Dreams of Tokyo for USA Cycling men's team pursuit squad

In August this year, USA Cycling turned heads with a stunning performance in the men's team pursuit at the Pan American Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Eric Young, Ashton Lambie, Gavin Hoover and Colby Lange shattered the country's record for the event, clocking a 3:53.86 en route to the gold medal. With that, the team announced to the world its ambition to qualify a squad for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The team will not be starting at the Berlin World Cup this weekend, or the one in London in December. After an off-day at the Milton World Cup, the team will instead regroup in 2019 to target the New Zealand and Hong Kong World Cups before taking aim at the UCI Track World Championships.

While other countries like Great Britain have more resources, a deeper team and better equipment, this ambitious group of eight is hoping to pull off a massive heist and climb over half a dozen countries in the running to make the Olympic Games.

To find the last time the USA qualified a men's team pursuit squad for the Olympic Games, you would have to thumb way back through the archives to 2000, when the federation's current CEO was still on the squad. Derek Bouchard-Hall was on the team that made the Sydney Games, but they finished outside the qualifying eight in the first round.

Before then, the USA came as high as second at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, but in this millennium it has been the women who have carried the Olympic aspirations for the country's track team, hauling in two silver medals since their team pursuit was added to the Olympic programme in 2012 in addition to Sarah Hammer's two Omnium silvers.

Clay Worthington, who stepped in this year as the men's track endurance head coach after the departure of Greg Henderson, recognises that it will be a challenge to qualify the team pursuit squad for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but his diverse band of athletes are making impressive gains.

"We're not currently at a level where we're expected to fight for Olympic medals, but we have high aspirations within the programme," Worthington tells Cyclingnews. "We want to be top five in the team pursuit in the Olympics. At this point we'd like to be pushing into the top 12 in the bunch races."

The Olympics are less than two years off, but it's heading towards crux time for qualifications. There are only 10 competitions before the Olympic rankings are final, and only the top eight will get in. The USA is currently somewhere around 12th – Worthington has had to do his own calculations of the standings because the UCI has not updated the rankings since mid-October – and the team will be focusing all their efforts on the World Cups in New Zealand and Hong Kong and then the World Championships to get points this year.

"We're in a pretty good spot with the team pursuit. We're only a few points from the next position up and I think we're about 200 points out of seventh. So if we can go to New Zealand to get a top five, we'll probably jump from 12 to seventh and will be in the hunt, and it suggests we're closing the gap. So we're in a pretty good place. We're trying to qualify maximum spots and we're chasing hard, and the boys are chasing hard, too."

The UCI's Olympic qualifications work on a cascading system, with a maximum of five spots for any given country in the men's endurance events. The team pursuit is the most important, because it comes with an automatic spot in the Omnium. The Madison is back in for 2020, and since it requires two riders, one of them can also do the Omnium if the country fails to make the team pursuit.

"Events are tied to other events and we're trying, like most countries are, to get our team pursuit in the top eight," Worthington says. The programme, however, has realistic goals. "We're not currently at level where were expected to fight for Olympic medals, but we have high aspirations."

Not The Bad News Bears

Lambie has attracted a lot of attention as a world-record-setting athlete who just came to track cycling from gravel racing. But the Midwesterner is not the only new rider in the programme, which is still running talent identification camps.

When Cyclingnews suggested the team was the cycling equivalent of Hollywood's Bad News Bears, Worthington deadpanned, "We prefer the imagery around Ocean's 11."

When Worthington arrived back at USA Cycling this year, having spent the better part of a decade coaching in Western Australia, the team had already started to gel. Lambie came from the gravel: "He's an exceptional athlete who carries a very high workload and a really down-to-earth guy," Worthington says.

Eric Young, Adrien Hegyvary, Daniel Holloway and Danny Summerhill came back from the road, and were already getting results before his arrival. Holloway earned a bronze in the Omnium at the World Championships this year. The others are younger or less experienced but have room to grow.

"Gavin Hoover [21] is just one of those track guys that LA is really good at finding and producing. As far as I know, he's been around the track for a very long time and was identified through just consistent track results from a young age.

"Colby [Lange, 19] came out of ski racing and he's only been on the bike 12 or 18 months, and he's only 19. He's an exciting guy because he's young and he's got a very big engine, and he's going to keep improving.

"John Croom [25] was playing football somewhere and decided he loved cycling, and has been on this massively impressive trend of improvement to go from a lineman to this guy who's getting silver at the individual pursuit national championship and is a legitimate contender for spots in the team pursuit."

One rider who could be added to the list is Taylor Phinney, who was the country's last male track world champion when he won the individual pursuit in 2009 and 2010. Phinney attended a camp at the Colorado Springs velodrome this month, but will not be eligible to race with the team during this year's World Cup season due to the selection criteria.

