US racing: 8 conclusions at year's halfway point

The North Star Grand Prix's conclusion on Sunday also wrapped up the unofficial first half of the US racing season, with teams and riders taking a short break from the action while the U23s, juniors and amateurs compete for the National Championships at Lake Tahoe, and the speedsters rack up the criterium miles at the Tour of America's Dairyland.

The women's National Racing Calendar (NRC), won this year by Optum Pro Cycling's Leah Kirchmann, is already complete, while the men have just the Reading 120 left in the series. The stage racers are now eyeing the Cascade Cycling Classic in mid-July as the race to warm up the legs for the big trophies that lie ahead at the Tour of Utah, USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and Tour of Alberta. The US domestic teams will also be looking to take a crack at the team time trial world championship in Richmond.

In the list that follows, Cyclingnews takes a look at eight things we learned from the first half of the 2015 season.

Two steps forward and one step back for women's cycling

The momentum continues to build for women's cycling this year, with the Tour of California presenting a three-day stage race to go along with the time trial it has promoted since 2012, and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic moving to World Cup status and drawing a world-class field for the women's race, which was moved into the prime-time spot in the middle of the day. The women's peloton has been taking advantage of the increased attention by showing off an aggressive brand of racing that often outshines the men's oftentimes more formulaic approach. News that the USA Pro Challenge is adding a three-day women's race and the Tour of Utah is adding a second event to create a two-day criterium omnium continued to build on the momentum.

Although the positive signs abound, the North Star Grand Prix's recent decision to drop its women's event this year due to a lack of registered participants (Carmen Small ended up racing in the men's event), and the bikini-model clad podium at the women’s Diamond Tour in Belgium were reminders that there's always more work to be done.

The kids are alright: Hincapie Racing Team grows up

When the former Hincapie Sportswear Development Team changed its name this year to Hincapie Racing, director Thomas Craven told Cyclingnews the simplified moniker wasn't part of any marketing plan or sponsorship strategy, it simply reflected the team's growth. The South Carolina-based squad that originally started as a development program for BMC's WorldTour outfit wasn't a “kids team” anymore, he said earlier this year.

The way Craven's team opened the first half of 2015, it's safe to say that message has been sent and received. The team started cracking through the ceiling last year, when Joey Rosskopf won the Redlands Bicycle Classsic and then rode neck and neck with Cadel Evans during the queen stage in Utah. Toms Skujiņš dominated the Tour de Beauce in Canada, and Robin Carpenter took a gutsy stage win at the USA Pro Challenge.

Craven's crew has kicked it up another notch so far this year. Although Hincapie didn't repeat the Redlands win, the team picked up the inaugural US team time trial championship heading into the Tour of California, where Skujiņš won stage 3 and wore the yellow jersey of the race leader for three days.

The team's aggressive riding style has paid off with multiple wins and podium finishes so far in 2015, including Skujiņš' victory at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic. The team is all over every breakaway it seems, while Craven keeps the atmosphere light and fun. The team's success has led to talk of moving up to the highest level, and, at the moment at least, any road blocks to that goal look surmountable.

The best laid plans of mice and men ...

While Hincapie Racing's fortunes appear to be on the rise, the same can't be said for Chris Horner, the 43-year-old winner of the 2013 Vuelta a España who returned to the US domestic peloton this year with Airgas-Safeway.

When news broke that Horner had signed with the second-year Continental team earlier this year and was returning to the domestic scene from a long and fruitful European career, talk centered around just how dominant the four-time NRC winner would be. But predictions that Horner would be a big fish playing in a small pond haven't panned out so far, as Horner has struggled to crack the top 10 in some races and has complained of lingering bronchial infection that started during last year's Tour de France.

Combined with the team having missed out on an invitation to this year's Tour of California, a race Horner won in 2011, his season has been a bit of a bust so far. Granted, expectations are high for Horner, who finished seventh at Redlands, ninth at Tour of the Gila and fourth at the Tour d'Azerbaïdjan, but it's hard to imagine that a string of top-10 finishes – with no wins – is what he was hoping for when he agreed to return to domestic racing.

The team will be racing at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in July, although Horner is currently not on the provisional roster for that race, and Airgas has been lobbying hard for inclusion on Utah, Colorado or Alberta. It remains to be seen of Horner can climb back up onto the podiums of those races.

Lightning rarely strikes twice

When team SmartStop decided between the 2013 and 2014 seasons to morph from a criterium-focused squad into a stage racing outfit for the big North American UCI races, few imagined they would have the type of dream season that last year turned into. A national road title for Eric Marcotte and an NRC individual crown for Travis McCabe came along with a string of stage wins, one-day victories and two days in yellow at the Tour of Utah. There was no doubt SmartStop had arrived.

