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State of the Nation: Analysing USA Cycling's men's World Championships team

Composite image of the USA men's team for the UCI Road World Championships elite races
Composite image of the USA men's team for the UCI Road World Championships elite races (Image credit: Getty Images Sport/Bettini Photo)

Ahead of the 2021 UCI World Championships road races this weekend, Cyclingnews is taking a deep dive into the key teams.

History

Greg LeMond is the only American elite man to win two world championship titles, cementing his name into the history books first in 1983 in Altenrhein, Switzerland, where he soloed away to the rainbow jersey over Adri van der Poel and Stephen Roche, and then in 1989 in Chambéry, France, where he won from a small bunch kick over Dimitri Konyshev and Sean Kelly. 

The USA's only other elite men's world title came in 1993 when a young Lance Armstrong attacked in the rain and cold and soloed to victory over Miguel Indurain and Olaf Ludwig. While Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles after being banned for life for doping, he got to keep that gold medal. In the time trial, the US elite men have never taken the rainbow jersey, although Taylor Phinney came within five seconds of Tony Martin in 2013.

Lineup

  • Lawson Craddock (EF Education - Nippo)
  • Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar Team)
  • Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates)
  • Neilson Powless (EF Education - Nippo)
  • Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo)
  • Joey Rosskopf (Rally Cycling)

Key riders

USA Cycling did better last season than in the past three and qualified six places for the elite men's road race, compared with four, giving the team a much better chance at a medal on the punishing 268.3km Classics-style course in Flanders, Belgium.

The selection went mainly along with the UCI rankings, with San Sebastian winner Neilson Powless the country's top rider so far this season. Brandon McNulty, whose daring attack at the Tokyo Olympics sparked the winning move by Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), made the cut along with 2019 junior world champion Quinn Simmons and Matteo Jorgenson. Road race national champion Joey Rosskopf is the only non-WorldTour selection, getting an automatic selection with Lawson Craddock completing the roster.

The US will go into both the time trial and road race as underdogs with an outside shot at the medals. 

Time trial national champion Lawson Craddock has had the best time trial performance at Worlds of recent years, taking sixth in Yorkshire in 2019 but faced with the might of Filippo Ganna (Italy), Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel (Belgium), Stefan Küng (Switzerland), Rohan Dennis (Australia) and Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia), Craddock is more of a top-10 finisher than podium contender. Similarly, Brandon McNulty has had some shining moments against the clock, including the junior world title in 2016 and third in a TT stage of the 2020 Giro d'Italia, but has struggled to crack the top 20 against the clock in important one-day TT's at Worlds and the Olympic Games as an elite.

When it comes to the road race, it is going to be an opportunistic move that will give the US their best chance at a top result, and everyone on the team has been eager to go on the attack in recent races. 

Matteo Jorgenson was brilliant in the Tour of Britain, getting into the winning move on stage 7 and coming second to Yves Lampaert. He displayed tactical nous, strength and calm far beyond his 22 years of age on a demanding and lengthy parcours. The Worlds route is 75km longer, but a 17th place in last year's marathon Milan-San Remo shows he's up to the task of seven hours of racing.

Brandon McNulty, in just his second WorldTour season, has shown maturity, fearlessness and form both in the Olympics and earlier this season when he took the lead of the Tour of the Basque Country from none other than Primož Roglič after slipping into a late breakaway on stage 4. Although Roglič well and truly cracked McNulty on the final stage, the 23-year-old will undoubtedly have earned a role deep into the Worlds road race, if not as a protected rider then as a tactical foil.

Joey Rosskopf might have left the WorldTour behind for Rally Cycling, but he didn't lose the form that netted a second place to Rohan Dennis in a TT stage at the Vuelta a España in 2018. He was superb at the US national championships, where he claimed the road title in a hard-fought breakaway, and at the Tour de Suisse where he made the winning move on stage 4 and took third on the day. It is likely that the 32-year-old will play his part early in the race, chasing back dangerous moves or going on the attack.

Craddock and Rosskopf have similar qualities as riders - both are strong and selfless. The Texan put his teamwork skills on display in the Vuelta a España where he made the winning breakaway with EF Education-Nippo teammate Magnus Cort, then drove the pace and led the Dane out for the stage win. With form like that, Craddock will likely be used to mark important moves that come after the early break has been reeled in and look to get in a move with a sprinter like Jorgenson or Simmons.

Neilson Powless is undoubtedly the strongest climber of the group, having put his prowess on display with a victory in the Clásica San Sebastián. To out-sprint riders like Matej Mohoric and Mikkel Honoré from a small breakaway is no mean feat. The Native American will most certainly be one of the US's protected riders if he's still on form after six weeks away from competition.

That leaves Quinn Simmons, who has certainly proved his mettle with his junior title in Yorkshire and at the elite level with a stage win and overall victory in this year's Tour de Wallonie. He's just finished his first Grand Tour and showed the benefits of it with third from the breakaway on stage 18. But Simmons has yet to prove himself in an important one-day race at the elite level although he's showed his class in endurance off-road races like Leadville. Although Simmons has the potential to be a future contender for Worlds and the Classics, the 20-year-old may simply be earning his stripes in Flanders this year.

Strengths

The selection is the best the country has to offer for the elite men's road race. The best scenario for the US is an unexpected early breakaway that sticks, one without Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mathieu van der Poel, or Julian Alaphilippe, or a late attack that catches the favourites napping. None of the riders on the team have a sprint to match those big names but all have shown capable of contending from a breakaway.

Of the team, Jorgenson and Powless seem the best poised to make that move. Another advantage is the tenacity each and every one of these riders has shown in recent weeks and the fact that Powless, Craddock and McNulty raced Worlds together in 2020 and the two EF riders in 2019, while McNulty and Craddock represented the US well in Tokyo. Loyalty is another of the team's strong suits, and you're unlikely to see any of them throwing their race away to help a trade teammate from another country.

Weaknesses

The country would have been better off if they'd qualified extra riders to go with the early moves like Robin Carpenter or Larry Warbasse. The US men don't seem to have a single rider who can go up against the might of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe, and Belgium, France and possible rivals Denmark, all have full complements.

On a course as demanding as the one in Belgium, it's going to be only the strongest who survive. Powless' victory in San Sebastián was impressive, no doubt, but the start list was somewhat watered down by the conflict with the Olympic Games and close proximity to the Tour de France. 

Barring unforeseen circumstances like a crash, or a massive miscalculation in catching the breakaway, the race will end up like Tour of Flanders, with riders coming across in small groups. If one of the Americans is in the first or second group, USA Cycling will consider that a major result.

The view from the USA

It's been a very long time since the US men won with LeMond, and a lot more recently that they saw Armstrong bring the entire sport into disgrace. If there are cycling fans left in the country, they're more likely to follow the exploits of Pete Stetina and Ian Boswell in gravel races and feats of endurance or Simmons' controversial social media activity than they are to be aware of their men's road racers. The women have been far more successful than the men, and the lack of a superstar from the country's 'more visible' side of the sport has hurt cycling's popularity here. If one of these six riders could pull off a world championship title, it might just make headlines in the mainstream press (or at least The Wall Street Journal, the only publication with a sportswriter who's shown an interest in cycling).

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news.