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By Andrew Hood
Steven Cozza had never raced anything longer than 230km and he had never raced against the big boys in a world championships.
Now the 23-year-old can tick both of those off his list. Cozza led the five-man U.S. worlds squad with a very solid 23rd at 1:40 back of winner Alessandro Ballan as part of the first chase group in a very successful men’s elite world’s debut.
“I would have just been happy to have finished, but I started to feel better as the race went on and I kept making all the splits,” Cozza told VeloNews. “It felt good to be in the action. I wish I had raced the final lap a little different. It was really confusing what was going on. There were attacks everywhere. It was hard to know exactly what was going on.”
Cozza’s result equaled the best by an American in last year’s worlds with George Hincapie.
Tyler Farrar, fresh off a stage win in a French stage-race Wednesday, crossed the line 63rd at 10:33 back while Lucas Euser also finished his first worlds in 76th at 22:49 back.
Brent Bookwalter and David Zabriskie, winner of the bronze medal in the men’s elite time trial, did not finish.
The young team held up well. Only Zabriskie and Farrar had raced an elite worlds before and for Euser, Bookwalter and Cozza, it was the longest distance they’ve ever raced.
“The race didn’t start until 180km,” Cozza said. “Once you see the big guys take their vests off, then you know it’s time to put on your seatbelt.”
Cozza was impressed what he saw. He watched Italy dominate the race, putting men into breakaways, out-foxing the Spanish and then placing three riders into the winning, 13-man break.
“I just followed Bettini and watched everything he did. I watched what gear he rode, I watched what he eat, when he drank,” he said. “Every last lap I drank a Coke.”
A three-man breakaway peeled away early in the race, but Farrar said the team didn’t want to waste its energy following the early move.
“It’s one thing if it’s going to be a bigger group, then you want to be out there, but everyone knew those three guys didn’t stand a chance,” Farrar said. “That (Ronchi) climb was just a little too hard for me and I lost contact with two laps to go. Every year I am getting better, so maybe in another few years, I will be able to follow those big moves on a course like this.”
Farrar, 24, will end up his season with a shot at some of the fall classics.
“It was just good to get in the full distance in my legs. I’m racing next at Paris-Tours, a race that’s a little better suited for me than this course,” Farrar told VeloNews. “Getting the win in France. It’s always nice to win in Europe. The last two months, I’ve been going really well. At Missouri and Poland, I was right there in the sprints, always second, third, fourth. I knew I had good form, I just needed that little bit of luck.”
Team director Noel Dejonckheere said he was encouraged by the team’s performance.
The Belgian was in the U.S. team car and knew the riders well – all five rode under him as part of USA Cycling’s national development team based in Belgium.
“Overall, I’m really satisfied. Zabriskie was really focused on the time trial and Brent was added to the team at the last minute and is just getting over being sick, so to do this well while only having three guys at full strength is impressive. I think they did much better than even they thought,” he told USA Cycling’s Andy Lee.
While the U.S. will likely never have a worlds team as deep and strong as the Italians, Spanish or Belgians, Dejonckheere said the new crop of emerging U.S. pros says things are in the right direction.
“For a small to race that well over 260km against veteran teams at full strength like the Spanish and Italians shows that they’re only two or three years away from really contending,” he continued. “We’ll keep moving forward and see what happens.”
The U.S. team leaves Varese with two medals. Zabriskie mined bronze in the men’s time trial while Amber Neben struck gold in the women’s time trial.