The American elite men have not fared well in the UCI Road World Championships, particularly in the road race, since the 1990s. While Lance Armstrong may have been our most recent world champion - and he was able to keep that result despite his lifetime ban for doping and the loss of all of his Tour de France victories - the next generation of riders continues to try to recreate the country's image into something everyone can celebrate. Promising riders from the junior, U23 and elite ranks are keen to fill the void and some may be closer to the top than we know.
The US elite men have been hampered by its best riders being scattered across the WorldTour, as opposed to teams like Sky, Orica-GreenEdge, Movistar or Katusha who have most of their respective country's talent. Americans have also largely served as domestiques and have not been in a position to score the WorldTour points necessary to earn a full nine-man team.
Their top point scorer, Tejay van Garderen (BMC) left the Tour de France while third overall due to illness and missed an opportunity to garner a lot of points, then crashed out of the Vuelta, breaking his right shoulder and missing Worlds. Their second rider, Andrew Talansky, had a terrible second part of the season and wasn't chosen for the team.
Alex Howes and Ben King (Cannondale-Garmin), Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin) and Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka) are all fine riders in their own right, but perhaps only Taylor Phinney, who has only just returned from injury, has the pedigree to become the kind of champion the country has lacked.
USA Cycling's VP of Athletics Jim Miller said developing riders to become champions of one-day races is difficult. "We've developed some really good stage racers. Phinney had a pretty horrific accident which took him out for a year and a half, otherwise I think he would be that one-day rider you'd go to, and the one we'd hoped we'd be going to."
The American elite men's team has unity going for them - there is none of the infighting or prima donna attitudes that some nations struggle with when stars from across the WorldTour come together and try to hash out who is their leader. The bigger teams like Belgium and Italy have brought both their top sprinters and their best Classics riders. The US has four opportunists, one sprinter and one huge question mark in Phinney.
"I think everyone on the men's side is planning two scenarios, one if it gets really punchy and aggressive at the end of the race, you have a Classics-style guy like Valverde or Stybar, we hope Howes and Bookwalter will be fresh enough to follow that. They were last year - Howes was 13th, and Brent led him out. Hopefully they can follow those moves and we can get them to the point they're fresh enough, hydrated, fuelled up so they can follow those moves. If it's not, and a lot of people agree it's not an overly selective course minus the last 3k, if it's not selective, and you come to the line with 20 or 30 guys, our hope is that Farrar can be there. If he's there, I don't think a top 10 is out of the question for him."
Miller would not go so far as to say the team would race for Phinney if the going got tough, and it's clear he is being protected from too much pressure being placed on him for the road race. His main focus has to be earning the critical top 10 in the individual time trial in order to secure the country a berth in the 2016 Olympics. But secretly? Everyone hopes Phinney can be there in the end, it's just unknown if he can manage 260km this soon after his return.
"He's the absolute leader of this team on and off the bike," Miller said, qualifying the term 'leader'. "Just by being in the team he makes the team better. Guys believe in him, and they should. I happen have directed him a lot as a Junior and U23 and on the track. The one thing I learned with him is you can never say it's impossible. He always rises to the occasion above and beyond what you think is reasonable and surprises the crap out of you."
Phinney is the sentimental favourite, but Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) is also a popular rider in this country, and was one of the key riders to earning the USA its six spots for Worlds through his results in the UCI America Tour. Miller says a his absence on the team is due to his race programme.
"I like Kiel, he's a good guy. He will always do the right thing and race for the team. But with no race program from the end of Colorado to Richmond, minus Bucks County? It's really hard to expect a guy to race at a World Championship level over 260km with a month of no racing."
Women, Juniors leading the medal charge
The US women have been the country's top performers for years, and thanks to the efforts of a core group of professional women after the 2012 Olympics, they are finally starting to get their due in the sport.
Kristin Armstrong, a dual Olympic gold medalist, has returned from retirement with an eye on Rio, but will only race the individual time trial. She was notably absent from her Twenty16-Sho Air squads team time trial, and will not compete with Team USA in the road race on Saturday.
While Armstrong is a favourite for the time trial podium, the country also has Evelyn Stevens, who has been on the podium every year except 2013, just never on the top step. They also have Carmen Small, who was third in 2013, so any one of them could end up on the podium.
The road race has been a different story for the women. There's been less cohesion and no one rider who could match defending champion Pauline Ferrand Prevot, or Marianne Vos, or the Italians who are always exceptionally strong come Worlds. This year, they have better options than ever: Megan Guarnier has had an exceptional season that included a win in Strade Bianche, leading the Giro Donne then finishing third overall with a stage win and four second places under her belt. Stevens has not been as successful this year but has come into form, Shelley Olds had a mid-season switch of teams and started winning again, and Coryn Rivera has shown herself to be more than just a criterium sprinter. Time trialists Tayler Wiles and Allie Dragoo, and the ever consistent Lauren Stephens round out the team.
This year, Miller hopes the formula is right for success on home soil.
"I think it's one of the better teams we've ever had. I think the team is set up to do a couple things. If [the race] gets hard in the end, Megan [Guarnier] and Evie are really good and can follow anyone in the world up those climbs. Should it not be down to three to five people in a Flanders-style selection, I think Shelley [Olds] and Coryn [Rivera] are absolutely world class sprinters. It gives us a couple cards to play and a couple scenarios. There's a high potential you could have a Megan and a Shelley, or Evie and Coryn make a selection, then you have even more options. With that team, on this course, we're really well covered. We can execute a tactic that we want, and if we have to be reactionary we can react."
The American juniors have been consistently excellent this year. The boys won the Nations Cup, Adrien Costa won the Tour du Pays de Vaud and Tour de l'Abitibi, with Brandon McNulty second. It's hard to imagine a scenario where one of them will not be on the podium.
"Adrien Costa, Brandon McNulty have won every GC and every time trial they've entered between the two of them," Miller said. "Everyone has a lot of expectations and hopes for [the junior men]."
The junior women have a few tricks up their sleeves: Chloe Dygert has been showing herself in sprints in the elite ranks, while using junior gears. She was second to Shelley Olds in a downhill sprint in Nevada City in May, and fourth in the time trial at the Cascade Classic in addition to her double national titles.
It's the U23 men who will be the most unpredictable, Miller says. "That's always the wildest race of the World Championships. It's really tough to control. If there's any race that will have big splits, and big breaks, groups that just ride away American crit style, I think it's that group. We have good riders, Daniel Eaton and Logan Owen have both made names for themselves late this summer. Colin Joyce and Tyler Williams have been really good. Also, they are younger guys, they're 20, 21, they're not on their way out to WorldTour teams. As long as we race hard and are aggressive I think that we'll be satisfied with whatever happens.
"We have high aspirations, if we just go through the time trial lists, we have some exceptional riders. To come away with one medal or one jersey would be undershooting. I'd rather under promise and over deliver, but I don't think that out of the TT's, three medals is unrealistic.
"I hope that our junior men and women have a shot at the road race, I know our elite women absolutely do. The elite and U23 men will certainly bleed through their eyeballs before they give up the ghost. As long as they're motivated to suffer, you always have a shot."
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