ROAD magazine — Nov/Dec 2013
Change Language:
This Generation
Pat Malach


With the generation of cyclists who followed in the wake of Greg Lemond's Tour de France victories now nearing or having already reached retirement, another wave of American talent has been crossing the Atlantic and flooding the world's best teams and races. Most noticeably, Tejay van Garderen, the 25-year-old who races for BMC, finished  fifth in the 2012 Tour de France, while Garmin- Sharp's 24-year-old “Pit Bull,” Andrew Talansky, clawed his way into the top 10 at the French Grand Tour this year.

BMC's Taylor Phinney, 23, scored a high-profile prologue win at the 2012 Giro d'Italia and wore the race leader's Maglia Rosa for two days. He earned more international attention this spring with a courageous ride to  finish the infamously difficult Porto-Sant'Elpidio stage of Tirenno- Adriatico, only to be eliminated from the race by the time cut before he could test his legs in his specialty, the time trial, the next day.

But beneath the surface of these headline-grabbing performances lies another group of young journeyman and apprentice riders who are paying their dues on the way to becoming top-level professionals. In 2010, there were just six 25-and-under Americans on World Tour teams. Next season there will be at least 12.  the number of American riders competing next season with Foreignowned teams will make up half of that number. In 2010 there were none.

Aside from van Garderen, Talansky and Phinney, there are seven other 25-and-under Americans plying their trade on division-one teams: Garmin's Alex Howes, 25, and Jacob Rathe, 22; RadioShack's Ben King, 24; BMC's Larry Warbasse, 23; Sky Pro Cycling's Joe Dombrowski, 22, and Ian Boswell, 22; and Astana's Evan Hu man, 23. that group will be joined next year on the World Tour by Lawson Craddock, 21, and Chad Haga, 24, on Argos- Shimano; and Nate Brown, 22, on Garmin.

And there are more young Americans queuing up in the wings for their shot at the big show.  this is the future that USA Cycling envisioned when it started sending young men and women to Europe as part of its development program more than a decade ago.

“They started taking kids to Europe quite awhile ago, but in the last 10-15 years they started sending kids over more frequently and giving them more support,” said Ian Boswell, the Sky Pro Cycling rider who benefited from USA Cycling's junior and U23 development programs.“I started going over when I was 16. It comes down to getting the experience over there. If you take 20 kids and put them over there, maybe four are going to end up at the World Tour level. It's just a matter of more opportunities for the riders.”

Through regional talent-scouting camps and connections with grassroots coaches, the sport's governing body in the United States began plucking teenagers out of their local races and sending them overseas to compete regularly against the most talented peers the world had to offer. And as more fans from the Lemond- and Armstrong-driven growth years had children of their own, the talent pool of kids brought up at bike races also grew. Boswell's father, Grant, is a bike racing fan and former racer, and Nate Brown, another USA Cycling graduate who will ride with Garmin next year, said he remembers watching the Tour de France on the couch with his own dad.

“Now I'm racing these guys, and next year, you never know,” Brown said. “I could be doing a Grand Tour with them.”

Ben King, having already ridden three years in the World Tour with RadioShack at just 24, is one of the elder statesmen of the peloton's junior class. He said the time abroad with the development programs not only immersed riders in the intense racing of the European peloton, it also exposed them to the sometimes bitter taste of life on the road.

“I think that the experience we had, whether it was living at the U-23 home in Izegem, Belgium, for months at a time, it kind of weeds out some of the guys who would never make it in the beginning. Guys get homesick, they miss their families or their girlfriends and all of that.  that's a big part of it. It's not only your physical abilities and the potential you have as a bike racer. It's also the ability to adapt to the challenges of living in a new country where you might not speak the language, spending months at a time on the road, or trying to maintain your healthy lifestyle when you don't have an easy routine because it's changing all the time. You learn to be very flexible, but also to maintain a high level of professionalism with a lot of independence. Everyone who races at the World Tour is a hard man, that's for sure.”

Once naturally talented riders had been identified and culled down to only those who were equipped to deal with the nomadic cyclist's lifestyle at a very young age, the next step for most riders involved  finding a safe landing spot to transition from amateur to pro.  that's when UCI Continental teams that focused on U23 development rose up to meet the demand. In 2009, the owners of the RadioShack team stepped into the development ring with a team riding under the Trek-Livestrong name. With Belgian Axel Merckx at the helm, the inaugural U23 team  fielded an eight-rider roster that included King and Phinney, along with Aussies Jesse Sergent (RadioShack) and Sam Bewley (Orica-GreenEdge).

The following year the team grew to 14 riders, five of who graduated to WorldTour teams that year alone, including King and Phinney. Since then, the team that is now owned outright by Merckx and is not linked with any World Tour teams, has provided a steady stream of riders to the sport's top tier. RadioShack now has its own European-based Continental development team, and BMC added a similar program this year.Garmin was in the development game for several years with the Holowesko Partners and Chipotle teams, but the program disappeared after losing sponsorship. Other Continental teams, such as Hincapie Sportswear, have adopted the Merckx model and operate without formal ties to any World Tour squads. And there are also several amateur development programs, most notably California Giant-Specialized, which graduated Talansky and Astana's Evan Hu man directly from the strictly amateur ranks to the World Tour.