The team has been clocking some pretty fast times with its current line-up, and even with the exceptionally quick conditions at the Pan Ams in Aquascalientes, Worthington sees a 3:55 sea-level team pursuit in their future.

"We know that track is very fast. We know that we can't do those times at sea level yet. But we know the temperature corrections that come out of those times suggest that we are capable of being in the hunt for a top eight and pushing toward the Olympics.

"These guys have to get comfortable with the idea that they're doing something exceptional. Even Gavin Hoover, who rode a 4:14 to go second at the Pan Ams in the individual pursuit – he was actually only third at the Nationals. John Croom got second at the Nationals and then missed out on the Pan Ams team because of the rules and the way they're written, and the difficult choices we had to make. We have guys who want to achieve," said Worthington.

"We expect that we're going to keep getting better. We're not ready to replicate those times at sea level but maybe in a year we will. That's the challenge, and that's what elite sport is, and that's why we're all in it, because we want to be challenged in that way. We want to find out how good we can be, and we're going to put pressure on ourselves to do that."

There was a slight hiccup in the plan at the Milton World Cup in October, when the squad finished a dismal 12th in qualifying and failed to advance. Worthington knows they can go better.

"I just pushed the taper a little bit too deep. I missed it by one or two days. It's not actually a major thing. I'm just getting to know these guys and getting my feet on the ground, and put my education in place. I just pushed a little bit too hard when the boys were still a little bit tired. Then we overvalued the rest and undervalued the openers, and we just didn't fire on the day. Even not firing we were still four seconds ahead of where we were last year."

Looking out for new talent

USA Cycling is aggressively seeking new talent in all disciplines, putting on numerous talent identification camps and even running a scouting camp that was broadcast on the Olympic Channel. Worthington says there were a few WorldTour riders who have expressed interest.

"We're looking to see if there are other guys who can fit in. Some of them are young, some of them are kind of return track athletes, but we know that they're good athletes and so we wanted to have a look. We've just started our Olympic development programme to look at younger athletes and trying to offer for them a pathway to move into the programme."

To be selected for the long team, which is a requirement to be put onto teams for the World Cups and World Championships, riders must meet specific time standards and get results at international competitions. But Worthington says it's an "open system", even though there are high standards.

"For someone to really push into to the programme, they're going to have to demonstrate value above and beyond the current class athletes that we have. That can happen, but until it happens we're going to go forward with those guys. We're really happy with those guys and we think they have the right profile to get results."

Even if Phinney wants to get on the team, Worthington says, he will have to earn his place just like everyone else.

Under pressure

The team is under immense pressure to score results at the next 10 events, and doesn't have the luxury of extra riders to swap in and out if someone gets injured, ill or has a bad day. It could be a stressful situation but Worthington and the team believe in their chances.

"We're not currently in a position where we're deep enough to have two full squads. At the moment we're just taking the best team that we think we can field and put them into the World Cups that we're targeting," Worthington said.

"That does expose us to a little bit of risk if someone doesn't travel well or if we make a mistake like we did in Milton. We don't have backup results. That leaves us with a little bit of pressure but it's just part of our layout, and we're just going to have to decide the way to be successful in that picture."

So far this season, four teams have gone sub 3:55 in the team pursuit: Great Britain's two squads, Italy, and Denmark, while Germany and France have come close at sea level. The USA set a 3:53.86 at altitude, but in the denser air they've struggled to approach that mark. Worthington believes the current team can get down to the 3:55 range.

But they're still keeping an eye out for talent who can push the team that extra step, and riders will have to fight to keep their positions. Worthington thinks the competition is good for the team.

"I think it will make the current guys better and I think everybody wants to see the best team go on the track. So everybody's pushing forward towards that. We've got really good culture."

One thing the men don't have yet is the cutting-edge equipment and support that the women's team has, but the men simply have not yet earned it like the Olympic medal winners have.

"At the end of the day, we are an inspirational programme. We've got to use the resources we've got and we've got to be successful with those tools. The tools we have aren't necessarily bad, they're just not maybe the tip-of-the-spear, cutting-edge things. We think we'll be successful with the stuff we've got and we'll try to get every bit of resource we can get," said Worthington.

"I've seen some amazing things happen in my time coaching in the sport. We may not have the cutting edge stuff like Great Britain, but we have good stuff and we think we can be successful. I just don't think that you can take that stance that we're out of the game because we don't have the tools. We have good athletes, we have good attitude, we have good education, and we have good support from USA Cycling – from our coaches and from our cycling community here in America. That has to count for something. Equipment matters, but so does attitude, so does heart, so does work ethic... And we think we're in the ball park on those."

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