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State of the Nation: Analysing USA Cycling's women's 2021 World Championships team

Composite image of six riders on USA Cycling's women's squad for 2021 World Championships
Composite image of six riders on USA Cycling's women's squad for 2021 World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

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

Here is a look at the women's team for the United States.

History

The United States have always been a threat in the elite women's time trial at the UCI Road World Championships, winning the gold seven times since 1994 when the rainbow jersey was first presented to women in the discipline and Karen Kurreck carving her name in the history books that year. 

In the past 16 years, Americans have earned 11 podium spots including world titles for Mari Holden (2000), Kristin Armstrong (2006, 2009), Amber Neben (2008, 2016) and Chloe Dygert (2019). 

In the road race the US secured a world title in the event only twice - 1980 with Beth Heiden and 1969 with Audrey McElmury. Other colours of shiny hardware have also been few and far between, Megan Guarnier last taking a bronze in Richmond in 2015.

Line-up

Key riders

Starting with the time trial, a few chinks in the American armour have cropped up leading to Flanders. 

US Pro time trial champion Chloe Dygert declined her automatic nomination, ending her season early due to continued rehabilitation for her left leg, which was severely lacerated in a crash at last year’s time trial in Imola. 

Neben, who was second in the US Pro time trial nationals and fifth in Tokyo Olympics, is not sure of being 100 per cent, or even to take the start line. She is recovering from three non-displaced fractures in her pelvis suffered when a car collided with her while she was on a training ride on August 22.

With less than one week until the 22.1km individual time trial, Leah Thomas will carry the hopes for a medal for the US team. She was seventh in Harrogate in 2019 and fifth in Innsbruck in 2018, and she’s certainly on top form.

The bronze medalist at the US Pro Time Trial Championships in June, Thomas was just 50 seconds off the winning pace of Dygert, with Neben taking silver. She had a top five finish at Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta’s uphill time trial, her first race after the Tokyo Olympic Games and is coming off the overall win at the seven-day Tour de l’Ardèche. 

Thomas will line up again five days later for the 157.7km road race, where she’ll be joined by reigning national champion Lauren Stephens, Coryn Rivera, Ruth Winder, Tayler Wiles and Kristen Faulkner

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OYAMA JAPAN JULY 28 Amber Neben of Team United States rides during the Womens Individual time trial on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Fuji International Speedway on July 28 2021 in Oyama Shizuoka Japan Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

A healthy Amber Neben was fifth in the time trial at the Tokyo Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty Images)

Rivera, who took the silver medal behind Stephens at June’s US Pro nationals, was the top US rider at the hilly road race in Tokyo at the Olympic Games, finishing seventh. As the only US woman to have won the Tour of Flanders, having done so in 2017, she says the Worlds course more closely resembles Brabantse Pijl rather than the Tour of Flanders course, but is still “punchy and a classic Belgian-style race” which suits her and her teammates.

"The bulk of the climbing is in the middle of the race at Worlds, on the Flandrien circuit, and the race might open up at that point, which is quite similar to the Brabantse Pijl. Whereas at the Tour of Flanders, the bulk of the decisive climbs are in succession at the end of the race, making for a decisive final,” said Rivera, who also won a stage at the Giro d'Italia Donne this year.

Looking at the most recent edition of Brabantse Pijl, four of the six Americans on the Worlds team finished in the top 20, with Ruth Winder taking the victory with a bike throw at the line in Overijse and Thomas just off the podium in fourth. A nod goes to Winder for taking the win on that 127.3km course. She is also in good form with a win at the Women’s WorldTour Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa in July, and first place on stage 4 win at Tour de l’Ardèche. She’s also got the intangible motivation, as it will be her final appearance in the Worlds with retirement at the end of the season.

Winder’s key support at Brabantse Pijl was Trek-Segafredo teammate, Taylor Wiles, who finished in 11th position. Wiles was also in the top five of both the TT and road race at US Pro nationals in June. 

Stephens was 17th in Brabantse Pijl and has mixed more than 14 days of criterium and gravel racing with 25 days of UCI road competitions and the US Pro road title this year, winning Unbound Gravel 100 and podiums at SBT GRVL and The Rift Gravel. She finished fifth on the first stage of Tour de l’Ardèche, but withdrew prior to stage 5 due to continued pain in her right arm from vibrations on the road. 

“I’m excited about Worlds I think we are bringing a strong team that can fight for the win. This will be my fifth World Championships. I’m always excited to be selected to represent USA at such a special event,” Stephens told Cyclingnews.

Kristin Faulkner has the most experience this year with nine one-day races, and has four top 10s including third place in the GP de Plouay two weeks ago. She also won a stage at the Tour of Norway. The Alaskan native was involved in a stage 3 crash at Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, and has taken time off the bike to heal.

Strengths

The American have numbers in the road race, and all six riders are riding strong. 

While Winder has the benefit of a Trek-Segafredo teammate with Wiles, Stephens has a TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank alliance with Faulkner to help with strategy, which played a key role in her solo victory at US nationals. 

The two riders with surging form this deep in the season are Rivera and Thomas. Coming off a strong GC victory at Tour de l’Ardeche and her fourth-place finish at Brabantse Pijl, look for Thomas or Rivera to make a push for the line, and the win, in Leuven, but the Americans have ample firepower to launch a different rider if they make the break.

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Leah Thomas (Movistar)

Leah Thomas won the overall title at the Tour de l’Ardeche (Image credit: Movistar Team / Gomez Sport)

Weaknesses

The Worlds course is very long and lumpy, 20km longer than Brabantse Pijl. 

The six tough climbs in the middle on the Flandrien loop will undoubtedly allow for breaks in the peloton, including familiar climbs from Brabantse Pijl of the steep, cobbled ascent of the Moskestraat and the S-Bocht climb in Overijse. Then legs will continue to suffer for the final 10 short climbs on the local Leuven circuits to the finish line. 

If the Americans cannot work as a team to get a pair of riders in a break for the final circuits, then they'll have to settle for placings and allow the powerful Dutch and talented Italian squads to charge for rainbow stripes. 

The view from the USA

There were higher hopes for medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games for American riders, an early Worlds indicator each quadrennial campaign for riders lining up with home nations rather than trade teams. 

The time trial in Tokyo delivered top 10s for Neben and Dygert, but with only Neben on the team for the World Championships, and not expected to be fully recovered from hip fractures, that leaves Thomas as a wild card. 

In the road race in Tokyo, only Rivera finished in the top 10. The return home without medals was disappointing, but may provide the spark for a number of riders to make amends in Flanders. Look for the US women to up their game with a real game plan.

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Jackie Tyson

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling for people of all abilities and ages. Tyson has been recognized for communications excellence with 10 Phoenix Awards, presented by the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp - and was recognized by a national media outlet as the first female depicted in a pro baseball card set (Ft. Myers Royals). She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times. Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in  Provence (France). Her favorite mountain bike rides are in Park City, Utah (USA).