“Immediately after the race, I said I pity the reporter who’s going to try to recreate what happened, because it’s going to be impossible.” — Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel), after the 2016 U.S. national road championship
On a Saturday in May, on the normally quiet neighborhood roads of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the birds chirped and residents prepared barbecues for Memorial Day, the 2016 men’s national championship road race took place.
The result was one of those days that will be remembered in American cycling — a day the winner, Greg Daniel will look back on, smile, and tell his children about. And a day that, for many, raised a host of questions about how an unheralded 21-year-old rode away from a select group of veteran riders to take the stars and stripes jersey of national champion.
Daniel’s name was on no one’s lips in the days leading up to the race. Instead, all eyes were on Alex Howes (Cannondale), Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), and Travis McCabe (Holowesko-Citadel), all former podium finishers.
The U.S. nationals is a peculiar race, the one day of the year when Continental teams have the upper-hand over the WorldTour squads — or WorldTour individuals, as the case may be, as some, including Reijnen, take the start line without support.
“No one wants to take control at nationals, whether that’s because people have that ounce more of selfishness at a national championships or it’s because you just don’t want to risk as much,” Carpenter said.
This dynamic has often seen the nationals end with a last-ditch Hail Mary attack surviving to the finish. Matthew Busche (UnitedHealthCare), then with Trek Factory Racing, won the 2015 national championship without any teammates, and by attacking in the closing kilometres. In 2012, Timmy Duggan, riding with only one teammate, launched a solo attack 24km from the finish line that stuck.
This year’s nationals had an added element of mystery — it was held on a new, untested course.
Daniel and Logan Owen came to the national championships as the only riders from their Axeon Hagens Berman team, and without the luxury of team support. By comparison, Rally Cycling and Lupus Racing each came to the start with 10 or more starters.
When outnumbered, experience often goes a long way, but for Daniel and Owen, both 21, experience is in relatively short supply.
This year’s nationals also held extra importance for Howes, as he makes a bid to represent the United States in Rio at the Olympic Games in August. The U.S. only has two spots, and after finishing in the group of favorites at Liège-Bastonge-Liège, a national championship would have gone a long way in convincing USA Cycling to take him to Rio.
The mercury in Winston-Salem hovered around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30° Celsius) and 40% humidity when the riders toed the line for the 187km slugfest.
What followed was a race that saw a constant reshuffling of breakaways and chase groups that left many at home — and in the race — confused who was leading race and who had been dropped. [As a UCI NC event, the use of race radios is prohibited.)
The hot, sweaty, chaotic afternoon ultimately resulted in an emphatic solo victory for Daniel.
Howes’ frustration at the finish line — he slammed his handlebar as he won the bunch sprint to take second — appeared to be the reaction of a rider who had gambled on tactics, hesitated, and lost.
However, according to Carpenter, Daniel wasn’t just “let go.” Rather, he’d fought for position, sensed the perfect moment, and seized the opportunity. He’d shown a willingness to risk losing, and won.
Below is an account of the final lap of the national road championship, as told by five of the top-10 finishers — Carpenter (ninth), McCabe (third), Howes (second), Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling, fifth), and Daniel.
IN THEIR WORDS
Logan Owen (Axeon Hagens Berman) and Taylor Sheldon (Jelly Belly) entered the final of 12 15km laps with a 10-second lead over a dwindling 20-rider peloton.
Carpenter: “I’d say somewhere on the last lap there was an acceleration, and a group of riders went away, that included myself and Oscar Clark [Holowesko-Citadel] and the right mix of other teams like Rally, UHC, Jelly Belly and Cannondale.”
A group of nine had formed at the front as Owen and Sheldon were brought back into the mix, but soon the group shattered.
Daniel: “I don’t really remember us attacking, but I just remember looking back and realizing there was a gap to the group behind us and there was just a front group of five.”
Huffman: “It was really chaotic and hectic and it was hard to… I mean, there was no radios, and it was just a hard technical course, so it was hard to tell what was going on. So you’re just racing a lot on instinct.”
Carpenter had a front row seat on what happened next.
Carpenter: “I was going to the back of the rotation, and sometimes a little gap opens up when people don’t want to pull through. I was next to Ben King when that happened, and we sort of played this little game about who’s going to close the gap as the riders in front of you ride away from you. I knew he needed to be in that group, and I wanted to be in that group, but I’m trying to get people to work and trying to get people to pull.
“I’m trying to get him to close the gap, and I thought he was messing with me, because he’s Ben King and he’s a monster and he’s super strong and he was making faces at me like he was dying. I thought he was just making faces and not in that much trouble, but he actually was, and then we’re 15 seconds off the back — John Murphy [UnitedHealthCare] and Logan Owen, Ben King and myself.”
While Carpenter and others were dropped for playing poker on who would pull next, poker was also being played among the front five.
Daniel: “It was really disorganized. I was trying to get the group to kind of work together, and I saw everyone was either on the limit or playing poker a bit and trying to save it for the final climb. There was a couple of times there I would pull through and nobody would follow my wheel and I was like, okay, if you’re not going to get on my wheel I’m just going to keep riding. I wasn’t going hard, but there’d be a gap and I would kind of go off the front and then they would have to chase it down. I was just trying to ride steady and not do too many accelerations and wait for the final climb. I think it was just a race to that last time up Manly Street.”
Carpenter: “Then, on one of these false-flat sections, it’s pretty open and you could see the groups, so I looked in front of me and could see the group of five and then behind me I see the shattered group behind and up is coming Alex Howes and Travis [McCabe] and they’re all kind of separated.”
Via email, Howes, who was visibly upset at the finish line and on the podium, said he preferred not to discuss what happened at nationals. In a Cannondale team release, he described his race situation.
