In pursuit of gold: How the U.S. rebuilt its track team

The American track program was revamped for the Rio Games, with the team pursuit squad winning the 2015 world title.

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Flashes of color whip by, blurring four figures into a single streamlined train of power and speed. What looks like methodical motion from the outside is a whirlwind of organized chaos from within, as the U.S. women’s team pursuit squad rips around the velodrome during the 2016 track world championship gold medal race in London.

Inside the formation, four riders take turns accelerating on the front, only to peel off and then sharply swing back into the slipstream. By the final lap, the Americans own a three-second advantage over Canada, their head-to-head rival, which translates to a mile-wide gap in an event often decided by fractions of a second. The victory brings the U.S. its first ever world title in a team pursuit.

It also marks the women as the team to beat at the Rio Olympics.

The ease by which the American team won in London overshadowed an arduous, years-long overhaul of the country’s pursuit program. In order to build that victorious squad for London, USA Cycling had to rethink its philosophy for rider selection, launch a new talent-identification system, and work with sponsors to create revolutionary race-specific equipment. Dozens of coaches, engineers, and athletes participated in the process, which took almost four years. When examined through the lens of history, this pursuit squad represents the best of America’s innovative and pioneering attitude toward sports.

“We have five thoroughbreds,” says Andy Sparks, technical director for USA Cycling and the national team’s longtime track coach. “There’s no other team I’d look at in the world and say I wish we’d have this person or that person. We have the best of the best.”

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THE RETOOLING WAS CAUSED by a shift in the event’s format. Previously, the women’s team pursuit required three-rider teams to complete a 3-kilometer race. In 2014, the UCI changed that to four-rider teams over four kilometers, creating parity with the men’s event.

Already one of the most grueling events in track racing, the distance increase boosted the challenge. A rider must maintain sprinter-like speed when pulling at the front, and then execute a perfect peel-off maneuver onto the banked velodrome, before slotting back into the slipstream. It’s an effort that requires relentless stamina and laser focus — even a minor bobble can cost valuable seconds or, worse, send the team tumbling to the boards.

Lengthening the distance created more opportunities for disaster and changed the physical demands on the athletes.

“There’s a big difference between a three-minute effort versus a four-minute effort,” Sparks says.

Historically, the U.S. track program has recruited cyclists with professional road racing backgrounds for the team pursuit. For the new format, Sparks wanted to draw from a deeper pool of athletes. In 2014, he launched talent-identification camps for riders from all backgrounds: road, track, and even BMX. And he invited younger, less-experienced riders to join.

Established pros like Carmen Small, Allie Dragoo, and Lauren Stephens, along with 50 less experienced women, came through these camps. Athletes were pushed to their limits on and off the bike to test mental strength and physical potential.

“We’d start at 6:00 a.m. with three-a-day workouts,” Sparks says. “We were basically asking, ‘Are you tough enough?’”

After 12 months, Sparks chose riders Jennifer Valente (21), Kelly Catlin (20), and Ruth Winder (22). A talented time trialist, Catlin came to the squad from a road background. Winder has raced on the road as well as on the track and has specialized in the team pursuit since her junior cycling days. Valente, a mountain bike and track specialist, has won junior national titles in the Keirin, sprint, and points race.

Sparks’s wife Sarah Hammer was the fourth member of the team. The two-time silver medalist at the London Games is the most successful American track athlete of this generation. Hammer said the women were chosen primarily for their leg strength and their ability to start quickly.

“We’re all strong girls who can get off the line fast,” Hammer says. “And that was really the killer blow at worlds.”

In December the team added then 18-year-old Chloé Dygert, who brings further international accolades to the squad. Dygert won the junior road race and time trial at Richmond worlds in 2015.

“She’s the Michael Phelps of cycling,” Sparks says. “She’s a huge, huge phenom and a real game-day performer.”

The final five-woman team was set. Though only four racers compete at a time, five racers make up the squad, with the fifth acting as an alternate in case another rider suffers illness or injury, and may also compete in one or more of the earlier rounds of competition. As Sparks says, “everything operates on a supply and demand equation, so we look at which four riders can contribute the best to satisfying race demands. The teams are so close you have to line up each round thinking that it is the final.”

They’re young, with an average age of 23. Remove the 33-year-old Hammer and the average is just under 21. But they’ve already proven they can win.

The Felt superbike the U.S. track team is using in Rio. Photo: Felt

THE TEAM PURSUIT FORCES a squad to ride with a refined maturity. The event is a complex discipline even for veterans, one in which the riders must adhere to a pacing strategy that generates the most amount of collective power without distancing the weakest riders. Each team member must ride in the most aerodynamic position possible while still executing nimble maneuvers. And they must ride dangerously close to one another, or risk losing out on the aerodynamic benefit of drafting.

“To the outsider, those little things look so fluid. But it’s super raw when you’re in there,” Hammer says.

To give the women an aerodynamic advantage, USA Cycling added another important component. In June, the team unveiled its Felt track superbike, which was developed specifically for the women’s pursuit team. The bike features a left-side drivetrain and asymmetrical tube shapes, which engineers claim give it a superior form for battling wind on the velodrome.

A gold medal is never guaranteed, even after the Americans dominated worlds. Australia’s pursuit squad currently holds the world record and will be looking to rebound from London, where they failed to medal. Great Britain’s team is another favorite and will be fueled by the same innovation and support that propelled their track program to an impressive medal haul at the 2012 Olympics. Canada and New Zealand are also not to be ignored.

As current world champions, the Americans will enter the race with a target on their back, with the pressure that comes from great expectations. After all, dozens of people will have contributed along their path to Rio. But, as Sparks says, that pressure can also be what drives the best.

“The most important part of the pursuit team is the team,” he says.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.