US men receive only two Olympic road spots: What went wrong, and what it means

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When the start gun for the Olympic men’s road race is fired on August 6, there will be 144 riders lined up to start. Two of these men will be from the United States.

Given that other nations will field the maximum of five riders in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. will be at a significant disadvantage in a race that is predictably unpredictable due to unfamiliar courses, varying team sizes, and lack of race radios.

Since the 2012 Olympics, riders from the United States have won major WorldTour races, such as the Vuelta a España (Chris Horner, in 2013) and the Critérium du Dauphiné (Andrew Talansky, in 2014). So it’s a fair question to ask how it came to be that the U.S. will field only two riders in Rio — particularly as countries such as Canada, Morocco, Iran, Argentina, and Ukraine will field three riders per nation.

It’s also a fair question to ask given that, at the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. fielded five men: Horner, Tyler Farrar, Tejay van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, and Timmy Duggan.

The 2016 Olympic qualification criteria, decided upon by the UCI, was determined solely on results earned in 2015, based upon WorldTour and Continental rankings, in that order.

In essence, a subpar 2015 by U.S. WorldTour riders hindered the nation’s Olympic hopes.

Van Garderen, the nation’s top stage racer, abandoned the biggest race of the year, the Tour de France, due to illness while sitting third overall. He then abandoned the Vuelta a España with a broken shoulder, and missed the world championships.

Phinney, the country’s best one-day racer and time trialist, missed the bulk of the 2015 season returning from injury, and did not compete at any WorldTour events. He finished 12th in the world time-trial championship, an event which, while not part of the WorldTour, did factor into the UCI’s Olympic athlete quota allocation.

Since the 2012 London Olympics, the BMC Racing duo has represented the best opportunity for the U.S. to earn WorldTour points and world championship allocations. Van Garderen finished fifth overall at the 2014 Tour de France, and second overall at the 2015  Critérium du Dauphiné. Phinney finished second at the 2012 world time-trial championship, and in 2013 he was seventh at Milan-San Remo and won a stage of the Tour of Poland.

National federations ranked first through fifth on UCI WorldTour rankings were granted five spots at the 2016 Olympic road race. Those nations are Italy, Colombia, Spain, Great Britain, and Belgium.

Nations ranked sixth through 15th were granted four spots in the road race. There was no specific WorldTour allocation for nations ranked worse than 15th.

The U.S. was ranked 12th after the 2014 WorldTour season, but dropped to 18th after 2015, behind significantly less-populated nations such as Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.

Van Garderen was the top U.S. rider in the 2015 WorldTour individual rankings, sitting 49th. Talansky, who also had an off year in 2015, was the next-best placed, in 70th.

“At the start of 2015, I sent an email to all the WorldTour riders, and let them know it was going to be close to make it into the top 15,” said Jim Miller, Vice President of Athletics at USA Cycling. “Everyone knew we were racing for WorldTour points. In May, after the classics, in the lead up to the Tour de France, I looked at our nation rankings, and I told everyone, ‘if you are in a group, even if you are racing for 15th place, I need you to sprint. It’s going to be close, and even one WorldTour point can matter.”

Points earned by Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare, left) at the 2015 USA Pro Challenge were applied toward the USA's Continental nation rankings; points earned by Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing, right) were not. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.
Points earned by Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare, left) at the 2015 USA Pro Challenge were applied toward the USA’s Continental nation rankings; points earned by Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing, right) were not. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

How Kiel Reijnen and John Murphy earned the U.S. Olympic spots

All nations ranked lower than 15th in the WorldTour were allocated spots based upon ranking within their respective Continental Tours; a nation granted spots from WorldTour allocation could not gain more spots from Continental Tour rankings.

The top three nations in each Continental Tour were given three spots, and the nations ranked fourth and fifth in their Continental Tour were granted two spots.

The U.S. was ranked fifth in the 2015 America Tour, one point behind Venezuela. If the U.S. had finished sixth in the America Tour, behind Brazil, it would have received only one spot in the road race.

The reason the U.S. ranked poorly in the America Tour is simple: UCI rules prohibit WorldTour riders from earning Continental Tour points when competing in Continental events.