Howes: “It started splitting, and there was a lot of guys looking around at each other. I was behind, and Ben was somewhere in the middle. Then with seven kilometres to go, I hit the group, and Ben hit the gas.”
McCabe: “It was that downhill in the neighborhood and then you had a little uphill and it was a quick left, downhill and a hard 90-degree right. Right before there, Howes attacked and got away with one other person, and they were just kind of sitting out there. At this point on the hill, I realized I was in the third group, we weren’t bringing them back. Howes was about to bridge, so I jumped across and put in a big effort to get up to them, and Robin actually came back a little bit and dragged me up to them.”
Carpenter: “Ben saw that Alex was coming up and needed help, so we all just waited, and I noticed Travis was coming up, so I waited just a little bit behind for Ben and Alex’s group.”
Once the junction was made, King went to the front and sacrificed himself for the good of the team.
Carpenter: “Then Ben ripped it all the way to the bottom of the climb with Alex on his wheel, and Travis behind him and me behind Travis, just waiting. At that point I think there was the front group, which included Greg Daniel, and then there was our group, and then there was some sort of peloton behind made up of 20 riders.”
Daniel: “Right before we started the climb [Manly Street], I looked back and I could see them behind us, so I knew they were breathing down our necks. I knew that they would eventually catch. When we hit the climb, Oscar Clark was giving a good dig and I actually did not look back to see who was there, I was just looking in the shadows to see who would accelerate, and I was just seeing shadows swinging back and forth, and I thought okay, these guys are pretty tired and maybe I have a good shot at riding away.”
Huffman: “I didn’t really ever know what the gap was behind, so I don’t know if those guys caught us at the bottom of the climb or what, but once we turned onto the climb we pretty much rode just flat out from the bottom to the top. That thing is so steep there’s not really too many tactical games you can play there you, just gotta try and get up it.”
Carpenter: “So we hit the bottom of the climb and right on the steep section of the climb, right as we turned, we basically started making contact with the front group. Alex and Travis are sprinting up the climb, they are distancing me, but you know it’s also like this big mix of riders on the steep section and I can see my teammate Oscar, and I can see the front group. I didn’t see Greg Daniel go, because I’m trying to hold the wheel in front of me. It all happened in like 10 seconds, where the whole race went boom.”
Daniel: “The last time we hit [the climb], I was waiting and waiting and waiting and nobody hit it, and I knew that we were getting close to the top of the climb and I was like, okay, I just gotta go because I don’t really want to test my sprint with these guys. So, I just gave it kind of a kick on the front to see who would come with me, and I looked in the shadow and I didn’t see anyone. So I was like okay, I’m just going to keep going and not look back, and if they’re chasing behind I’m just going to make it hard to get in that slipstream.”
McCabe: “I saw him go. There was a split-second moment [to follow Daniel], but it’s a decision you have to make right away.”
Howes: “Greggy kind of slipped through the cracks. Honestly, I just wasn’t in the right spot.”
Huffman: “Once it started to flatten out a little bit, with 1k to go, that was when Greg Daniel took off, and I think nobody had the legs to follow him. We were already going flat out on the wheels, and then at that point I looked back, and saw that some guys had caught us, hoping they may help ride, but Howes and McCabe were rightly going to just wait for a sprint. No one really wanted to do the work there and chase, until it was too late.”
Carpenter: “[Daniel] was attacking out of such a small group, like five riders maybe, and the favorites were just making contact, so everybody was just kind of like, there was just this massive moment of confusion and everyone not really knowing what is going on and just riding as hard as they could. That’s one of the reasons I tweeted there was no ‘letting him go.’
“I think he went at literally the perfect time, right before Alex and Travis were about to make contact and they had just enough time on the steep part of the hill where he had a gap that wasn’t easily closable. It was a good move by him, for sure.”
McCabe: “I think Gregory played it perfectly. He looked around, saw that it had all come back together and we were looking at one another. I was marked out, Alex was pretty marked out, everyone was kind of looking at us and Murphy to kind of see what would happen, and Gregory Daniel just jumped and right at the crest of the hill where it was flat, and had enough to stay away, which was pretty awesome to see.”
Howes: “I’m incredibly disappointed. I felt great out there. I wanted the win today because I think it would have helped my case for the Olympics. The team was brilliant. The staff and riders fully committed everything for me, and it hurts to come up short.”
from a child’s drink to an adult beverage
As it turned out, Daniel’s racing instinct was beyond his years.
“It wasn’t until I looked at the last kilometre on the replay that I was like okay, they caught on the split-second I made that move,” Daniel said. “I could feel the pacing slowing and that’s why I went, but I think it played out perfectly in timing.”
Daniel didn’t have the luxury of full support staff, but he did have the help of a friend, who was competing in Winston-Salem at the masters national championships and had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“You know that whole story how you don’t try new things the day of the race?” Yeah, I just threw that whole thing out the window,” Daniel said. “Pickle juice? Sure. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to do well, so I was like okay, fine, think pickle juice will work? I’ll drink pickle juice.
“He was also like, ‘since you don’t drink coffee just take some caffeine pills.’ So I took some caffeine, and I never take caffeine, so I was just jittery at the start. Then he was like you got to take Pedialyte or something, which is what you give [dehydrated] babies to drink. It’s just full of electrolytes. So I’m just kind of drinking this stuff, and it’s super sweet and just all this new stuff. And the night before I’m thinking, this is a waste, and I’m having ice cream, and I’m like I don’t know why I’m here.”
As it turned out, Daniel was there to win a stars and stripes jersey. Fortunately, he turned 21 in November, so he was able to enjoy the victory beer on the podium.
Sometimes, it really is all about timing.