Rewards came this year in the form of a first-ever invitation to the Tour of California and a well-respected spot in the peloton, but the eye-opening level of results that came in 2014 have slowed down a bit. The team remains an incredible success story – the management group started a women's UCI squad this year, Rob Britton won Tour of the Gila and Eric Marcotte is the national criterium champ – but director Mike Creed and his riders set a high bar last year. Creed admitted earlier this year it would be hard to make lightning strike twice, maybe his SmartStop outfit can add some more flashes later this year in Utah, Colorado or Alberta.

A calendar in crisis: the slowly evaporating NRC

The US professional road racing schedule is organized around USA Cycling's NRC, the National Championships and the big UCI races that take place in May [Tour of California], August [Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge] and September [Tour of Alberta]. One of the legs of that foundation, however, appears to be getting shakier and shakier.

When USA Cycling separated criteriums into their own National Criterium Calendar (NCC), the NRC was pared down to just a handful of events for the men and women. Economics and other factors have whittled the calendar down even further, so that in 2015 there were only eight total events, six for the women and seven for the men.

Oregon's Cascade Cycling Classic, the country's oldest professional stage race, dropped out of the NRC this year, citing a lack of return on the extra expense that goes along with being part of the NRC, which offers no prize list and is not well-promoted by USA Cycling. Two of the races that remain on the Calendar; Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and North Star Grand Prix in Minnesota, faced sponsorship troubles that, but for last-minute saviors, almost forced them to cancel completely.

The once-mighty, season-long NRC is now a shell of its former self and shows no signs of getting better. The North Star women's cancellation and the loss of Cascade means that the 2015 women's NRC ended at the Philly race during the first week of June, while the men have only one race remaining, the one-day Reading 120 in September.

Stars-and-stripes jerseys are heading back to Europe

It doesn't look like US domestic racing fans will have much chance to see the professional stars-and-stripes jerseys in action during the rest of this season or the first half of 2016. European-based pros won three of the four jerseys at this year's championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Cannondale-Garmin's Andrew Talansky taking the men's time trial, Trek Factory Racing's Matthew Busche winning the men's road race and Boels Dolmans' Megan Guarnier taking her second women's road title. Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong, who has come out of retirement, took the women's time trial crown.

The jersey tally is reversed from last year, when domestic pros took three of the four jerseys. UnitedHealthcare's Alison Powers, since retired, won the titles in both the road race and time trial, while Team SmartStop's Eric Marcotte won the road race. BMC's Taylor Phinney was the lone Euro-based jersey winner after taking out the time trial. Although it's always nice to see the US jersey represented in the big European races, it's presence in the smaller races back home will be missed.

A fresh start for USA Cycling?

The governing body for the US has been undergoing a facelift this season, first with Bob Stapleton taking over as chairman of the board and then a retirement announcement from longtime CEO Steve Johnson, who ran the organization through the growth years that came with Lance Armstrong's Tour de France success and then his ultimate downfall after USADA revealed systematic PED use. Former Armstrong teammate David Zabriskie claimed he told Johnson about the PED use on the US Postal Service team on multiple occasions, but Johnson denied those conversations ever occurred. It's not clear whether those allegations – and the cumulative affect of the revelations about Armstrong and US Postal team during Johnson's tenure – prompted his departure from USA Cycling. But he will step down after the UCI Road World Championships this September in Richmond, Virginia.

Johnson's replacement, Derek Brouchard-Hall, 44, has been widely heralded as a solid successor by the US racing community. Brouchard-Hall, who has an MBA from Harvard, raced professionally in the 1990s and is the 1998 US criterium champion. Following his retirement from racing, Brouchard-Hall worked in business consulting as well as the federal Small Business Association’s HUBZone program. He spent the past four years running international sales and pricing at online bike retailer Wiggle.

Although it is unclear how the organization will change under the new leadership, the opportunity to improve its outreach to grassroots racing and increase its focus on clean sport is exciting.

Philly is back!

In its heyday, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic was a top-level international race that brought out tough competition that tested US athletes at their limits. As the US professional championship through 2005, the top American finisher claimed the stars-and-stripes jersey of the US champion. But when USA Cycling decided to limit the field for the championships to only American riders, Philly lost its grip on the championship so that it could draw international fields.

Enthusiasm for the race waned in the following years, and eventually a crippling debt to the city forced a possible cancellation. But a new management group and support from the city teamed up to rescue the race last year. A new, shorter-but-more-intense course that starts and finishes on the Manayunk, combined with new sponsors, appear to have the race back on an upward trajectory. The men's race is back on the UCI calendar, and this year's women's race also served as a round of the UCI's World Cup series. The 2015 winners, Carlos Barbero from Spain and Lizzie Armitstead from Great Britain, put a spotlight on the return of this international one-day classic.

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.