Joe Dombrowski’s overall win at the Tour of Utah, and fourth overall at the Amgen Tour of California, were not weighed into the America Tour standings. Neither were Brent Bookwalter’s GC podium finishes at the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge, nor Phinney’s podium appearances at both races.

Because of this rule, the highest point earners of the U.S. ranking in the 2015 America Tour were Kiel Reijnen, who rode for the Pro Continental UnitedHealthcare squad in 2015 and is now with Trek-Segafredo, and John Murphy, also of UnitedHealthcare.

“At races like California, Utah, and Colorado, U.S. WorldTour teams want to win, so they send their best American guys, and that takes them out of World Tour points,” Miller said. “The second Tejay dropped out of the Tour de France, I thought, are we going to have to qualify for the Olympics through Continental rankings?”

Reijnen earned Continental points with stage wins in Utah and Colorado. Murphy earned points with an overall win at the Joe Martin Stage Race, where he won two stages, and the USA Pro Challenge, where he won the final stage. Third and fourth U.S points earners in the UCI America Tour ranking were Eric Young (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Gavin Mannion (Jelly Belly-Maxxis).

The U.S. also suffered on the Continental nation rankings because two of the best Continental squads registered with USA Cycling were led by non-Americans — Canadian Mike Woods, at Optum, and Latvian Toms Skujins, at Hincapie Racing. Continental points for their victories went to their respective nations.

USA Cycling did not send a squad to the Pan-Am Continental Championships in Mexico, which could have boosted its Continental nation’s points tally, because the event overlapped with the Amgen Tour of California, Miller said.

Miller said that after the Richmond world championships in September, he contemplated sending a squad of U.S. riders, including Reijnen and Mannion, to late-season stage races in Guatemala and Costa Rica, in hopes of bringing the U.S. into the top three on America Tour nation rankings, earning a third rider for the Olympic road race. But he realized that even if the team were to win, it was extremely unlikely, bordering on mathematically impossible, that it would surpass Argentina on the nation rankings to move into third.

The takeaway? While riders like Phinney, Talansky, and van Garderen are most likely to be selected to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, it was actually riders such as Reijnen, Murphy, Young, and Mannion whose efforts secured their spots.

2016 Olympic road race profile
The Grumari and Grota Funda climbs used early in the road race will also feature on the time trial course; elite men will do two laps of a circuit during the time trial, climbing Grumari and Grota Funda twice.

How a “nasty” time trial complicates Olympic team selection

A total of 40 men will compete in the Olympic time trial. The U.S. did not immediately meet qualification criteria for the time trial, as it was not in the top 15 in WorldTour rankings, and not in the top four nations in its Continental Tour rankings.

However, the U.S. gained one TT spot as the fifth-ranked nation in the America Tour, due to Colombia’s dominance. Olympic qualification criteria states that any team in the top 15 of the WorldTour rankings cannot earn an additional spot through Continental Tour rankings; Colombia was third in the WorldTour in 2015, and first in the America Tour. Colombia’s TT spot, available through Continental Tour rankings, then bumped down to the U.S.

The U.S. earned a second spot based upon Phinney’s 12th place at the world time-trial championship. Rules state that the top 10 nations from the 2015 world TT championship earned a spot, and that, if, among the first 10 riders, there is more than one rider from the same nation, the next-best ranked rider, or riders, from nations not yet qualified receive the spot. With two riders from Poland and two from Italy in the top 11 in Richmond, Phinney slotted the U.S. into the top 10 nations.

Team selection for the U.S. will not be straightforward. In an effort to keep total athlete numbers down, UCI rules state that all 40 riders who compete in the Olympic time trial must also ride in the road race. Given that the road circuit is extremely hilly, as is the time trial, the TT selection must take into account a time-trial rider who also climbs well. This would matter less if the U.S. had more riders at its disposal; the same rule applies to all nations, but the top 15 nations have four or five riders, not two.

Miller said the 241km road course, with its three ascents of the Canoas and Vista Chinesa climbs, favors a pure climber. While the race organization summarizes the combined ascent as 8.9km at 5.7%, Miller said that the 700m descent that separates the two skews the average gradient.

