Exit stage left: The US Men's Worlds team

Has the allure of competing for a rainbow jersey and the glory of representing one's nation at the World Championships lost its lustre for the United States' Elite men? The United States is one of 10 nations able to field the maximum nine-rider roster in the World Championship road race, yet four of the five riders responsible for scoring enough points on the International Cycling Union's (UCI) Individual World Ranking to vault their country into this advantageous position will not be racing come Sunday.

Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Tyler Farrar and George Hincapie's performances in 2009 World Calendar events garnered their country a 10th place nation ranking, yet only Farrar will be present at this week's World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

The UCI determines each nation's ranking by combining points earned at designated races by the country's five highest scoring riders. The nation rankings as of August 15 determined how many riders a country could put on the 2009 World Championship start line.

So how does the United States compare to the other nine countries (Spain, Italy, Australia, Germany, Russia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Great Britain and Norway) which were also allotted the maximum amount of starters at the World Championships?

Lance Armstrong (Astana), the highest ranked American rider at the August 15th deadline, has not competed at the World Championships since he finished fourth in both the time trial and road race in 1998. Armstrong may feel he has nothing to prove having won the World road Championship in 1993.

The seven-time Tour de France winner has not made post-Tour racing a priority since his first Tour victory in 1999, though the Texan did compete in the 2000 Olympic Games, where he won a bronze medal in the time trial and finished 13th in the road race.

Levi Leipheimer (Astana), the second highest ranked American rider, finished the recently concluded Tour of Missouri in sixth place overall, but those seven days of racing were his first since breaking his wrist at the Tour de France. Leipheimer has competed at the World Championships four times in the previous 10 years, with his best results being a pair of fourth place finishes in the 2001 and 2008 time trial events. Leipheimer, however, was unsure of his form and is leery of competing at the World Championships without peak fitness at his disposal.

"I've been fourth there a couple of times and I don't want to go there and get fourth again," said Leipheimer. "I have to be sure that I feel strong enough and that I have a chance of at least getting a medal before I went over."

It has been a long year for Leipheimer. He won the Tour of California for the third straight time in February, took victory at the Vuelta a Castilla y León in March. A fifth place finish in the Giro d'Italia was then followed by the Tour de France, where he had been fourth overall before his injury.

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream), the third highest American on the UCI's World ranking, will understandably be absent from the World Championships due to a broken hand suffered at the Tour of Missouri. He's been a stalwart World Championship competitor having represented his country consecutively from 2004 to 2007, plus Vande Velde participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) was the fifth highest ranked American rider, but similar to Leipheimer, Hincapie suffered from a lack of racing days in his legs in the latter portion of the 2009 season. Hincapie, too, broke a bone at the Tour de France and only has one additional day of post-Tour racing under his belt than Leipheimer. Each finished the seven-day Tour of Missouri, but Hincapie competed the weekend prior, winning his third career US National road Championship.

While Hincapie is healthy again, it's been a lengthy season, beginning at February's Tour of California. "I started my season in January this year which is earlier than I ever have," said Hincapie. "With the injury in the Tour de France it's definitely been a tough year for me."

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream) is the only contributor to the US's 10th place nation ranking who'll be starting the road race on Sunday - the 25-year-old's fourth consecutive participation. The latter portion of the season has been most successful for Farrar having won his first Grand Tour stage at the Vuelta, the Vattenfalls Cyclassics as well as three stages of the Eneco Tour. Farrar, however, is not quite suited to the hilly Worlds parcours, but like other sprinters such as Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd and André Greipel, he's willing to respect the race and start for his country.

Two other American professionals who also could have fared strongly in Mendrisio, but have opted to stay home instead, are David Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream) and Chris Horner (Astana). The 37-year-old Horner, who five years ago was the last American to finish in the top-10 at the Elite men's World Championship road race, can hardly be blamed for his absence since he's currently recovering from his third fractured bone of the year, suffered in the Vuelta a España's fourth stage. Horner has a knack for finding fitness late in the season, having finished the arduous Giro di Lombardia seventh and 10th in 2008 and 2007 respectively, and was perhaps the American rider best suited to the challenging Mendrisio circuit.

Zabriskie, however, was on a run of good form with overall victory and a time trial stage win at the Tour of Missouri, which concluded September 13. On the weekend prior to the Tour of Missouri's start, Zabriskie convincingly won his fourth consecutive US time trial Championships in Greenville, South Carolina.

