Bam! In the blink of an eye Alex Howes’ (Cannondale) dream of representing the United States at 2012 London Olympics were shattered along with his collarbone. Four years on, Howes’ Olympic dream was shattered again on Thursday.
“Dedicate your life to making the Olympics dream a reality,” Howes told CyclingTips in an email. “Believe, dream, train. Believe, dream, train. Come so close, break your collarbone. Redouble your efforts, improve, train for four more years, come so close…I’m absolutely crushed. What more is there to say?”
Howes stormed onto the European circuit as a neo-pro in 2012 with a stellar Spring Classics campaign, which included over a 200km ride in the breakaway at the Amstel Gold Race. His eye-opening performance got the notice of USA Cycling and allowed his Olympic dream to creep toward reality. A broken collarbone suffered in a training crash in July of that year put dashed any hopes he had.
The Golden, Colorado native didn’t lie down in defeat, but put his head down and poured his heart and soul into another four years of hard racing, culminating in an impressive 12th place finish at the road world championships in Richmond last year.
Again his Olympic dreams were dashed, but not because of his own undoing.
“I’m happy for Brent and Taylor,” Howes said, ever gracious despite the difficulty of the situation. “They are both damn fine riders, good people, and they will represent the USA well in Rio.
“With that said, I can’t deny the fact that I still believe I am the USA’s best chance for a big result in the road race.”
Herein lies the issue.
Jim Miller. vice president of athletics at USA Cycling, was required to have his selection criteria published 18 months prior to the games, which is roughly the beginning of the 2015 season.
“So the way the criteria originally was intended and set-up, was that we would select the time-trialists first, that is our greatest shot at medal or the highest predictability of a result,” Miller said.
This decision was made long before USA Cycling realized they would only have two spots for men’s road team in Rio.
“When you do that and you work through the criteria of athlete selection and the discretionary nominations for the time trial team, you name two riders and you don’t get to the road team under this scenario,” Miller said. Time trial participants are required to also participate in the road race.
Phinney and Bookwalter’s palmares reflect better than Howes’ against the clock. Phinney currently holds the U.S. national time trial, a discipline he had won three-times, and powered to fourth in the event at the 2012 games. He also rode to fourth in the road race at the 2012 games, albeit on a much different course than in Rio.
Bookwalter has multiple national champion medals in the discipline, as well as finishing fourth in the time trial at the national championships this year.
“Having two guys is not ideal and it was a highly unenviable situation for anybody to be in,” Miller admitted.
The UCI allocates the maximum number of participants to a nation based on their rank according to WorldTour points, which puts the U.S. at a grave disadvantage compared to the likes of Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.
“I think the qualification system as a whole based on a nations rank in WorldTour teams in one calendar year of 2015 is not an ideal process,” Miller said. “Nations have no control what WorldTour teams tactics are, who they race or how you score points. It’s just luck of the draw and it’s set-up for Western European nations to take maximum points and the rest of us are hoping we score enough points to start five riders.”
2015 was a down year for the American WorldTour contingent, as they scored few points and has thus hurt them greatly for the 2016 games. “Those of us missing out have no one to blame but ourselves after a horrible 2015 season,” Howes said.
The situation is not lost on Miller. “In most cases through the progress of my career because I came up through the road programs and running the women’s road program, then overseeing all the road programs and I’ve coached and directed in the junior program, U23 program, I’ve known these guys in some cases from the time they were 14 or 15 years old,” Miller said.
“We have good working relationships. We can talk. We can argue. I consider them friends. I think they consider me a friend. I don’t fault them and if they could have got points last year, they would have got points last year.”
While Howes has represented the U.S. at the world championships, the Olympic games is a whole different experience. At 28, time is still on Howes’ side for another shot at the 2020 Olympic team in Tokyo, but four years is a long way off and it appears not going to Rio will sting for a little while.
“I love Alex Howes,” Miller said. “I think he is a great guy. He’s a great kid. He’s not a kid anymore, but he’s a great bike racer. I’ve stood behind Alex when nobody else would and nobody else believed in Alex. I’m very proud of what Alex has accomplished through the years.”