Team USA aiming for seven medals in Olympic cycling events in Tokyo
'Don't sleep on Craddock' says head of elite athletics, Jim Miller
After bringing home five medals at the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, USA Cycling's Head of Elite Athletics, Jim Miller, says the federation is aiming for seven medals in the Olympic cycling events in Tokyo.
That aim is midway between Rio and the country's record of nine medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the expectations are spread across all of the disciplines, from road, track, mountain bike and BMX.
Conversing with Cyclingnews via email from Japan, Miller said the Team USA mood is "excited and optimistic" as the athletes settle into their pre-Games preparations in Tokyo for BMX, Mt Fuji to prepare for the road, or in Izu where the mountain bike and track events take place.
"Our goal all along has been seven medals, we think we're capable of that," Miller says, naming the women's time trial, mountain bike, team pursuit, omnium and the men's and women's BMX as opportunities for medals.
Some of those objectives come with caveats, most notably in the form of Chloe Dygert's serious laceration to her quadriceps sustained in a collision with a guardrail during the 2020 UCI Road World Championships time trial in Imola, Italy, last September.
Dygert, a silver medalist in the team pursuit in Rio and a former world champion in the time trial, showed she was on form at the USA Pro Road Championships in Knoxville, where she won the individual time trial over fellow Tokyo competitor Amber Neben by 27 seconds on the 23.2km course.
Miller says Dygert is a contender for the gold medal in the time trial, even going up against the dominant Dutch riders Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten.
"To come back from the injury she sustained and even be in the medal conversation is significant," Miller said. "The amount of effort, energy, discipline, and focus from day one after the crash in Imola is a testament to just how badly she wants to win - [she's been] single-minded, and laser-focused on 'what do I need to do?'," Miller said.
For the women's road race, the Dutch are again the favourites but Miller says the sports directors are looking for riders to be opportunistic. In Rio, Mara Abbott was the clear leader as one of the world's best climbers. In Tokyo, the team has a number of potential winners in Giro Donne stage winners Ruth Winder and Coryn Rivera, Dygert and rouleur Leah Thomas.
"In the past, we've had a clear leader and tactic. We've been successful at creating scenarios we wanted, but that's not the case in Tokyo," Miller said. "We don't have a clear leader on the road, but that does allow us to be opportunistic, more aggressive, take more chances and try to develop a scenario that we can work with."
The USA only qualified two spots for the men's road race and time trial, but Miller still has high hopes for Lawson Craddock and Brandon McNulty.
"Don't sleep on Craddock. He's been singularly focused on the time trial and for the last six weeks has been performing at the same level he was at in Yorkshire, where he finished sixth, three seconds off the podium," Miller said.
McNulty arguably has the better palmares, having been third to Tokyo time trial favourites Filippo Ganna and Rohan Dennis in last year's Giro d'Italia stage 14 time trial, but Miller says his chances will depend on how he recovers from the Tour de France.
"In my opinion, Brandon is one of the most talented time trialists of his generation. For me, the question with Brandon is how well has he recovered from the Tour. If he's recovered well, then I would expect a lot from him. The question mark is always how beat up are they after a Grand Tour and how quickly can they recover from that racing load."
For the road race, with only Craddock and McNulty against the likes of Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar and Slovenian teammate Primoz Roglic (Slovenia), Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) and a slew of other favourites, Miller says the key will be to be conservative in the first half of the race.
"It's pretty simple, make selections, don't waste energy and see what we have towards the second half of the race," he says.
Riders have been raving about the Izu mountain bike course, which features numerous short, sharp climbs, a massive rock garden and plenty of technical features to suit well-rounded racers.
"I have been at the MTB venue all week. I like this course a lot, I think it suits our team well," Miller says.
"I think it is more comparable physiologically to Lenzerheide. It's a really short, punchy, technical track. There is not a lot of recovery, it's demanding up and down.
"Technically it's a very impressive track. It has some big features, but I will say at race speed it rolls much better than it does in training. Aesthetically this venue is gorgeous. Paul Davis built a great race course.
The USA has a former world champion in Kate Courtney for the mountain bike cross country race and, although she fractured her wrist in the Albstadt World Cup and missed competition earlier this year, Miller says both she and fellow medal contender Haley Batten are healthy and on top form and he also has high hopes for the sole male competitor Christopher Blevins.
"Kate and Haley are young, they're hungry, they believe in themselves, and they believe they're capable of winning. That's a great place to be. Both are healthy, both on exceptional form.
"I really believe in this group. I think Blevins is so close to a breakout performance. It's been there all spring, but one thing or another has happened and the big result hasn't popped. Right now he's riding exceptionally well, there's no pressure on him. I just like where he's at for the moment.
After coming so close to gold in Rio - coming within two-tenths of a second of Great Britain in the first round before taking silver in the finals where their rivals set world records each time, Miller thinks the team have a good chance at gold in Tokyo.
There haven't been any major international track events where all the top teams have been together since the 2020 World Championships in Berlin at the start of the pandemic, so it's difficult to know what to expect of their competitors.
However, Miller thinks the extra year of preparation will help the women's team pursuiters, who have added two new members since Rio but still turned the tables on Great Britain to take the world title by almost two seconds.
"We had a young, relatively inexperienced team in Berlin. The additional year has really given us more time to develop and our team had grown leaps and bounds. This has been a good thing for our team," Miller says.
They've added Emma White and Lily Williams, who replace Kelly Catlin (deceased) and Sarah Hammer (retired), along with veterans Dygert and Jen Valente.
Valente is also Team USA's contender for the omnium, having shown her mass-start racing talents with two silver medals in Berlin (scratch and points race). She finished fifth in the omnium in Berlin after being knocked out in the second round in the elimination race.
Valente will also race the Madison with 19-year-old Megan Jastrab.
"Again the additional year gave them time to work together, train together," Miller said. "I wouldn't say they are favourites going in but will be a dangerous pair if they start scoring points."
All of these expectations are hingeing on the current COVID-19 situation, which has led the Olympics to be held behind closed doors. There have already been several athletes to test positive in the Olympic village but Miller says they're doing everything to avoid any infections.
"At this point, we're all pretty well versed on COVID-19 protocols, and the do's and don't. The challenges at this point might be COVID fatigue and simply being tired of all that is required to travel the globe during a pandemic. On our end, we're trying to remain vigilant and maintain those protocols."
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's specialises in covering doping, anti-doping, UCI governance and performing data analysis.