Since Lance Armstrong won the rainbow jersey in Oslo, Norway in 1993 - one of the few remaining major victories left on his palmares - the United States has floundered when it comes to the elite men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships. Still the underdogs with a team of six to the 10 nations that have a full complement of nine riders, the country has selected a fresh crop of talent in hopes of turning around its somewhat poor string of results. Come Sunday afternoon in Ponferrada, what, short of a medal, would be considered a success for Team USA?
By fielding a young team, USA Cycling has put a clear focus on developing the country's talent for the future, and success for the country will look very different from countries such as Italy, Belgium or Spain.
In the past, the USA has struggled to fill its roster for the Worlds. During the Armstrong era, most of the country's top talent focussed on the Tour de France and were ready to hang up their wheels for the winter by the time Worlds rolled around. It resulted in the unlikely scenario of the country fielding an Italian with US citizenship, Guido Trenti, over some more enthusiastic and loyal US riders, and the results reflected the attitude.
Over the past 20 years, the top riders in the USA seemed to have lost interest in the World Championships. While Armstrong finished just off the podium upon his return from cancer in 1998 in Valkenburg, he was stripped of that result upon being convicted of doping by USADA in 2012. He then quickly shifted his focus from one-day racing to the Tour de France after winning the French Grand Tour in 1999, and for the next four years Chann McRae was the USA's top hope.
McRae was fifth in the sprint in Verona in 1999 behind Oscar Freire, and eighth in the sprint behind Romans Vainsteins in Plouay the next year, but since then, only two riders have even managed to crack the top 10: Chris Horner sprinted to eighth from an elite group of 15 riders in Verona, behind Freire, and Tyler Farrar was 10th behind Mark Cavendish in Copenhagen in 2011.
The bar of success for the Americans this year is, therefore, set quite low. The country has a wealth of young, developing talent, but lacks a rider of pedigree in the hillier one-day races. They go into the race with their hopes behind Alex Howes, 26, who was the top finisher in Florence last year, in 31st, in a crash-filled race of attrition.
Since then, Howes has taken a sizable leap in his form and confidence - he finished a close third in the US Pro championships behind his Worlds teammate Eric Marcotte. After putting a full Tour de France in his legs, Howes racked up a stage win and two close second places in the USA Pro Challenge on similarly difficult courses, albeit of a much shorter length than the one in Ponferrada.
If the team can avoid the type of carnage that it experienced in Florence, they can, in theory, challenge the top contenders, but Howes has yet to show himself against the likes of home favourite Alejandro Valverde or Simon Gerrans. In Canada, he worked for his Garmin-Sharp teammates, but in Ponferrada he will have at his service his good friend Kiel Reijnen, stage race specialists Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky, Marcotte, and workhorse Brent Bookwalter.
All of the riders in this year's line-up are fit, relatively fresh, and capable riders on hilly courses of normal length, but few have gone the distance over 260km. Howes was in the mix in the finale of the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, which bodes well for his ability to handle the length and difficulty of the Ponferrada circuit.
With only six riders, the team will have less of an obligation to work to bring back the inevitable early breakaway, but they will do well to put a rider up the road to save their captain. In an ideal scenario, Howes will have Talansky and van Garderen by his side on the last lap to either respond to the attacks or break up the bunch, and Reijnen to lead out the sprint.
If Team USA can put Howes and Reijnen into a group of 20 riders heading into the finish, a medal is a distinct possibility, but getting there is the hard part.
With a dearth of results in recent years, simply being at the head of affairs and doing something - anything - other than simply surviving to the line will be a victory for Team USA. A top 10 is a solid objective for Howes, because at age 26, when he starts to really hit his stride, the likes of Valverde and Gerrans will be long gone.
Top USA finishers in the UCI Road World Championship road race since 1993
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