USA Cycling: ‘We want to be the number one women’s cycling nation in the world’

by Anne-Marije Rook


Following the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, USA Cycling has spent the winter re-assessing its athletics (a.k.a elite performance) programs, resulting in an athletics program transformation process as well as some bold and ambitious goals for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Team USA had a successful run at the Rio Olympics this past summer, walking away with five medals across the individual time trial, team pursuit, omnium and BMX disciplines. Four of those five medals were won by women and so USA Cycling has made their objectives for the coming four years clear: invest in women and junior development while becoming the world’s best cycling nation.

Three bold goals

In speaking with Ella CyclingTips, USA Cycling president Derek Bouchard-Hall revealed the federation’s bold objectives for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and they’re looking to the women’s programs to accomplish them.

“On the men’s side, we have a great crop of WorldTour riders but we have no major star that’s contesting for the Tour de France victory consistently or winning the spring classics,” he said. “On the women’s side our depth is so great and rich that we can be at the top of every discipline.

“From an Olympic performance perspective, we are near the very top in the sport in the women’s programs, and we want to double down on that. That’s our competitive strength, so let’s run with that.”

Alise Post (USA) celebrates her Olympic silver medal in women’s BMX.

USA Cycling’s three goals for the 2020 Olympics are as follows:

1. Earn 7 medals in Tokyo

“We are putting a stake in the ground saying that five medals was great but we had three fourth-place finishes as well,” Bouchard-Hall told Ella CyclingTips. “We want to maintain those medals and add one from the women’s road race and the women’s team sprint. We could add one in the women’s mountain bike as well and double up in some of the other disciplines like BMX and the women’s individual time trial.”

Medal count in Rio:

  • Kristin Armstrong, gold in the women’s individual time trial
  • Sarah Hammer, Kelly Catlin, Chloe Dygert and Jennifer Valente, silver in the women’s team pursuit
  • Sarah Hammer, silver in the women’s omnium
  • Alise Post, silver in women’s BMX
  • Connor Fields, gold in men’s BMX

Fourth place finishers were:

  • Mara Abbott, women’s road race
  • Brooke Crain, women’s BMX
  • Nicholas Long, men’s BMX

2. Be the number one women’s cycling nation in the world 

“We want to be the number one women’s cycling nation in the world in Tokyo by winning the medal count for women,” said Bouchard-Hall. “British cycling is formidable with their volume of track medals but we have a shot at having the highest number of medals in Tokyo.”

3. Stake the claim as the best cycling nation overall

“We also want to stake the claim as the best cycling nation overall by winning a medal in all four cycling disciplines. It’s never been done before since BMX was added to the Olympics,” said Bouchard-Hall. “No country before has won a medal in mountain bike, BMX, road and track but we think we are very well suited to do that as we weren’t that far off this year.”

 

American cycling stars Armstrong, Abbott and Stevens are now retired but USA Cycling is optimistic about the rich depth of talent in women’s cycling.

Re-assess and re-invest

The goals mentioned above, while important, will not come at the expense of the athletics program’s other objectives, Bouchard-Hall clarified.

“Those are very Olympics-focused goals, yes. And while those are goals that we really believe in, they aren’t at the exclusion of broader goals we have,” he said. “We will never stop supporting cyclocross and we will never stop supporting men’s events that don’t earn Olympic medals for us.

“Those remain very important objectives as well. These are goals to inspire us and to help us prioritize where we invest resources.”

Prioritizing resources, identifying strengths and challenges, and structural changes are the focus of the recently completed assessment, which has led to four main focal points for the athletics program’s transformation progress.

“We’re looking at the organization from the bottom up — where we are, where we are strong, where we have challenges and rethinking all of that,” said Bouchard-Hall.

1. Double down on strengths

“Where we’re good, we want to stay good and really push that,”said Bouchard-Hall. “Women’s cycling and BMX specifically are areas where we are at the very best of the world and we want to stay that way. So when we think about resource decisions and where we put our energies, we want to keep that energy on women and BMX.”

Between the team pursuit and individual time trial, Team USA has also been highly successful in races against the clock, Bouchard-Hall noted.

“We have a lot of expertise in the time trial and aero position for both men’s and women’s and we want to maintain that expertise,” he said.

And thirdly, youth development is a major focus for the athletics program.

“We don’t have the luxury of large volumes of athletes being generated because the sport of bike racing is infused in the culture of our country,” he said. “We don’t have that in the way some of our peer countries do. So it becomes very important for us to run our junior and U23 programs so that the athletes that we have and do find the sport, we are able to push them to the next level and we run some of the best programs in world,” Bouchard-Hall explained, adding that the priority will shift slightly away from creating racing opportunities to talent identification and training camps as well as skills development.