“There are sections that climb at 10-11%” Miller said. “I think Thibault Pinot has the record on the climb, and it’s something like 25 minutes. It’s a legit climb. This is not a climb from an Ardennes classic. There is a very steep kicker. Guys will really have to be able to climb.”

After finishing sixth behind French compatriot Alexis Vuillermoz in the Olympic test event, Pinot told Cycling Weekly, “I had been told that it was hard, that it was a sort of Liège-Bastogne-Liège type of race, but it’s a lot harder than that, it’s probably closer to the Tour of Lombardy, but in any case it’s a real climbers’ course.”

The Olympic TT course features a 1.2km ascent up the steep Grumari Road that will also be climbed four times early in the road race. Men will complete two laps, for 54.5km. Miller called the beachside TT course, which features several rolling hills and a 3km cobblestone section, “nasty,” saying that it’s “one of the hardest time trials I have ever seen.”

A 360-degree video of the entire road circuit can be viewed here; the TT course falls roughly between the 1:00 and 1:45 mark. The UCI has told national federations that Rio 2016 organizers will pave the 3km cobblestone section in the few days between the women’s road race, on August 7, and the time trials, on August 10.

At the 2012 Olympics, Phinney finished fourth in both the road race and time trial. He may represent the best hope for a U.S. medal in Rio, however, given the rule that all TT riders must also compete in the hilly road race, and the fact that the U.S. only has two spots, Phinney’s selection is not assured.

USA Cycling has a series of selection criteria that prioritizes the time trial over the road race. Any U.S. rider in the top three at the Giro d’Italia’s 40.4km time trial on May 14 will automatically qualify. Beyond that, riders will be chosen by the USA Cycling Selection Committee.

For the road race, USA Cycling has another series of selection criteria, including WorldTour rankings as of June 20. However the first criteria, and the only one that matters, is this: “Any U.S. eligible athlete previously nominated to the 2016 Olympic Games Individual Time Trial Team will be nominated to the 2016 Olympic Games Road Race Team.”

Long story short: Barring a top-three finish at the Giro time trial, both riders selected for the Olympic time trial (and, therefore, road race), will be chosen by a selection committee.

Miller wouldn’t comment on specifics of team selection, but it’s hard to imagine USA Cycling not choosing van Garderen, a rider who can climb and time trial among the best in the world. Though he’s always been more of a stage-race TT rider than a one-day specialist, and though he’s never medaled at worlds, van Garderen finished fourth at the 2012 world time-trial championship. An Olympic TT medal is unlikely for van Garderen, though the hilly Grumari TT course works in his favor.

Assuming van Garderen is selected, USA Cycling’s final decision would be weighed between Phinney’s medal-winning potential in the time trial versus bringing another world-class climber, such as Talansky or Dombrowski. Talansky, the 2015 national time-trial champion, can hold his own against the clock, but is not likely a medal contender. Other American riders who have expressed interest in an Olympic spot include Reijnen, Alex Howes, and Peter Stetina.

If Phinney is selected, he would be the only U.S. rider in Rio de Janeiro whose own individual performance directly merited an Olympic spot, tracing back to his 12th-place finish in Richmond. It would not be without precedent. The majority of WorldTour points from the 2011 season were earned by Levi Leipheimer, Farrar, Tom Danielson, Horner, and Christian Vande Velde. Of those five, only Horner and Farrar went to the 2012 London Games, though there were very different reasons behind that team selection.

And then, of course, there is the matter of the Tour de France. Crashes, illness, and fatigue are all part of the equation at the Tour, meaning no matter which riders USA Cycling selects, it could be making roster adjustments just weeks before the August 6 road race.

USA Cycling will submit its road nominations to the U.S. Olympic Committee on June 24 — one week before the Tour de France begins.

[Editor’s Note: Women’s Olympic road qualification will be based upon UCI nation ranking from results earned between June 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016, and will be announced in June. The top five nations will be granted four spots in the road race. As of January 17, the U.S. sat second in the UCI nation rankings. More information on Olympic selection and courses can be found here.]

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