Opportunities for a breakout performance in big races can be hard to come by for young American riders, especially now that the Amgen Tour of California has jumped to the WorldTour and Continental teams are no longer eligible.
Enter USA Cycling, which is fielding a composite national team in the race for the first time since 2007, when a young unknown rider named Tejay van Garderen competed in the stars-and-stripes jersey before signing with the Rabobank Development team for 2008 and 2009.
“There was a time when maybe USA Cycling didn’t want to go down this road, but with the programs not having as much European racing, this opens it up and gives us another opportunity to allow these guys to show what they’ve got,” said Mike Sayers, who will direct the team along with Aevolo director Michael Creed.
“Most of these teams are going to be their future employers in a best-case scenario. There’s been a long list of guys like Carter Jones who have had good rides here, and the next thing you know they’re riding for a WorldTour team. We only want the best for them,” Sayers said.
“The under-23 program is a little bit down this year, so this is just another opportunity and maybe a different methodology to give them an opportunity to get some results, or not even results, but to get out there and show what they have under the hood."
Three of the seven riders are under 23, with Aevolo’s Michael Hernandez, Tyler Stites and Alex Hoehn all 21, while Keegan Swirbul (Floyd’s Pro Cycling) and Sam Boardman (Wildlife-Generation-Maxxis) are 23. Miguel Bryon (Arapahoe-Hincapie) is 24, and sprinter Travis McCabe is the experienced hand on the team at age 29.
Bob Stapleton, chairman of the USA Cycling Board of Directors, said the governing body was excited to extend the benefit of the experience and the exposure the race brings to the young athletes.
“Our role at USA Cycling in terms of development is a little different than it has been historically,” he said. “We are now very focused on building a pipeline of athletes into the professional ranks. Once they’re there, we’ll look for opportunities to enhance and improve their development.”
McCabe is obviously the most experienced rider on the team, and Swirbul, a former U23 national champion who rode for the BMC Development Team in Europe, also has considerable experience racing at a high level. Sayers said they were brought on board to help provide some leadership on the road for the younger riders.
Hoehn is one of those who will benefit from the older riders’ experience. The former elite hockey player said he nearly broke down in tears when he found out he might have a chance to race the Tour of California.
“It was about mid-April that I found out there was a possibility that I’d be able to go to the Tour of California,” he said. “I think I was training and I got a call from my director. I pulled over and just stopped almost in tears at just how excited I was to come here.
“Then about two or three weeks ago I found out I was going to be on the actual team, and it’s just an incredible opportunity to be here with USA Cycling. Their investment in me and my teammates will be something we’ll never forget.”
The next challenge for the riders was to get to know their new “teammates” and to gel before the big race. Sayers said he didn’t think it would be a problem for the riders to bond.
“We used to do this a lot when the under-23 program was in its full effect when we were doing 100 races a year - this was normal,” Sayers said. “On Saturday they’re racing against each other, and on Sunday they’re racing with each other. I think you just create a nice environment. The one thing I can always say is, with Mike’s program or my program, having fun is important.
“The racing is hard enough, you don’t need to make it any harder. So I think having fun, creating a good environment and a good atmosphere and a lot of smiling and laughing, joking. I think these guys can handle the difference between having fun and being serious when it’s time to be serious.”
The team doesn’t have any grand designs for stage wins or a GC run, Sayers said, instead they’ll take things one day at a time, viewing the race as a series of single-day races rather than a stage race.
“Historically there have been riders who stepped up at this race,” he said. “We don’t have any pressure on us, so I think we’ll take it day by day and see how the guys are day by day. We’ll make a plan day by day, and we’ll just kind of look at it that way. If we have some success on a given day we’re going to really enjoy it, and if it’s not a success we’re just going to re-evaluate and nobody is losing any jobs. It’s really just about opportunity.”