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Magnus Sheffield, Brandon McNulty, Quinn Simmons, Sepp Kuss, and Neilson Powless. The list of young American men making their mark on the WorldTour is as strong as it’s been for decades but there are genuine concerns that the production line of young talent could dramatically decline in the coming years.
The dearth of US domestic teams, the disappearance of major UCI races stateside, and the global pandemic have all played their part in either ending or dampening pathways for American riders to transition over Europe and generate much-needed experience. Right now the future looks bright but in ten years, and by the full effects of the current situation plays out, the crop of American riders in Europe could look altogether different.
Jonas Carney is a sports director at Human Powered Health. He’s one of the most respected and experienced bosses in cycling and is responsible for unearthing a string of talented riders, from the likes of McNulty to athletes such as Chad Haga, and Sepp Kuss. He’s seen the racing landscape in the U.S. expand and contract over several decades, with a high point a few years ago when events such as the Tours of California, Alberta, Utah, and Colorado flexed their muscles and drew in international UCI graded fields. Domestic riders in the U.S. could often base their entire campaigns on racing a home-based calendar. The picture today is entirely different.
“It’s crazy to think that maybe six or seven years ago we had Utah, Colorado, California, Alberta, and at one point we had four sizeable UCI stage races in North America,” Carney told VeloNews during the recent Volta ao Algarve.
“Now we have none. I hope that U.S. racing will bounce back, and I hope that we’ll get some more big races soon but for now, we’re just really happy to be over here with the best of the world.”
Human Powered Health has the tricky task of balancing their domestic duties at events like U.S. nationals with picking races in Europe. It’s a delicate balance because as they aim to remain competitive on all fronts they also must attempt to uncover and develop new talent. It’s not feasible to simply sign 18-year-olds and dispatch them into races like Algarve. Young riders, unless they’re already world-class at a young age, need the right environment and patience in order to progress at the right speed.
When it comes to rider pathways the reality is that younger U.S. athletes will potentially struggle to garner interest from European teams because they haven’t been blooded in Europe or at high-level domestic races. Carney believes that the cream will always rise to the top but that with a lack of racing in the U.S. the talent pool will ultimately dry up. Aspiring riders, unless they’re picked up by a Human Powered Health or a squad like Hagens Berman Axeon, are often forced to single-handedly venture to Europe with little in the way of a support network or infrastructure waiting for them.
“If things don’t turn around now, I think that we’re on the wrong path here,” he told VeloNews.
“Of course, if you’re one of the best then through either USA Cycling or some of the development teams then there is a pathway but for the vast majority of guys trying to develop, what do they have left to race? And the competition level is going to go down in America as well because of a lack of teams. Things have really changed dramatically in the last five years. I’m concerned for the pipeline of young North American riders developing and us being able to identify them.”
“What I’m seeing with a lot of the young guys now is that they’re jumping ship and going straight to Europe at 18 or 19 years old. We see a lot of guys doing that and riding for a small elite team in France or Spain. The guys are making that decision and I don’t blame them.
“We’ve had a lot of great riders come through our team, riders like Sepp Kuss and Brandon McNulty. We’ve been really fortunate to find these really big talents and play a small part in their development. I’m really excited to see their success as they move into the WorldTour, but right now we’re in a bit of a tough spot because development is important but we’re also racing at a very high level here in Algarve so you can’t just bring in any guys from the juniors and throw them straight in. There needs to be an intermediary step. That’s really what’s missing or lacking.”
The solutions to these problems are not easily identifiable or possible to instantly implement. At the end of the day, it comes down to economics and without fiscal stimulus, it’s hard to envisage the situation improving over the years.
“I don’t know if I have a great answer, says Carney.
“Hopefully USA Cycling can do some things to spur some growth and bring some sponsors into the sport.
“We’ve lost so many teams and so many races. I don’t have a great feeling for why it’s all happening, but certainly, the pandemic played a role but that doesn’t explain the huge decline prior to the pandemic. There are probably [other] factors.”