Olympic MTB hopefuls: USAC’s criteria tough but fair

Team USA prioritizes two key mountain bike races in selection criteria for Tokyo Olympics. American riders face a big challenge, but they say it is fair.

Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

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America’s top cross-country mountain bike racers can now see the trail that could lead them to a coveted spot on Team USA for the 2020 Olympics. So what do riders think of USA Cycling’s Olympic qualification standards? VeloNews reached out to a handful of Olympic hopefuls. Their collective opinion could be best described as, “tough, but fair.”

“No matter what, USA Cycling has to make the call to prioritize certain races,” said world champion Kate Courtney. “It always puts pressure on certain events. I think they’ve done a good job of providing fair opportunities.”

The tiered criteria prioritize two races: the 2020 World Cup opener in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, on May 24, and the 2019 world championship, set for September 10 in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec. The timing of those events in relation to the late-July Olympic races makes sense. Consistency will also pay off for Olympic hopefuls. For most Americans, though, it will be a stretch to meet any of the five automatic qualification criteria.

Howard Grotts (Specialized) made the 2016 Olympic team based on a discretionary selection by USA Cycling (USAC). He thinks that consistent riding throughout the 2019 season will be the best way to get a spot on Team USA, regardless of whether he makes it into the top-10 overall in the final World Cup standings — the last of USAC’s five criteria.

“I always aim for consistency over putting all my eggs in one basket,” Grotts said. “It’s been a long time since U.S. rider has really been that close to podiuming at World Cup, at least for us guys, so it will be tough, but I think everyone’s kind of raised their game a little bit.”

The Coloradan did not finish in the World Cup top-10 last season and his top result was 12th at the Val di Sole World Cup.

He expects he will be up against his fellow Specialized rider Christopher Blevins, Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s), and Luke Vrouwenvelder (LukeV Coaching) in the competition for what is likely just one start in the men’s cross-country race.

Unlike the men, American women are likely to get at least two start spots in Tokyo.

Courtney is the likely a frontrunner in the women’s field, with her world championship title and 8th place overall in the 2018 World Cup standings.

Like Grotts, Courtney (Scott-SRAM) plans to focus on season-long consistency, knowing that a good World Cup overall result will be insurance against unexpected setbacks at 2019 worlds or the 2020 Czech World Cup.

“Mechanicals, bad weather — those are things that happen at World Cups, particularly on those two tracks,” she said, referring to Nove Mesto and Mont-Sainte-Anne.

“For me, being a consistent performer is always a goal, but that reflects consistency in training and racing rather than prioritizing everything because obviously, you can’t.”

Although Courtney says the selection criteria won’t impact her approach to the 2019 season, Lea Davison (Sho-Air Twenty20) says she will retool her winter training to be ready for Nove Mesto 2020. Ordinarily, she uses cross-country skiing for fitness at home in Vermont. She starts cycling-specific training in earnest around February. Next winter, she’ll get on the bike sooner to make sure she can be at her best in late May.

“The tiered approach is a little unnerving,” said Davison, a two-time Olympian. “You can never really relax until you cross that finish line in Nove Mesto. You don’t know what’s going to happen — it should be very, very interesting.”

Although she and other riders are a bit nervous about only having two qualifying races where they can secure their spot by finishing in the top-eight, they approve of USAC’s decision to choose Nove Mesto and Mont-Sainte-Anne. Grotts said those races will help simulate the Tokyo circuit.

For Davison, they are her two favorite World Cup events.

“If I were to say, ‘Okay I would like these two races to count toward Olympic qualification,’ literally it would be Nove Mesto and Mont-Sainte-Anne,” she said. “I’m very excited.”

The riders are happy to have a clear set of qualification criteria. They’re also pleased that they won’t be forced to travel the world chasing UCI points, like what was required to make the 2004 Olympics team, as documented by the “Off Road to Athens” film.

However, there’s a strong chance that some the spots on Team USA will come down to a discretionary choice by USAC staff, which can be controversial.

“It would be interesting if they had a sixth or seventh criteria, something that is a little more attainable for U.S. riders,” Grotts added. “Then there isn’t any drama, like if it’s going to come down to discretionary. It’s better when things are written down and there’s not any drama involved.”

Grotts has yet to crack the top-eight in an elite World Cup or world championship. Similarly, apart from Courtney, none of the top American women finished top-eight in a 2018 World Cup event.

For cross-country riders, though, the Olympics hold such outsized importance that any rider could deliver a breakout performance. Davison, a seasoned pro who was 11th in London and seventh in Rio, knows this well and is eager to chase her third Olympic berth.

“Who knows what’s going to happen,” said Davison. “Literally all bets are off when it comes to the Olympics. It’s such a pressure-cooker, and it’s all about who rises to the occasion and who is consistent.”

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