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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) – Solid performances by a largely young, untested crew in both the Olympic Games and the world road championships by the United States’ elite men’s team bolster hopes for international success for the coming years.
A silver medal by Taylor Phinney in the men’s individual time trial at the world championships and aggressive riding both at the London Olympics and the Limburg worlds should give fans something to cheer for in international competition.
“I think we have a good group of guys moving forward,” said Andrew Talansky, who attacked on the penultimate lap of the finish circuits on Sunday. “We are going to see the next few years more Americans at the front. I am excited about racing with these guys.”
With the exception of ageless veteran Chris Horner, who raced his first Olympics this summer after missing out on the Games from 1996 through 2008, the U.S. men’s team is turning the page on the past and looking to the future.
Riders such as worlds team members Phinney, Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Alex Howes, Timmy Duggan, Brent Bookwalter and Matthew Busche, as well as Tyler Farrar and Peter Stetina are committed to racing the worlds and representing national colors on the international stage.
Except the 41-year-old Horner, most of the current crop of riders are just entering the sweet spot of their careers. For many, racing in the worlds this weekend was a first shot at major international competition in the elite ranks.
And they’re certainly not afraid to make their presence felt. Duggan and Howes both rode into the day’s main breakaway Sunday. Howes hung tough when a group that included Robert Gesink, Juan Antonio Flecha and Alberto Contador bridged across.
Howes, who also rode into a breakaway in the Amstel Gold Race on similar roads back in April, said he was savoring the experience of riding in the day’s main move.
“We wanted to play it like we played it in the Olympics: be aggressive and get up the road,” Howes said. “It was a real treat to be out at the front of the circuit. It was just a big party out there and it was a lot of fun to be up there and to experience all that first-hand.”
That kind of enthusiasm is pumping new energy and excitement into the elite men’s cycling program.
For years, many U.S. pros were reluctant to race the worlds, especially when the UCI moved the championships from August to October on the racing calendar. Many pulled the plug on their seasons after the Tour and didn’t want to make another long trip back to Europe so late in the year to race in what has always been somewhat of a lottery. Riders like Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie often skipped the event over the last half-decade when they had realistic shots to medal in the time trial and provide crucial guidance in the road race, respectively.
Now that the UCI has nudged the worlds up to September and added the trade team time trial the weekend before the road race, the trip to the worlds is less taxing and more rewarding for the pros.
USA Cycling officials often expressed their frustration that top pros would not want to race the worlds, but that sentiment seems to be changing. A lot depends on how the worlds course shapes up and each rider’s respective racing calendar, but team officials say they notice a different spirit among today’s pros.
“These guys are young, but they’re very excited about racing together,” said USA Cycling’s vice president of athletics Jim Miller. “We’ve been on a high since the Olympics. They’re all just very excited about racing their bikes. It’s good to see that enthusiasm.”
Turning a page
Of course, one major reason these young guns are already stepping into the fray is that many of the established pros that have traditionally been there for the worlds over the past decade have collectively decided to take themselves out of the picture.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation into Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team has seen many of that team’s ex-riders drawn into murky legal proceedings.
Earlier this summer, Tom Danielson, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie each withdrew from consideration for the London Games Olympic squad just as USADA confirmed it was pressing the Armstrong case. None of them were back for the road worlds this weekend.
USA Cycling officials have publicly deferred on confirming if there was a link between the sudden departure of veteran riders from international scene and the USADA investigation, did confirm in June that each of the five riders requested to not be named to the Olympic squad for London.
The U.S. team is undergoing a less public, but equally as significant a transformation as the Italian squad. The Italian cycling federation ruled that no rider with any hint of doping activities would be allowed to race in international competition.
For the U.S. pros racing in London this summer and in Valkenburg, Netherlands, this weekend, however, what happened nearly a decade ago has little to do with what they’re racing for today.
While the stories of doping scandals from the EPO era still continued to churn headlines during the Valkenburg world championships, the nine-man elite road squad got down to the business of racing their bikes.
Horner has acted as a big brother of sorts to the younger crew and offered his sage advice on racing. Horner was 19 when Phinney was born, but they were both representing in Valkenburg on Sunday.
Things went cross-eyed late in Sunday’s road race. Duggan and Howes both rode into the day’s main break, but others were not so lucky. Lucas Euser and Taylor Phinney both crashed. Van Garderen and Horner were both caught up behind a crash on the Cauberg that split the group with three laps to go. A lead group of 43 riders pulled clear and the chasers never made it back; Horner and van Garderen, who was the designated captain, both later abandoned.
Talansky was the last man standing and he went on the attack in the penultimate lap, dragging Great Britain’s Ian Stannard with him.
“That was kind an insurance policy,” Talansky said. “I knew I would get dropped on the last climb up the Cauberg, so I decided to attack to see what happens, more than anything to try to hit the Cauberg with a bit of a gap. The worlds are tough. At the Vuelta, the stages were four-and-a-half, five hours. Here, the extra 30 to 50 kilometers is really hard. I think it’s a question of age, having that depth. We will get better in the coming years.”
Phinney’s silver medal in the elite men’s time trial Wednesday only reaffirmed his commitment to the world championships.
Once a track pursuiter and prologue specialist, Phinney has worked hard over the past year to build the depth and strength to ride longer, one-hour time trials with quick progress. He has lost weight and developed a new ability to pace himself over 40-plus kilometers. He was fourth at the Olympic Games and came within five seconds of the world title, finishing second to Germany’s Tony Martin.
That kind of riding only fuels his ambitions to return to the worlds with the rainbow jersey a central goal to planning his season.
“I had the best time trial of my life (Wednesday); even better than the Olympics,” Phinney said. “It was all I could ask for. I am progressing and getting better. Now I can look forward to Florence next year [site of the 2013 worlds], when I will be racing on home roads [Phinney lives part-time in Tuscany]. That gives me big motivation going into the winter.”
The newfound passion for the worlds isn’t just circumstantial. Many of the current crop of pros came through USA Cycling’s U23 house in Izegem, Belgium. They’ve been racing together as juniors and espoirs and have literally grown up together on their bikes. That bond carries over to the pro ranks, even though they have since joined various teams across the peloton. The worlds now provide a chance for them to pull together and race as a band of brothers.
“It’s always cool to come back to be with the people you’ve worked with and who’ve supported you,” van Garderen said. “I don’t know if it’s an allegiance thing; it’s more about friendship. It’s fun to race on the trade team. It’s also fun to come back and race with people who speak your language and people who grew up in your program.”
Of course, racing the worlds isn’t some sort of feel-good group ride. It’s all business and the young Americans know they will have a chance to chase the rainbow jersey and make history in the coming years.
Challenging climbers’ courses in Florence in 2013 and Ponferrada, Spain, in 2014 are ideal for riders such as van Garderen, Stetina, Talansky and emerging talent Joe Dombrowski.
Van Garderen knows that one great ride in the worlds can change a pro’s life forever. That’s reason enough to stay focused into the fall.
“A lot guys skip the worlds because it’s late in the season. They’re unmotivated and I understand that. It’s a long way to travel to a place where it’s a crapshoot. You never really know how it’s going to pan out. Here it’s kind of a gamble,” van Garderen said. “Having said that, it’s the world championships. If you play the lottery, you never know what can happen. These are such unpredictable races… On any given day, you can have an incredible day and end up world champion.”
With young riders such as van Garderen and Phinney showing deep commitment and ambition for the worlds, it might not be long before the U.S. pulls the winning ticket.