I’ve just come home to Girona from Pais Vasco. Last night I was getting a recovery beer with Alex Howes and Kiel Reijnen, and we were talking about how much this city has changed in the last decade. The “Americans in Europe” scene is so much bigger and diverse than it used to be. I’ve had Girona roots for ten years now, first coming over when I was 19 with team TIAA-CREF, and except for Ryder Hesjedal (who is Canadian, but fits in this expat example), I might be one of the guys who has lived in Girona the longest, which is crazy to realize.
Girona started as the hub in Europe for American racers with guys like George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Lance Armstrong, Jonathan Vaughters, and Levi Leipheimer. It blossomed from there with Garmin setting up their service course in Girona, and more riders kept coming over to train. It has always had a healthy support system due to a high concentration of Anglo-speaking Pros here.
We talk a lot about how different it is racing overseas for us American riders who grew up racing in the US. I was sitting in the rain the other day at the start of stage 5 at Pais Vasco with Mike Woods and Caleb Fairly, while waiting for the start gun we were reminiscing about the Redlands Bicycle Classic, a race we would have been doing that same week when we were younger. It’s nice to think back to those days and the US races. We’d stay at these big host houses that have private swimming pools. Now, as Pros, we are standing in the rain, shivering, in a foreign land hoping we don’t biff it or get sick from all the cow poop on the wet roads. Oh, the irony!
The US races still hold a sentimental place in my heart and I still follow a few, like San Dimas. I always look at the uphill time trial because that was always a good indicator of form and it’s a time trial that I loved. You had to do well in those types of races in the US because it was an opportunity to show your engine.
Tour of the Gila is another I still follow. It was my first-ever stage race as a 15-year-old, I didn’t know what I was doing and I won the Senior Men Category 3 GC! A few years later in the Pro Category, I got to go head to head with Levi and Lance when they used it for training. As a hungry development rider, I was jazzed to be able to compete and try to prove myself at their level. Even though they were training, a lot of eyes were focused on southern New Mexico due to their appearance. It helped me get notoriety as an up-and-coming climber.
Now with races like the Tour of California, that is the place for young domestic riders to race against the WorldTour guys. It’s been shown that doing well in California or Utah will get you a WorldTour contract. WorldTour teams, especially the US-registered ones, look to races like Cali/Utah to find talent. But it’s a shame I can’t line up in Gila for my California preparation. Or race Cascade for fun if I don’t make the Tour squad this summer.
Chris Horner is still racing events like the Redlands Bicycle Classic, but guys like Leipheimer and Vande Velde have transitioned on. Now we have guys like Tejay Van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, and Andrew Talansky leading the charge. Even the young ones are showing their talent, Lawson Craddock just had the ride of his life at Pais Vasco where he finished ninth overall. We view those younger guys as the next generation coming up, and we are showing them how to live and survive in Europe.
A lot has changed when it comes to the amount of American talent racing overseas compared to five or 10 years ago. It’s now common to have a solid number of American riders starting every race in the WorldTour. There are at least 20 of us on the circuit and sometimes 10 of us are at a stage race. I think that’s new, there never used to be that many and that is to USA Cycling’s credit.
My generation, with Howes and Tejay, was the first generation to have that full USA Cycling national team program from Junior through U23, and that helped us garner WorldTour contracts. We were successful in those years on the US team when Tejay and I were placing well at events like the Tour de l’Avenir. It was important to already have European racing experience in our legs. Currently, there is a continuous flow of athletes coming through the ranks via the USA Cycling development program.
More riders in the WorldTour, stable races like California and Utah, three WorldTour teams, long-term and thriving sponsorships like Jelly Belly: I would say our State of the Union is quite healthy.
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