2. High Performance Program

An issue that was identified during the assessment was the varied levels of support available to each individual athlete. Riding for some of the best teams in the world, athletes like Taylor Phinney, Evelyn Stevens and Kristin Armstrong received world-class gear, training and support in their lead-up to Rio. Other athletes, meanwhile, were far less supported.

“There are athletes we send to the Olympics that do not have what I consider to be world-class support behind them like wind tunnel access, the best equipment, the best training, or even the opportunity for winter training camps,” said Bouchard-Hall. “So we are trying to create that organization here at USA Cycling so we can offer that support to our athletes.”

This support will come in the form of a High Performance Program, which Bouchard-Hall described as a network of the world’s best and brightest coaches, partners, trainers and nutritionists accessible to all top level athletes.

3. A more robust track program

Eyeing a medal in the women’s sprint event in Tokyo 2020 and a future for men’s track cycling, Bouchard-Hall said USA Cycling is investing in a more robust men’s and women’s track program.

4. More resources

Bold goals come with big price tags, Bouchard-Hall acknowledged.

USA Cycling runs on a budget of approximately $15 million a year, with $3.5 – $4 million of that currently going toward its athletics programs. The athletics program would need an addition million dollars or more to reach its new objectives.

“On the funding side, we are in the ballpark of our peer countries but we are pretty lean and we need more funding. We are stretched pretty thin across five disciplines, and this effort does require increased resources,” Bouchard-Hall said.  “We received increased funding from the [US Olympic Committee] with a matching grant from our foundation. Together this is providing us with incremental funding for our organization and we hope that that is going to enables us to do a lot of these things while helping us secure additional sponsorship.”

Ellen Noble warms up before her race at the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Bieles.

National team selection, misconduct and other organizational challenges

Team USA cannot become the leading nation for women’s cycling without first addressing some of the controversy that has put the program in a bad light.

“We face some challenges,” Bouchard-Hall acknowledged. “One of those is that we have lost trust of some elements of our community in our ability to run open and transparent processes for getting access to national programs and selection to events.”

Controversy regarding team selection peaked this past summer when it was announced that Armstrong – who at the time was coached by Athletics Director Jim Miller – would be representing Team USA in the women’s individual time trial at the Rio Olympics instead of the newly crowned time trial champion, Carmen Small.

Controversy again surrounded the women’s side of USAC’s athletics program last month when the women’s pursuit coach, Andy Sparks, was dismissed from his role after three 2016 Olympians filed a conduct complaint against him for bullying, intimidation and emotional misconduct.

Sparks was USA Cycling’s head track coach for the Beijing Olympics and returned in 2014 as the women’s team pursuit coach. Under his coaching, the team successfully earned a silver medal in Rio, but riders claim the environment was toxic and overly competitive. The added fact that Sparks was married to rider Sarah Hammer made for a complex situation, and one that has influenced new conflict-of-interest regulations within the federation.

USA Cycling coach Andy Sparks with the women’s team pursuit squad. Photo: Casey B. Gibson/USA Cycling.

Bouchard-Hall said that resources will be added to key administrative elements like running selections, helping people understand how to gain access to the various programs, and prevent conflicts of interest.

“We operate in an exceptionally difficult selection environment which means that we should be exceptionally good at making selections but we have been under-resourced to do that properly and we have done some other things that accept conflicts of interest,” said Bouchard-Hall. “We operate in a small environment filled with relationships and we have accepted those with the right intentions but that has created some additional challenges so we need to get our internal house in order so that we can operate properly.”

“Having lean staff placed a lot of power, pressure and responsibility on a single individual. We’ll be making some structural changes to make these conflicts less likely,” Bouchard-Hall continued. “We do operate in an environment where the pool operating at the absolute elite end of the sport is a very narrow pool and still filled with relationships. We can’t avoid all conflicts of interest and any attempt to do so would be destructive to our environment but we do absolutely need to avoid the most significant ones.”

Bouchard-Hall added that to ensure fair selection, Miller has severed all his coaching relationships, and following an independent investigation by the federation, Sparks was dismissed from the program altogether.

 

Riders like Emma White (left) and Chloe Dygert (center) are the future of USA Cycling’s elite performance program

Trickle Down Growth

When it comes to American stars in the sport of road cycling, there have never been more. And while they may not be gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated or cereal boxes, Bouchard-Hall expressed optimism about the growth of women’s cycling and the success of the women’s programs.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a relationship between professional elite success and visibility of athletes and the way it inspires others to compete,” he said. “How much the success of the women’s program will actually translate into growth I don’t know, but there is no doubt in mind that it is helpful. And it’s one of our objectives to help these athletes tell their stories and gain visibility.”

 

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