With Thursday’s news that American Tejay van Garderen withdrew his name from consideration for the U.S. Olympic road team due to concerns about the Zika virus, questions immediately were raised about what the composition of the squad might look like.
Because of its relatively low nation ranking, the U.S. earned only two spots for the men’s road race. Due to UCI rules, all 40 riders who compete in the time trial must also compete in the road race. And because no U.S. rider automatically qualified, the team will be selected by a committee.
So the question surrounds medal viability; does the U.S. send two men to aim for medals in the time trial, two men who are possibilities in the road race, or one for each?
The 241km road course, with its three ascents of the Canoas and Vista Chinesa climbs, favors strong climbers with sharp tactical instincts and a bit of a sprint — a rider like Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Rigoberto Uran (Colombia), Dan Martin (Ireland), or Vincenzo Nibali (Italy).
The Olympic time-trial 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.
Van Garderen was perhaps the only U.S. man truly capable of medaling in both. A strong climber well suited to the hilly course in Rio, van Garderen is also capable against the clock, finishing fourth at the 2012 world time-trial championship, and winning an ITT at the Ruta del Sol earlier this season.
Following his national time-trial championship in Winston-Salem last weekend, it’s a safe bet that Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) will be selected. He’s been to the Olympics twice already, and finished an impressive fourth in both the road race and time trial in London; he also finished second in the 2012 world time-trial championship, in Valkenburg. That was before his serious leg injury, in May 2014, though he appears to be returning to full strength.
The hilly TT course in Rio will present a serious challenge for the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Colorado native.
Last week, before the national championship, Phinney told CyclingTips that he finds motivation from the Olympics unlike any other event.
“When it comes to the Olympics, I have a clear vision as to ‘why’ that matters to me,” Phinney said. “ More than anything I do in this sport, when it comes to the Olympics, I’m able to put the time in and really be focused and motivated. And that comes from within, you can’t just impose that upon yourself…. I have a clearer vision of why it matters to me. That hasn’t quite transcended into all the other races on the calendar, but I just have to follow that passion and that internal motivation and focus.”
Phinney also holds the distinction of having directly earned one of the two U.S. spots, based on his 12th place finish at the world time-trial championship in Richmond. (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.)
So, assuming Phinney is awarded one spot, who would take the other?
The U.S. has a proven one-day racer in Alex Howes (Cannondale), who finished 12th at the world road championship in Richmond, and 21st, in the front group, at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in April. More recently, Howes finished second at the U.S. national road championship.
“There’s nothing I want more than to go to the Olympics,” Howes told CyclingTips. “I feel given my experience and track record in high-level one day races I am America’s best chance in the Olympic road race. On the day, in a high-pressure situation, in a remote county with post-Tour form, I firmly believe I have the best chance at providing the performance the U.S. needs in the road race.”
The U.S. also has a world-class climber in Joe Dombrowski, also of Cannondale, the winner of the 2015 Tour of Utah who climbed among the best in the peloton at the Giro d’Italia.
Dombrowski is unproven in one-day racing, but is perhaps the best pure climber the U.S. has.
“The Olympics would be a dream,” Dombrowski said. “For me, they are special because it is the one opportunity in cycling that is bigger than just cycling. I think it would be an incredible honor to represent my country. This year’s course in Rio is probably as suited to me as a single-day race could be, but I know with a very limited number of spots selection would be difficult. Regardless, if given the opportunity, I’d love to be a part of it.”
Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky is a top climber who can also time trial. He’s finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France and Vuelta a España; more recently, he finished three seconds ahead of Phinney in the 20km Amgen Tour of California time trial last month.
That performance, which boosted him to fourth overall, helped eliminate questions about his early season form, which Talansky addressed in a long-form interview with CyclingTips.
During that conversation, Talansky was also asked about his chances for Olympic selection.
“It’s difficult. I’m by no means a one-day specialist, especially in a road race. I’ve never really focused on the Ardennes, or something like that,” he said. “But it’s very hard, to do the time trial and also have to do the road race. It’s also where it falls in the season. There’s so many factors that go into it, which is how you come out of the Tour de France, and if you’re racing the Vuelta. There’s so many things to consider.
“Obviously, it’s an honor to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, but I’m kind of playing it by ear. I mean, the most important thing to me is racing with Cannondale Pro Cycling and focusing on what results I can get for the team and for myself there.”
Talansky implied that he’d be more likely to medal in the time trial than the road race, but said even that would be a very difficult task, with riders like Chris Froome, Rohan Dennis, and Tom Dumoulin all stating that a TT gold medal is among their season objectives.
“You know, I’d say, given the way the time trial course sounds, that on my best day, I’d have a shot to really be up there. But if you have Chris Froome at 100 percent, on a course like that, is going to be very, very difficult to beat him. I mean, Rohan Dennis, on a course like that, is going to be very difficult to beat. Obviously, we have Taylor, and it just depends.. it sounds like a pretty difficult time trial course, but [Phinney] did all right in Nashville [at the 2014 national championship] and that was a bit hilly.
“It’s just kind of USA Cycling deciding what they want to do, which basket they want to put their eggs in, as well as seeing how riders are doing,” Talansky continued. “I had a spot to race the worlds road race and time trial last year [in Richmond] and I told them I wasn’t ready to go, because I knew I wasn’t riding well, and I didn’t want to take that spot from somebody like Lawson [Craddock], or Ben [King], or anybody who was really motivated and really deserving of that.”
USA Cycling will submit its road nominations to the U.S. Olympic Committee on June 24 — one week before the Tour de France begins.
And, while Phinney and Dombrowski won’t be at the Tour, Talansky pointed out that anything can happen on the roads of France.
Neither Talansky nor Howes have been confirmed for Cannondale’s Tour squad. Talansky has started the Tour three times — in 2013, when he was 10th overall and second in the best young rider competition, in 2014, when he abandoned after a series of crashes, and in 2015, when he finished 11th overall. Howes has started — and completed — the Tour once, in 2014.
“I think it’s also a matter of the riders being honest, coming out of July, and I know the decision has to be made before that, but you have to see how you arrive there, right?” Talansky said. “Because making a decision in June doesn’t mean that you’re going to get to Rio in perfect condition. So much can happen during the month of July, that it’s a bit of an unknown.”
At this point, it’s all an unknown. Will it be Phinney and Talansky? Howes and Dombrowski? Some other combination? We’ll find out on June 24.