US cycling faces tough challenges rebuilding road racing scene, developing home-grown talent
The racing scene in the US has taken a big hit in recent seasons with few major road races remaining on the calendar.
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As cycling fans lined the streets of northern Italy, celebrating the closing of the 2022 road season in Europe, the United States wrapped the first full season of races last month since the start of the pandemic.
Stage races returned, including the Tour of the Gila, and Maryland celebrated a successful launch of the Maryland Cycling Classic boasting WorldTour teams after multiple postponements.
Still, while gravel racing continues to grow from coast to coast, the focus remains on the growth and sustainability of road racing and developing the next generation of talent for European success.
This summer, the US had seven riders racing the Tour de France. Both Brandon McNulty and Sepp Kuss have shown their strength in becoming super domestiques for their respective champions, Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard. Quinn Simmons became a breakaway specialist, earning his first most combative rider award in his Tour debut.
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This current group of Americans in Europe came from a generation that was discovered by European scouts through stage races including the Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Tour of the Gila, and Redlands Cycling Classic.
Due to financial woes and the impact of Covid, stage racing suffered the most with only a handful remaining Stateside. Race directors have turned to more sustainable forms of racing with downtown crits, for example, that are spectator friendly for a country where football and baseball continue to reign.
Velonews spent the season speaking to the players involved, including USA Cycling’s CEO Brendan Quirk, on the challenges facing rider development and race sustainability moving forward.
“Our organization has two separate work streams, one that works with grassroots racing, and the other with the elite side of the sport,” Quirk said while in Maryland last month. “What we have to do on the sports performance side is get back to the business of large-scale talent ID, development, and more race days in Europe.”
Several American teams that had previously enjoyed a full American calendar, spent the season racing mostly in Europe where races and travel were more cost-effective. Team Wildlife Generation was one, spending the spring in Turkey and racing the Tour of Rwanda, before returning to win Joe Martin Stage Race and the Air Force Cycling Classic in June.
They would return overseas in late summer, where Scott McGill would win a stage and the sprint jersey at the Tour of Portugal.
“Financially, racing in Europe is great. It’s money well spent; you get good racing and are taken care of really well,” Wildlife Director Sportif Matthew Rice said in Arkansas.
“On the flip side, our sponsors want us to be here in America. So, we have to juggle the cost and value of everything. Hopefully, America can get back to a point where there is a structure to the season. We want to support the American races that have been around a long time.
“To do a race like Joe Martin, one day was 180km, the next stage was 160km. It exposes the guys to a distance and level of racing they don’t normally get. The crit scene is great for America, it’s great for spectators but it doesn’t really translate to development when racing in Europe in fields of 180/200 riders.”
Crits have been on the rise over the last few years, helping to launch teams such as LA L39ion and Best Buddies Racing. Typically held on a downtown, flat, 1km circuit, the style lends itself well to spectators and keeping logistics costs at a minimum.
“Criteriums are important, but that’s just one step in the process,” Quirk said. “You look at someone like Neilson or Sepp Kuss, how did they come into the sport? They came in through mountain biking, Quinn Simmons was the same. Crit racing is not made for them. What we want to do is to get as many kids as possible racing and then of those kids, find the real diamonds in the rough to see how fast we can get them to Europe.”
Gaining European experiences
USA Cycling had built a base in the Netherlands, at a location in Sittard – Geleen that launched in 2013. Athletes from all disciplines enjoyed the opportunity to be hosted while gaining experience in building their development overseas. USA Cycling closed the base in 2019, citing budget constraints.
“We need to make use of our facility in Sittard,” Quirk said. “It’s very, very expensive for American riders to make that journey, and it’s very expensive for us to make it so that kids can have that opportunity. You can’t send a kid to Europe for a six-week racing block and all of a sudden expect them to spring into the Tour de France.
“It’s got to be multiple blocks in one year, and then multiple years – that’s how you’re going to make the physiological adaptations to be able to make it from continental to the WorldTour.”
Back at home, the task also lies in further developing the skills needed that are found in stage races, when the landscape continues to shift toward nationwide crit series.
“It’s clear in America we’re definitely lacking in big races, we lost with the Tour of California, Colorado, and Utah has been gone for the last couple of years,” US National TT Champ, Lawson Craddock said.
Racing for Team BikeExchange, Craddock has been competing on the WorldTour for nearly a decade.
Like his fellow American riders, he is happy to see the rise of cycling in the States. The more people that ride the further the reach of the sport. But, he warns, if you want success in Europe you have to be there.
“Obviously, there are a lot of skills you can pick up racing alternatively in America. But nothing quite like the repeatability of racing constantly, day in and day out, at a really high level. Nothing can prepare you for that unless you’re actually doing it.”
Aspiring riders Stateside are also confronted with the finances needed to afford the opportunities of racing overseas. The cost for Americans to make the journey is often very expensive, as Quirk had alluded to. Many riders instead turn to sponsors and local supporters to assist them financially in their aspirations.
“I had local bike shops, friends, and family who were all fundraising to help me afford tickets to Europe,” Neilson Powless said. “When you first go there, it’s not comfortable. You grow to love it, but in the beginning, it’s a mix of being blown away from how different it is, but then you realize you’re spending months and months there and then it starts to get hard.”
Neilson came within seconds of climbing his way into the yellow jersey, in his third participation at the Tour de France this summer for EF Education EasyPost. The 26-year-old spoke to VeloNews at the Maryland Cycling Classic.
“I personally got pretty homesick in my first few years. But I needed the opportunity to spend more time there and race, and be able to get that experience in,” he said.
“When I was U23, I had the national team and spent time in the Netherlands. Hopefully, USA Cycling can get more funding for those athletes because without opportunities and resources like that, developing Americans is going to take a big hit.”
Matteo Jorgenson took his own path, marketing himself to teams in Europe after the USA Cycling program was cut. He knew the task facing him would be great, but his efforts proved effective when he signed with AG2R La Mondiale in 2019. He would move to Europe full-time, and eventually learn French to impress his team bosses, opening doors for future Americans.
“Getting to Europe is a challenge,” Jorgenson said, after helping his team notch a win in Italy. “Cycling in the US is a bit of a niche sport, and it’s a huge country so it’s hard for people to get to races. Being from Idaho, I had to do huge travel days as a kid to get to races. Not everyone has the means to do that.”
After a solid start in 2019, he signed with Movistar the following year, and through the pandemic has since settled in as an integral part of their team.
“Consistency is what is hard on the WorldTour. I see these guys, like [Alejandro] Valverde who have been doing it for 20 years, day in and day out, you have to put in a lot of work and stay super concentrated on a lot of little details if you want to be really good. I’m learning what it takes, just being around them. You see how they live and how they work to maintain a good level for their whole career. Over the years you get better and better.”
Whether the future is crits for the United States, or stage racing gains a stronghold once again, the ultimate goal remains in Europe and on the world stage.
“For us, what it really boils down to is how do we create the revenue, to create the programming that drives that talent development forward,” Quirk said. “That’s how we’re going to achieve our goals – more Tour de France stage winners, hopefully, more Tour de France champions, and LA 2028 medals. It’s all about driving that support system. I think it’s going to happen.”