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By Andrew Hood
The future is bright for both U.S. men’s and women’s cycling.
That’s according to USA Cycling’s director of athletics Jim Miller, who says there’s enough talent to assure more success by American riders on the road at the top levels of the sport.
Miller says there’s plenty of firepower to fill the void left by the retirement of Olympic and world champion Kristin Armstrong on the women’s side as well as a bounty of prospects moving up from the U23 to the pro ranks on the men’s side.
VeloNews caught up with Miller at this weekend’s world championships to talk about the U23 and women’s events. Here’s what he had to say:
VeloNews: Can people expect this new generation to fill the void when veterans like George Hincapie or Levi Leipheimer retire in the coming years?
Jim Miller: Yes, they will. People don’t hear their names. We’re trying to do a better job of getting it out there, that what these guys are doing is no joke. If you would see the level of races they’re winning, it’s very impressive. I think the next group is covered. They need two or three years in the pro level, like (Tyler) Farrar has had. And they’re young, they’re 20, 21, they’re just still boys. These guys know more about European racing and European roads than they do about NRC. They go to Cascade, they have no clue about the climbs. In Europe, they know the roads, the climbs, they know the coffee shop around the corner from the hotel. (Tom) Boonen, he’s raced the Koppenburg his whole life, and now, so have these guys. When they’re at the elite level, they know when the breaks go, how the wind is, it’s a big difference.
VN: This is the first generation to come through both the junior and U23 program?
JM: Yes, it is. We used to have a junior program, but it was only four or five weeks, they’d get a dozen or so starts. Now, with the guys from Tejay (Van Garderen)’s generation, we started at 17, giving them 30-40-50 race days a year as juniors. By the time they were 19, they had 80-100 race days in Europe and they were completely on their level. I think it shows. These guys are earning their contracts and moving up to the big leagues.
VN: How important has the U23 program been? Has it fulfilled its vision since it began 10 years ago?
JM: I think it has. The challenge is to get Americans on European teams. If you’re going to win at the highest level, you have to race on European teams, and this program has certainly done that. We’re seeing more of them signing on with big programs. We’re seeing guys win like Farrar and (Dave) Zabriskie. They came directly out of the program, there’s no question about that.
VN: What can people expect from Tejay, Chris (Barton) and Peter (Stetina) for the next few years?
JM: I hope they continue to grow and move up like that have. Both are great stage racers. Barton is kind of that in-between guy, good in one-day races and shorter stage races. He’s also a big player in bigger stage races that make it happen for everybody else. Of all the guys, he’s the most all-around guy. He can sprint, he can climb, he can time trial.
VN: What’s your take on the U23 world championship road race, with only one U.S. finisher?
JM: I don’t know where they were really in their hearts and minds. In your heart you want to be there, sometimes you’re mind is not 110 percent. At the worlds, it has to be. The Avenir is the top race in the world for U23, and they dominated that race. Your edge comes off just a touch.
VN: Were the guys coming into Mendrisio too tired?
JM: It was a really long season. We started in February with a 10-day stage race in the Vuelta a Mexico, then straight into the spring classics. We gave them a break in June or July. Then we’re back on for it Avenir, with Avenir being the ultimate goal. That’s where you earn your mettle and sell yourself to the ProTour teams. There are some really good guys coming. Alex Howes, Chris Barton. This U23 group came all the way through the junior program, 17-18.
Breaking down the women’s race
VN: What was your impression of the women’s race?
JM: I think the team was exceptional. They made the race. They were the strongest in the race. They forced most of the situations. The team was super. Everything we had at the finish was the result of the team. Kristin was the strongest one there. Unfortunately, she had some bad luck, once a crash, a second time with a bike change, and then having to fight back. She bent her derailleur hanger a little bit and when she chased back, stood up and ripped the derailleur right off. Then she had to chase back again. It was very impressive that she came back. That was the effort of the day.
VN: How is Amber (Neben) after her crash?
JM: She broke her finger. She has a cast on and will probably have surgery on Tuesday. We really needed her. If we would have had her in the sixth and seventh lap, we would have entirely changed that dynamic.
VN: Also good rides by (Evelyn) Stephens and (Mara) Abbott, both in the top 20 …
JM: More than the results were the efforts. They were both excellent. Evelyn was superb. We asked her to take some big digs, three laps making the pace. Fourth lap, OK, let’s try again, fifth lap, try again, and sixth, well, just keep going! She was unbelievable. Mara also took big attacks, which, on this course, puts a lot of pain in everyone’s legs. It’s not that many times when you can take it out of everyone else.
VN: Two Italians in a four-rider move are some tough numbers.
JM: It’s those extra efforts that might have been the difference. You’re fourth instead of third, maybe they come all the way back. It was going to be back and forth. We were hoping that (Marianne) Vos would start covering, and we were hoping it would be one-on-one. Vos was the most dangerous. We tried to put her in position to make her work. Kristin shut it down to five seconds, that’s when we stopped, and we really wanted Vos to step up. If you want the world title, you’ve got to chase it. (Vos) didn’t shut it down and it stretched back out to 18 seconds. OK, the world title is gone, but we can still race for a medal. (Noemi) Cantele’s fast, Vos is fast. She took one hard dig with 2km to go. At that point, the snap had left the legs a little. She made a great attack, but Vos closed it down. Then it was 2km to the finish, sit on the wheel, it’s a tough sprint to win.
VN: What does it say about Armstrong’s character to win the world TT title?
RM: She has an unbelievable character. You work with a lot of athletes, but there are not many with the character that she has. She’s a real team leader. For her to come back after winning the Olympic title, so she can go out as a world champion, that is not easy. Ten months of training for one day to go out as world champion. One day, nothing else matters. It’s a lot of work, a lot of emotional energy.
VN: How much has she meant to the women’s program the past 10 years?
JM: Everything, honestly. Years ago, when we started, this is what we envisioned we could do. Then someone comes along like Kristin, with Christine, Amber, Didi early on, Kimberly Buckner, they had them one-upping each other in the time trial. The more one accomplished the more the other wanted to accomplish. It made me look pretty smart.
VN: And the team still has more coming up behind Armstrong?
JM: It’s amazing the amount of talent that’s really there. As I’ve been doing this for eight years, every few years, you have a Kristin Armstrong, then you have an Amber Neben, then you have a Mara Abbott, then you have an Eve Stephens, they just keep coming. They’re big-time riders. It’s amazing. To that degree, it’s a luxury. It’s a big country, and they come out everywhere.