Three weeks ago, when seven Americans and four Canadians rolled down the start ramp in Copenhagen to kick off the 2022 Tour de France, few would have expected the race to conclude as – depending on how you view Tour history – the best race from a North American perspective since the Greg LeMond years.
The USA had waited a decade for a Tour stage win since Tyler Farrar's Redon sprint win in 2011 before Jumbo-Visma's Sepp Kuss soared to victory in Andorra last year. This time around, Israel-Premier Tech rider Hugo Houle broke a Canadian stage win duck stretching back to Steve Bauer in 1988.
There was GC success, too, as EF Education-EasyPost climber Neilson Powless – who lay four seconds off the yellow jersey at one point in the race – took either country's best result in seven years with 13th place in Paris.
After a nadir of just three North American starters in 2017, the numbers are also looking up, with the 11 men taking on the Tour the joint-most since the days of LeMond, Hampsten, Bauer and 7-Eleven at the 1986 race.
Away from Houle's emotional win in Foix and Powless' GC battling, the likes of Kuss and Brandon McNulty played vital roles for GC contenders Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar in the high mountains, while numerous others – Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) – were mainstays in the breakaway.
Over the closing stages of this year's Tour, Cyclingnews spoke to several of the riders involved in what has been a very successful three weeks in France for the USA and Canada to find out what they thought of their own achievements at the race.
"It was a good Tour for North America, for sure," Powless told Cyclingnews outside the EF Education-EasyPost bus as the post-Tour celebrations were ramping up on the Champs-Elysées.
"It feels like we've come a long way from just Sepp and I a few years ago. So, it's really good to see and I think that the USA definitely deserves it. We have a lot of really strong riders.
"We don't have like the most riders in the peloton, but they're guys that are there are all really quality guys. So, hopefully, we can continue to race at the top level and hopefully inspire more Americans to do the same."
Powless, the first Native American to race the Tour on making his debut two years ago, made the break four times during the race and fought for the stage win on two of the most prestigious stage finishes – Arenberg and L'Alpe d'Huez.
He finished fourth on both, with the first launching him to within 13 seconds of the race lead, a margin that narrowed to just four the next day in Longwy. In the end, he didn't make it into the maillot jaune but vowed to keep trying for that and for stage victories in future.
"It's the highest I've finished in the Tour so that feels good and early on," Powless said. "I came super close to [yellow] this year. Coming here next year I think it's definitely going to take a bit of luck to get into the same situation again but getting that close has made me realise that it's possible.
"So even if it's not possible to win the thing overall, I think it's definitely a possibility to at least hold the yellow jersey, so that's definitely going to be a big goal for me next year.
"Hopefully next year they'll let me go for stages early on, which hopefully will in turn help me go for the yellow jersey. As they saw I'm not the biggest threat in the high mountain stages, so hopefully, they'll give me a little bit more space next year."
'Everybody has so many different skillsets'
Jorgenson, this year making his Tour de France debut with Spanish squad Movistar, was also a breakaway staple during the race, getting out front three times and finishing in the top five on each stage, including on the Megève summit finish where he was within 10 seconds of glory.
The 23-year-old Californian suffered a crash while chasing Houle's victorious solo ride into Foix, suffering cuts and grazes that limited him in the final days of the race. However, two days before Paris, he told Cyclingnews that he thought he and his fellow North Americans had enjoyed a good race.
"It's been a good Tour," he said. "I had a good middle section where my form was on the rise and I was getting better day by day so I was really just trying to take advantage of every day and trying to go in all the breaks and fight for stage wins where I could.
"I've been really super happy to see all of us up there. I've known these guys for a long time and I've kind of seen the work that we've all put in behind the scenes. To even just become a professional from North America is a super tough job.
"I'm just super happy that we're starting to kind of come back and show a presence in professional cycling again because it's been a while where Americans haven't been at the top. I think that we've all put a bunch of work in to be here and it's super good to see."
Fellow Tour neophyte Quinn Simmons could also frequently be seen in breaks during the race, getting up the road five times. His aggressive riding, which also helped teammate Mads Pedersen to breakaway victory in Saint-Etienne, put him in the running for the super-combativity prize at the race's end, having taken the daily prize on stage 19 in Cahors.
Elsewhere, the other rider in the peloton hailing from the small city of Durango in southern Colorado, Sepp Kuss, was busy doing mega turns in the Alps and Pyrenees on behalf of eventual winner Jonas Vingegaard as Jumbo-Visma beat Tadej Pogačar at the third time of asking.
"Yeah, it's been great," Kuss told Cyclingnews in the middle of a long media round on the Champs-Elysées. "I think every year everybody steps up a level and it's just out there to animate the race. It's cool to be part of that next generation. Everybody has so many different skill sets and it's just super cool.
"I think every year that I've done the Tour it's just been more and more special always for different reasons," he said a day earlier. "But I think always the recurring theme is that there's always bad or low points and then later high points.
"But that shows the character of the team that we have that no matter what happens just in sports in general, there's always lower points but then when everybody striving for the best sometimes really cool things can happen. So it's been a privilege to be a part of that this year."
Other riders who left their mark on this year's race include Woods, who helped Houle to that famous stage win – Israel-Premier Tech's second of the race – having struggled through the early part of the Tour following a crash, and Brandon McNulty, who was a consistent super-domestique presence for Pogačar as the rest of the UAE Team Emirates squad fell victim to crashes and COVID-19.
Powless said that he's hopeful that the current momentum can be sustained, noting that the development routes and grassroots programs have to continue and progress so the stream of talented young North Americans can keep flowing.
"Hopefully the USA keeps developing athletes like that because it was really just grassroots things that helped us get to this level," he said. "Without that, we wouldn't have been here, so I hope that grassroots teams and races continue and keep popping up to support young athletes. That's the biggest hurdle."
While Israel-Premier Tech – shot through with Canadian influence – can (and do) refer to themselves as a half-Israeli, half-Canadian team, and the international squads of EF Education-First and Trek-Segafredo are registered in the US, there's currently no single 'natural home' for North American riders in the peloton – as the likes of US Postal and 7-Eleven might once have been.
Instead, the current crop of talented Americans and Canadians are spread far and wide around the WorldTour. Maybe cycling has progressed beyond the days of quasi-national teams at the top level, but for Jorgenson, that notion was still nice to think about.
"There's no American team right now," he said. "So maybe one day be super cool to be teammates with these guys. I think it'd be a really cool atmosphere to be on a team that's mostly American. That would be super cool, but you'd have to have a big sponsor for that."
North Americans at the 2022 Tour de France
- Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) – 13th
- Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) – 18th
- Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) – 20th
- Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) – 21st
- Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech – 24th, stage win
- Joe Dombrowski (Astana Qazaqstan) – 43rd
- Antoine Duchesne (Groupama-FDJ) – 62nd
- Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) – 67th
- Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech) – DNS, stage 21
- Guillaume Boivin (Israel-Premier Tech) – DNS, stage 21
- Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM) – DNF, stage 8
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