know," she said. "Track cycling is extremely dynamic. There's a ton of strategy."
Taking US Team Pursuit to an even higher level
Sutton told Cyclingnews that in his upcoming camps he'd like to bring in more pro road riders with hopes of finding more talent to for the Team Pursuit squad, raising the competition for the limited spots and hopefully raising everyone's game.
"It's not going to be easy to force your way into this group," he said, "but I think based on what I saw last week there are one or two who may be capable of doing that.
"It takes people out of their comfort zone as well. I'd like to think that they don't feel like they're in a comfort zone, but I'm sure that if we could have eight ladies trying to take five or six spots, the standard will be very, very high for USA Cycling."
Part of reaching new levels of success requires putting together a support team that works in the background to make the athletes better. Sutton worked with US Olympic Committee physiologist Lindsay Golich and two-time Olympic gold medallist Kristin Armstrong at the most recent camp. He said the feedback he's been getting from riders has been very encouraging.
"I'm not on social media, so I don't get a chance to see it, but a few of the staff have called in this morning and wrote out a few nice messages that came out from some of the ladies in the camp," Sutton said.
"But we're not going to sit back with our feet in the air. We're on a mission, and Kristin Armstrong, she's absolutely on a mission as well, so she's heavily involved in helping me put these camps together and helping identify athletes."
While Team Pursuit success is a top priority, Sutton also wants to expand USA Cycling's medal chances in other endurance events.
"The team pursuit is major, but we mustn't lose sight of having the Madison and the Omnium as well," he said. "There's an opportunity for the women's track endurance to be on the podium in three events, especially with the success that Jen [Valente] had throughout the World Cup season in the Omnium.
"With the Madison, there's no question that we have a lot of work to do there," he said. "There's been quite a few people wanting to put their hand up for the Madison as well, so that'll be interesting to see what turns out in that department over the next 12 months."
Sutton said that although he took over a high-quality group, his mission is to constantly make the program better.
"Everyone is on a mission here, and we want to do the best we can," Sutton said. "We want to put the best team in the paddock, and we've only got 843 days to go [to the Tokyo Olympics - ed.] It sounds a lot, actually, but it goes pretty quick."