Tokyo Olympics: USA men’s road team battling against cycling superpowers

USA Cycling brings two starters against a field packed with European 'superpowers' for the elite men's road race.

Photo: Getty Images

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The United States might be a global superpower when it comes to geo-politics, but during these Olympic Games, the U.S. men’s team will be out-gunned and out-numbered on all fronts.

With only two berths out of the maximum five for the elite men’s road race, the U.S. selection of Lawson Craddock and Brandon McNulty will be doing what they can.

“I hope to have a pretty good time trial,” McNulty told VeloNews during the Tour de France. “We’ll see how I feel coming out of the Tour. The road race? We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Also read: USA Cycling names Olympic squads

As McNulty said, the team’s best chances for medals await in the individual time trial. At least against the clock, the U.S. earned the maximum allotment of two starters, meaning McNulty and Craddock will both race the time trial and the road race.

Both bring solid TT credentials to Tokyo.

Craddock was sixth in the 2019 elite men’s world championships, and McNulty, a former junior world champion and U23 silver medalist in ITT, has popped for several top-10’s in WorldTour time trials, and was recently 11th in the final time trial at the Tour last weekend in Saint-Émilion.

“It’s really hard to describe the feeling of being selected to the US Olympic Team,” Craddock said. “It’s been a dream of mine long before I started racing bikes, and something I was never sure if it would be a realistic goal.”

For Saturday’s marquee men’s road race, however, it will be about following the wheels and staying in the game.

Both McNulty and Craddock are proven WorldTour-level pros, but it won’t be easy against the favored nations.

Craddock last raced at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he was second in the mountains competition, and McNulty is hot off helping UAE-Team Emirates teammates Tadej Pogačar win his second yellow jersey in a row.

Neither pack the explosive power as some of the pre-race favorites, such as Alejandro Valverde (Spain) or Wout van Aert (Belgium), nor will they have many familiar jerseys in the bunch.

A top-10 in the road race would exceed expectations, and a medal would put them firmly in the “surprise” category.

A few names who might have performed well on Saturday’s road race are not racing in Tokyo.

Sepp Kuss, who won a stage at the Tour de France, opted out of trying to earn a spot on the Olympic team. Among the current crop of US riders, Kuss was perhaps best-suited for the men’s road race course Saturday, but the Colorado climber decided that his best choice was to recover from the hard effort at the Tour, and be fresh for a run at the Vuelta a España, starting August 14 in Spain.

Neilson Powless, the EF Education-Nippo rider, was also well-suited for the men’s road race, but Craddock, who won the U.S. national time trial title in June after being confirmed for the Olympics, got the spot instead.

With both riders required to race the road race in order to start the time trial, USA Cycling brass decided to cover their bases, bringing the best two U.S. time trialists and all-rounders to fill out the two-rider team.

Bigger cycling nations earn more points

Why is the U.S. so under-represented in the elite men’s Olympic road race?

It’s all part of the sometimes controversial points system and qualifying criteria for the Olympics.

It’s no surprise to see the top European cycling nations hog the top spots in terms of allocation, even more so after the International Olympic Committee trimmed the total allotment from 145 to 125 riders for the Tokyo Games.

Five nations — Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and France — will start with the maximum allotment of five riders. The next eight nations have four starters, and eight more countries will be starting with three riders.

The U.S. is grouped with 11 nations, including Slovakia, Ecuador, Portugal, and New Zealand, among others, with just two starters. The final 22 nations see one starter, giving the elite men’s road race a relatively thin starting field of 125 riders.

Right now, the U.S. presence in the top pro ranks is relatively thin, at least historically. And that means fewer chances to earn Olympic qualifying points as a nation.

In 2016, the U.S. also only fielded two riders, but saw the full allotment of five starters in 2012, 2008, and 2004 (the full maximum was six for the top one or two teams during those cycles).

Countries like Spain, Italy, and Belgium have riders winning races across the entire calendar, each time giving those nations more Olympic qualifying points.

For example, there were only four U.S. riders racing the Tour de France, with Kuss, McNulty, Tour rookie Sean Bennett, and Powless. France saw 33 Tour riders, and Spain 22. The numbers add up over the course of a season.

That’s in contrast to the U.S. women’s team, which will race Sunday with the maximum allotment of four starters, two of whom will race the individual time trial.

The takeaway?

The U.S. men’s team will hang on as long as it can Saturday, and save its matches for a medal run in the individual time trial.

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