It is looking likely that two male and two female mountain bikers will wear American colors at the 2012 London Olympic Games - the same number that qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Last Thursday, the United States announced its mountain bike Long Team for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The eight men and nine women on the list are eligible to be selected for the US Olympic team to fill the spots for which the US ends up qualifying. The maximum that any nation can qualify is three men and two women.
"It's my strong opinion that we'll qualify two women and two men," said USA Cycling's Marc Gullickson to Cyclingnews. "At the end of the last rankings cycle, I thought we had a chance for three men, but even though we have four more World Cups, I think it will be hard to move up that much.
"Optimistically, I'd like to think we have a shot, but I think that most riders won't be going around trying to chase UCI points next spring. I think they'll be trying to train specifically to get the best results at the World Cups, and that doesn't always translate into flying all over and getting points." Good World Cup results are just what the nation's best riders will need to make the final cut for London.
The UCI determines how many men and women each nation can send to the Olympic Games. Points are tallied from two year-long periods and then combined: May 24, 2009 to May 23, 2010 and May 24, 2011 to May 23, 2012. It is the total points, not the rankings that are added for each nation. After the UCI determines the number of riders per country, each country gets to pick their specific riders.
As of the most recent UCI rankings of November 14, the American women were in sixth place and the American men were in ninth place. The top five ranked men's teams will each send three men to the Olympics while those ranked sixth through 13th send two each. The top eight women's teams each send two ladies while those ranked ninth through 18th send one each.
For the first period, the US men and women were ranked sixth and second respectively.
"Generally after the first ranking cycle, we were ranked sixth and there was a shot at getting up into fifth. I was encouraging riders to get points, and I tried to get US races upgraded from Cat. 2 to Cat. 1. I also encouraged riders to come to Pan Am champs with me to get points," said Gullickson.
"Ultimately, the most effective way to get points is to do well at World Cups. If you look at the discrepancy between points of a Cat. 2 and a World Cup, it's quite significant. Our top guys always get good points at nationals and at the Continental Championships, and they did that, but during the second ranking cycle's World Cups so far (from Offenburg to now in 2011), we haven't been great."
On the women's side, Gullickson cited world championship medallist Willow Koerber being out pregnant as one reason the women had not scored more points. He also noted that Georgia Gould did some good rides, but her 2011 World Cup season was not as strong as in 2010.
"The women still did well, though, as others stepped up, like Lea Davison, and as they often do, Katie [Compton], Heather [Irmiger] and Mary [McConneloug] also had some good races."
"For the men, it was a less consistent year. [Adam] Craig was injured in 2010, and I expected him to come in 2011 and improve our point-getting, but he struggled in the World Cups. That was a big hole - he couldn't re-enter at the same place he was pre-injury. We had hoped more top riders would ride well at the World Cups. Our guys needed to be more consistent - like JHK, Sam [Schultz] etc."
What did impress Gullickson was how well Todd Wells and JHK raced at the Worlds. "I always want them and expect them to ride well at Worlds, and they both came through at the biggest race of the year plus Todd rode well throughout the World Cup."
He also noted the potential of Under 23 national champion Stephen Ettinger. "Ettinger was consistent on the U23 circuit, and we'll just have to see how he handles the jump to elites next year," he said.
Gullickson shared his philosophy about how many racers the US may end up sending to London.
"At the end of the day, we want to get to the Olympics and have the riders who are there riding well," he said. "It's less important to have more riders there and not riding well than it is to have fewer riders there riding well."
The 2008 US Olympic mountain bike team members were Georgia Gould, Mary McConneloug, Todd Wells and Adam Craig.
The 2012 US Olympic mountain bike team will be announced by USA Cycling on June 15, 2012. See this article for details on the selection procedure.