For the first time in my life, it feels great to be wrong.
This summer, I wrote a Washington Post piece about the dearth of talent in American cycling and the Walton Family Foundation’s plan to develop young riders as a response to it.
While the Waltons’ efforts are still positive news, the premise that the article was built on—that American cycling needs resuscitation—was faulty.
I watched the UCI Road World Championships in September with my mouth agape as my flawed image of American cycling leaped off its gurney, ripped the IVs from its arms, and went sprinting, open-backed gown flapping in the wind, out of the hospital. In its wake, it left nothing but a string of rainbow jerseys and one journalist trying to fit her cycling shoe in her mouth.
Pro cycling in the U.S. is very much alive and kicking ass.
Exhibit A? Chloé Dygert, just 22, attacking the elite women’s time trial with such ferocity that I was jumping on my couch, à la Tom Cruise, as I watched. She won the event by the widest margin in history.
Exhibit B? Quinn Simmons, who is 18, winning the junior men’s road race at the world championships, riding away from the pack with 30 kilometers to go. His teammate, Magnus Sheffield, won the sprint for the bronze.
Exhibits C through H? Ian Garrison, 21, and Brandon McNulty, 21, taking second and third, respectively, in the under-23 individual time trial; Megan Jastrab, 17, winning the women’s junior road race (we all still remember when she took the women’s field sprint at age 15—on junior gears—at the 2017 Redlands Classic, right?); and Zoe Ta-Perez, 17, Lawson Craddock, 27, and Coryn Rivera, 27, all cruising to top-ten finishes in the junior women’s time trial, the men’s time trial, and the women’s road race, respectively. By the end of the week, America led the gold-medal count at worlds and was second in total medals only to the Netherlands.
Exhibits beyond the road-world champs: Kate Courtney, 23, becoming the first American in 17 years to win the overall cross-country title for the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup earlier in September; at the same event, teammates Chloe Woodruff, 32, and Lea Davison, 36, finishing 9th and 14th, respectively, in the final race of the season; our mixed-relay team, winning silver at the mountain-bike world championships; and Tokyo 2020 favorite Ashton Lambie, 28—who only started racing on the velodrome in 2016—breaking his own world record in the individual time trial on the track in September.
I’ve been thinking about how I got things so wrong. My mistake, I now realize, was looking to the men’s UCI WorldTour peloton as an indicator of American success. I am old, which means I came up in the cycling era of Lance, when the pro tours were, for so many Americans, what cycling was all about. That’s changing.
Today, cycling is streaming cyclocross at your desk and hoping your boss doesn’t notice. It’s refreshing your live tracker as ultra-endurance racer Leal Wilcox crushes the Navad 1,000 bikepacking race across Switzerland. It’s road-tripping to Snowshoe, West Virginia, to take selfies with Lea Davison at the UCI World Cup. It’s following your favorite Dirty Kanza riders on Instagram. It’s taking a last, desperate mid-thirties’ stab at a pro-racing career by signing up for the Zwift Academy. Oh, and maybe if you have time, you might turn on Le Tour for a stage or two.
Cycling is widening its funnel, and that’s a good thing for development. The more participants we have in our sport, the more robust our talent pool. But that’s hardly the only reason that Americans are cleaning up on the world stage.
When I asked elite-development coaches what we did ten years ago that led to this past year’s success, I heard about a number of factors. “There’s not any one person who can take credit for the success we saw at world championships,” says Nicola Cranmer, founder and general manager of the Sho-Air Twenty20 women’s pro team and Twenty20 junior teams. Cranmer has worked in young-athlete development in the U.S. for 15 years. “True development begins at the grass roots, not only the coaches, the clubs, and teams that support junior athletes, but the race promoters, too.”
Although many folks likely deserve a small amount of credit, one organization was resoundingly echoed by all my sources as being crucial to this moment’s success. It, too, began at the grassroots level: the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
NICA started in 1998, when Matt Fritzinger, a math teacher at Berkeley High School in California, tried to form a road-cycling team. “But all the kids showed up with mountain bikes,” says Steve Matous, current president of the group. Now NICA has 22,500 members in 31 states participating in middle and high school level mountain-bike races.
I am old, which means I came up in the cycling era of Lance, when the pro tours were, for so many Americans, what cycling was all about. That’s changing.
What NICA has done extraordinarily well is bring both racers and nonracers into the sport, says Tim Johnson, a former professional road, mountain-bike, and cyclocross athlete who now heads up fundraising for USA Cycling’s foundation. He adds, “They’re introducing both the sport and the activity of biking all at once.” While some of the kids entering the program will go on to be the next Kate Courtney (a NICA grad, along with under-23 national champion Christopher Blevins and several pro roadies, including Megan Jastrab), most of them will grow up to simply be adults who love cycling. Johnson says that’s the genius of NICA: we need those cycling enthusiasts to fund teams and sponsor races for both elites and weekend warriors.
NICA is giving high school bike racing a structure that lasts. “Ten years ago, if there was a high school team, it was usually run by one dad with a fast kid, and when that kid went to college, the team kind of died,” says Chad Cheeney, cofounder of Durango Devo, a program for young mountain bikers in Durango, Colorado. And NICA provides actual training on how to coach—it’s no longer just one or two parents trying to figure it out as they go.
But NICA alone doesn’t fully explain our recent results, especially on the women’s side of the sport, where there’s particular momentum.
It’s been well-documented that women perform better in everything from academia to science to politics when they have female role models. Technically, we’ve had icons, like the dominant Connie Carpenter-Phinney and tough-as-nails Juli Furtado, to look up to for decades. But the women racing today had an abundance of heroes on which to affix their gaze: three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, Alison Powers, investment banker turned WorldTour racer Evelyn Stevens, Mara Abbott, and mountain biker Georgia Gould. Even better, athletes like Gould and former pro road racer Kathryn Bertine fought hard for wage equality—Bertine made the documentary Half the Road on the topic—in an effort to make pro cycling a viable career choice for women.