The secret behind the development teams is that they provide opportunities for young riders to race in a professional environment without facing the pressure that comes with a much larger paycheck.

“The atmosphere on that team was great for us,” King said of his time with Merckx's squad. “I think Axel did a great job of setting certain expectations for us. Winning was a goal at the races, but winning was kind of a measure of excellence. So excellence was the goal and winning was the result of that. So we learned how to do it properly. We learned how to do things the right way. Diet, training, how to prepare for a race and how to behave at a race.  those are all things that add up.”

Boswell agreed with his former Trek-Livestrong teammate, saying the team provided important structure and experience in a development atmosphere.

“Obviously you can do it without that,” Boswell said.“Look at Phil Gaimon, I don't think he's ever raced in Europe, and now he's going to Garmin. It's still possible, but I think it definitely decreases your odds and chances of making it, mainly because of the experience and getting that whole lifestyle set up.”

Gaimon, 27, raced with Bissell Pro Cycling in 2013 and signed with Vaughters' team late this summer. He attended college in Florida before cycling and never rode with the national team or a development program. Haga, who rode with Optum-Kelly Bene ts Strategy this year, will ride with Argos-Shimano this season. He discovered cycling while earning a Mechanical Engineering degree from Texas A&M and raced in Europe for the first time last year.

So there is obviously more than one pathway to the stop of the sport. Matthew Busche, with RadioShack, and Ted King, with Cannondale, took similar paths. Busche was a runner in college before taking up cycling.  there are other examples as well.  the leap to the top step can be made without going up the development ladder, but it can be a little harder to reach without grabbing some of the helping hands along with way.

“I'm sure it is a bigger adjustment for those guys,” King said. “Absolutely.”

King, who won the U23 time trial and road race national championship in 2010, and then surprised the pro peloton by winning the USPro road race title that same year, is without a doubt an expert on how hard the World Tour can be for neo-pros. It's taken three seasons with RadioShack for the young rider from Virginia to find his own place in the division-one world.

“I think I've gotten a more realistic idea of what my potential really is. I think that's gonna be as a support rider,” he said. “Every result I've had in my career at this point has come from a long solo breakaway or from a small group at the end of a really hard race. And so my strength's just that, hammering for a long time. And that's really valuable as a teammate. Teams always need that in big races that they want to try and win. I could see myself Developing into a road captain type who could go into the breakaways and ride the front all day for the leaders.I think I can get into the big races that way and  find opportunities for myself.”

Boswell, after less than a season with Sky, has already tasted how difficult his chosen career at the sport's top level is going to be. He knows clearly now that earning a contract with a World Tour team – while the result of years of focused, concerted effort – is just a sampling of the real work that lies ahead.

“The hardest part is just staying in the World Tour,” said Boswell, who cracked the top 20 in Europe this year with a 15th overall  finish at the Tour of Austria. “ the  first contract is probably the easiest one you're going to get. You get a chance, but then you have to prove yourself at that level. Coming from Bontrager or the national team, almost every race you go to you have an opportunity, but then you go to the World Tour and you're in the role of working and doing this or doing that, and then all of the sudden your contract's up and you never had an opportunity to go for it for yourself. In the World Tour you really have to take advantage of your opportunities because they don't come as often as they do at the lower levels.”

Riders who may have gotten used to winning throughout their development will need to learn to stare down even more suffering, more sacrifice and more disappointment to move through the next level.  they will need to use every lesson they learned on the way to their current achievements and then add an equal amount more. They need to have confidence that their preparation and the many tests they've faced have put them in the best position to do just that.

“I've been racing for 11 years now,” said 21-year-old Lawson Craddock, a Merckx and USA Cycling protégé who signed with Argos-Shimano for next year. “Cycling is really the only thing that I've ever known, so to finally be able to look back on those 11 years and see that all the work – all the parties and all the hanging out with friends that I passed up to go spend a weekend in a weird city racing – has paid off . It's definitely a really good feeling to know that I've taken the right steps to develop myself into a pro cyclist.”

Although the future, especially for a cyclist or any professional athlete, is always unknown, the fate of cycling in the United States appears to be in good hands. All of the young riders are con dent they are racing in a much cleaner environment – certainly cleaner than the one they've heard stories about from the previous generation – and they are all determined to do things the right way to embrace their respective futures in the sport.

“I don't think I'm personally the future of cycling,” Craddock said before the  final stage of the USA Pro Challenge, one of his last races with the Bontrager development team. “But I think this team is the future of cycling, and all the other Americans and guys my age are the future of cycling. It's a great honor to be a part of this group. One thing that being on this Bontrager team does is teach you to have fun with the sport. When you have fun with the sport, all of the outside influences go away, and the next thing you know it's just you and the road. You're just out there doing what you love, racing your bike.  That's what keeps me focused and keeps me going all the time.I'm out here doing what I want to do.”