Zabriskie has a track record of success at the World time trial Championships having won a bronze medal in 2008 and a silver medal in 2006, bested only by Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara. Surely then, Zabriskie would jump at the chance to make his time trial medal collection complete with a gold medal in 2010? in Cancellara's home country no less? But the elusive World Championship was never something the Utah native had in the cards for 2009.

"I had a training camp early on and I was in very good shape for the Tour of California in February," said Zabriskie. "There are others who start their season in April or May. It's been a long season, physically and mentally. These things wear on a man.

"My goal this season was to do well at California, get through the Giro [d'Italia], support the team at the Tour [de France] and then win [time trial] Nationals. That's pretty much how it's gone."

A time trial World Championship is still something which appeals to the 30-year-old Zabriskie. "That's a race I've always wanted to win. I like that race, but I'm not sure it's going to happen this year."

Opportunity beckons

The absence of the US's pre-eminent ProTour riders from Mendrisio, Switzerland does, however, provide opportunity for other American professionals eager to gain experience on the world stage. They, too, face the challenge of honing form late in the season when the mind and body may cry foul at such a hard block of intensive training, but the chance to don the stars-and-stripes jersey and compete for one's country provides powerful inspiration.

"It can be tough still to be motivated this late in the season, but with something like Worlds to look forward to, it really gives you something to be remain focussed for," said BMC Racing Team's Jeff Louder. The 31-year old Utah native has only competed at the world championships once before in 2002 where he finished 168th in the road race. 

championships, appreciates the chance to return to world championship competition. "Only nine guys are chosen out of the entire US field, so it is a great honour to be among them," he said. "The [US] National Team has been working to build a team around a long-term goal of becoming more competitive against the powerhouse national teams like Italy and Spain, so it is pretty special to be a part of that push."

Louder's BMC Racing teammate Brent Bookwalter is also making his second appearance at the Elite men's World Championship. The 25-year-old competed in the 2008 world championship road race at Varese, Italy and is enthusiastic about the team building aspect that's part of the national team experience.

"I've talked with Noel Dejonckheere and the other directors of the national squad, and they are clear about their goals of building to a higher level with the team," Bookwalter said. "I don't know yet what role I will play in their efforts, but I will be happy to do whatever I can to help the team succeed.

"Even though several of the guys who were instrumental in gaining the US enough points to send the maximum number of riders will not be racing at Worlds themselves, it's important to me that those of us who will be there show our respect to the efforts of guys like Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and the others by doing our best to get a top result," Bookwalter said. "It would be really nice to show that we have what it takes to make the most of this opportunity.

"It's a daunting amount of climbing we'll be doing, and I can probably count on one hand the number of races I have done which are longer than 250 kilometres," Bookwalter continued. "It will almost certainly be the hardest race I've done this year tactically, logistically, physically, and mentally."

Bissell Pro Cycling's Tom Zirbel, who finished fourth in the Elite men's time trial World Championships on Thursday, said before the event that he hadn't expected to get the nod to represent the United States, but he, too, looked forward to the chance to test himself against the best chrono men in the world. "I knew I wasn't first on the list so it was a matter of a couple of other guys declining and I was excited for the opportunity," said Zirbel. "I put my hand up a month ago to USA Cycling to let them know that I was interested. Any racing I get at that level is beneficial. I'm going well this late in the season."

While the 30-year-old Zirbel appreciates the chance to compete at his first world Championships, he's sympathetic about the reasoning behind the US's pre-eminent time trialists not taking the trip to Mendrisio. "I think Levi [Leipheimer] was straightforward as to why he didn't accept. He's not in top form and that guy hates to lose so he won't put himself in that position.

"I thought Zabriskie would go because he is on such good form right now. His season has been so long, though. I was hoping that he could go to see if he could give [Fabian] Cancellara a run for his money."

The Mendrisio World Championships will be only the second time in Zirbel's professional career that he's competed in Europe, but he's taking it all in his stride. "I don't think I can put any more pressure on myself than I did for the nationals time trial," he said. "I'm just going to enjoy the experience. Hopefully I'll put in a good effort. I think I should do pretty well."

Perhaps the movement of the Tour of California from its thrice previous early-February calendar slot to May for the 2010 edition will allow American professionals to better ease into the season. Not having to come out with all guns blazing at such an early stage of the year could leave some mental and physical freshness left for the latter portion of the season.

There's another element that could play a big role in the United States' ever-growing chances of future World Championship success: Luck. Armstrong, Leipheimer, Vande Velde, Hincapie and Horner all had their seasons disrupted due to fractured bones in 2009, with Vande Velde and Horner cursed with multiple fractures throughout the season. A healthy dose of good fortune for the country's star cyclists could be the ingredient required for rainbow glory.

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