And of course, these young women have each other, says Powers, who is now retired and owns her own coaching business. “When one person has success, it’s really motivating. When Evelyn Stevens got a medal at worlds, it was like, If she can do it, I can do it,” says Powers. “Now we have Kate Courtney, and all the American women are raising their game because they see that she can do it.”
Armstrong, who now coaches Chloé Dygert, offers another reason why the American women are suddenly so on top of their game: the generation before them is breaking down the institutional sexism of male-dominated coaching. “I frequently get asked by other female cyclists to review their training programs. I often scratch my head and ask, Why aren’t they being pushed to their capabilities? Female athletes are capable of so much more,” Armstrong says. She gives a nod to Jim Miller, her own coach, who now also coaches Courtney. “After working with me, he’s like, I know what women can take,” she says. Plus, athletes like herself and Powers have become coaches in retirement, meaning young female athletes can now be coached by someone who has also navigated women’s pro cycling. Perhaps even more important, we’re beginning to actually study women in sports science, which, believe it or not, is relatively new. Armstrong points to Stacy Sims, who has devoted her career to both calling out inequalities in research and fixing them by doing her own studies. Because of Sims, for example, we now know how to adapt training plans to capitalize on women’s hormone cycles.
But perhaps what makes all this success for American cyclists even more remarkable is that it’s happened despite a shortage of resources for young cyclists. For one, there just isn’t enough money to go around, particularly in women’s racing. Here’s a factoid that will blow your mind: Armstrong spent 18 months trying to finance a wind-tunnel trip for Dygert. (Aerodynamics are crucial to the individual time trial, where there is obviously no drafting.) “I joked about putting a GoFundMe out there,” Armstrong says, because she couldn’t get a single sponsor to pick up the bill, which would have been about $10,000. In the end, they did without, trying to perfect Dygert’s position as best they could in a velodrome. (Red Bull will now likely pick up the tab. But, Armstrong says, “What about the athletes who aren’t lucky enough to be sponsored by someone like Red Bull?”)
There are other structural problems with our development programs, too, for both women and men. In Europe, track racing is a key tool for developing both strong and tactical young riders. In the U.S., track racing is only an option if you live near one of our country’s 26 velodromes. Meanwhile, there are 23 tracks in the UK alone.
And there just aren’t enough high-level races here in the U.S. to compete in, says Twenty20 coach Nicola Cranmer. The Chrono Kristin Armstrong time-trial event, for example, is the only UCI-recognized time trial in the U.S. And the best junior and under-23 racing is still happening abroad. “We just don’t have much junior racing in the U.S.,” says Jeff Pierce, USA Cycling’s director of athletics for road and track. Sure, there are races, but “there are small fields, and the competition isn’t very high.”
In 2013, USA Cycling announced its plan to build a permanent training hub for young American riders in Sittard-Geleen, a town in the Netherlands. But while that center may be giving some of our young male racers a much needed chance compete across the pond with support from the organization, Armstrong feels like opportunities are still too sparse for women. “The USAC will take a group of younger [women] riders for a couple weeks at a time to race in Europe,” she says. But beyond that, Armstrong says, the riders can mostly expect to get European racing experience from their trade teams.
In the context of all these challenges, the results we’ve seen this year are truly spectacular. And there’s so much more promise on the horizon with the 2020 Olympics. According to a spokesperson for USA Cycling, we could have as many as four women in the Olympic road race and two in the time trial. On the men’s side, we’ll likely have two shots at medals in the road race and the time trial. There may be as many as seven women and five men headed to compete on the track. Currently, we may even get to send three women mountain bikers to Tokyo, though of course, this is all subject to how racing over the next few months plays out.
Cycling interest in the U.S. has broadened way beyond pro road racing: even pro road teams like EF Education First Pro Cycling are filling out their schedules with gravel grinds and the occasional just-for-fun fondo.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one last latent variable that’s been favorable to pro cycling in the U.S.: the dog that dogged cycling for so long—Lance Armstrong—is becoming less and less relevant every year.
Today’s young stars missed the truly bad behavior (and, let’s face it, the glory days) of the Postal Service era. However, thanks to Armstrong throwing the sport under the bus in his 2013 interview with Oprah, riders who came right after him were stuck with the perception that the entire sport was tainted by doping. Former professional road cyclist Phil Gaimon says that after Lance’s career blew apart, so, too, did sponsorship dollars. “[Before], there was a strong scene domestically, with big-budget teams like Toyota United, something like 15 men’s teams, and probably 100 jobs,” he says. Now there are only a handful of teams, he says, and it’s difficult to make a living wage.
“As a millennial coming up in the sport of cycling [during that time], there was an unwritten playbook built by our predecessors,” says Lucas Euser, who quit pro cycling in 2016. He says that he, and other racers around his age, wanted to race clean, but the American public wasn’t ready to trust. “We were a sort of lost generation of cycling,” he adds.
These days, Lance’s barking is just background noise. And cycling interest in the U.S. has broadened way beyond pro road racing: even pro tour teams like EF Education First Pro Cycling are filling out their schedules with gravel grinds and the occasional just-for-fun fondo. “The new crop of Gen Z talent gets to write their own playbook,” says Euser.
And the babies of the seventies and eighties are helping them. They’re building teams and coaching athletes. They’re putting on new kinds of events and fundraising for USA Cycling. In pushing forward this new era of American cycling, the lost generation has found its calling. And that’s a good thing for every cycling fan in America—and a great thing for every kid with a bike and a dream.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that NICA had 22,000 members in 27 states.