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A year ago, the lead to this story would have been simpler: Travis McCabe is the best American rider who is not racing at the WorldTour level.
And while that still may well be true, things have changed a bit since then.
A year ago, McCabe — a muscle-bound, perpetually smiling 28-year-old sprinter from Arizona who can climb well — was racing for the Continental team Holowesko-Citadel. He began his 2016 season by taking wins at Sunny King Crit, Redlands Bicycle Classic, Joe Martin Stage Race, and the Tour of the Gila before heading to the Amgen Tour of California, where he finished in the top 10 on three stages.
A year ago, in an interview with CyclingTips, McCabe talked about his dream of racing at the WorldTour, somewhat sheepishly acknowledging that he was one of the best riders on the domestic circuit — a fact supported by his 2014 title as USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar men’s individual champion.
He finished his 2016 season with a podium finish at U.S. road nationals, a stage win at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and a support role in bringing teammate Robin Carpenter the overall win at the Tour of Alberta.
The WorldTour contract didn’t come, but a spot on UnitedHealthcare, the long-running, perennially strong American Pro Continental team, did. He’s now a year older, and, in a sense, a step closer.
McCabe started his 2017 season at the Herald Sun Tour, where he won a stage, and followed it up with a pair of wins at the Tour de Langkawi. At the Sun Tour, he beat Mitch Docker, Leigh Howard, and Luke Rowe. At Langkawi, he beat Filippo Pozzato and Ryan Gibbons. They weren’t WorldTour wins, but they were on foreign soil, against an international field.
Back at the Amgen Tour of California this week for a third time, McCabe recognizes that his window of opportunity to race at the sport’s highest level may be closing. He’s aware it will be hard to beat riders like Marcel Kittel, Elia Viviani, Alexander Kristoff, and Peter Sagan, but he’s hopeful he can reach the podium on one of the race’s several potential field sprints. On Stage 1 in Sacramento he finished tenth, ahead of Kristoff but well behind the others.
While he may be the most successful American rider not racing at the WorldTour level, that doesn’t mean he’s the most talented American rider not racing at the WorldTour level; that mantle belongs to young GC riders like Adrien Costa, Neilson Powless, and Brandon McNulty — three young men who cannot yet legally buy a beer in the United States.
Like it or not, WorldTour team managers lean toward hiring younger talents with untapped potential over older riders with established potential. And given his results at two editions of the Amgen Tour, McCabe would not likely be a prolific winner at the WorldTour. However, neither was Phil Gaimon or Ted King, and neither is Kiel Reijnen or Joey Rosskopf. With an average of 28 riders on 18 WorldTour teams, not all 504 riders can be winners.
“I feel like my age is probably the biggest reason,” McCabe said. “I didn’t start racing until I was 19. It’s been a progression. It’s been a pretty quick progression through the domestic level, but at the same time I think some directors think, ‘He’s a little bit older than what we typically go for, and he’s not really built like a typical cyclist.'”
McCabe is pragmatic about the fact that riders who come to the sport a few years later than others, and aren’t part of USA Cycling’s development program, tend to be overlooked by the federation and, ultimately, WorldTour directors.
“Here’s the thing that kind of kills me,” he said. “The whole domestic calendar is intended to bring up young riders and to develop them, but then you have USA Cycling almost trying to pull that away, to where you have this domestic league of guys who are trying to make it outside of the program. You have Axeon, which is mostly riders in the USA Cycling U23 program, but the rest of the programs are over in Europe.
“You have all these races on the domestic circuit going on, but it’s like, most of those guys aren’t the guys who’ve gone through USA Cycling. It’s guys who’ve come into it in college and who’ve found the sport a little bit later and just love racing. That’s where I think the whole PRT [Pro Racing Tour] circuit and all that stuff is kind of doomed to fail. It’s not getting a lot of publicity. You don’t really get anything from winning it. I won the NRC in 2014 and I got a club medium jersey that said ‘NRC Champion’ on it. I was like, ‘Cool. Thanks guys.'”
Instead, McCabe credits the Holowesko-Citadel program, run by Thomas Craven and the Hincapie brothers, George and Rich, for developing riders like himself as well as Carpenter, Joey Rosskopf, and Toms Skujins
“I think [Holowesko team management] sees the potential in riders and they’re not looking at age as a limiting factor,” he said. “Yeah, I’m a little bit older, but I’m still new to the whole cycling scene, I think. I’m still learning. Whereas those guys, they start at 15 and they’re spending all their teenage years and U23 years racing in Europe. I think with George and Rich and the team that they have, they’re seeing the potential in guys and continuing to develop them.”
Still Gaining Experience
A state champion miler in high-school, McCabe came to cycling in 2009, at age 19. By that time he had hindered any chance of being a climber by spending time in the gym, adding muscle mass he says he now cannot lose. He quit college and moved from Prescott, Arizona, to Tucson, spending the 2012 season in a Sprinter Van with three Landis Cyclery teammates, hitting as many national-level races as possible.
“We did Redlands, Whiskey Off-Road, Joe Martin, Nature Valley, nationals, Cascade… the whole circuit pretty much,” he said. “It was just four of us in the sprinter van, sleeping in that and staying at host housing and just figuring it out. It was awesome. I loved it.”
The only problem: McCabe was as far away from the USA Cycling national development pathway as a rider could be.
“I didn’t have any of that,” he said. “I was just a little too old. I was 21, 22, and they’re taking guys who have gone through the camps and all that. At the time I wished for that. I wanted to be noticed and get to those races and do it, but mine was just another pathway to get there.”
The following year McCabe linked up with Eric Marcotte, a top amateur in Scottsdale, to join the Elbowz amateur team founded by former SuperBike world champion Ben Spies. A year later, McCabe and Marcotte would share the podium at road nationals in Chattanooga, wearing Team SmartStop colors. Marcotte took the stars and stripes, with McCabe the runner-up. They had shocked the WorldTour pros and made names for themselves in the process.
During the 2015 season, McCabe tried to shed weight for the climbs. In his estimation, the experiment backfired.
“I’m pretty stout man,” he joked. “I don’t look like a cyclist at all. My parents always find me right away cause I’m like the gorilla on a bike, hunched over and arms out. I tried focusing more on climbing and I ended up losing the speed and some of the power from it. I was down to like 152 pounds (69kg) and I realized it wasn’t worth it. I think it’s just more or less I can just suffer through the climbs. I don’t classify myself as a sprinter, so I’m just not giving myself an excuse, like, ‘Oh, a hill’s coming, I have to pull out.’ I know I can make it over those 15-minute climbs, and then usually most of the sprinters are gone and I have a great chance of winning.”
The SmartStop team dissolved in 2015 due to sponsorship issues, and last year McCabe landed at Holowesko-Citadel. He spent the season racing alongside Carpenter, a stage winner at the USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah.
Carpenter describes McCabe as Travis as a “super nice guy” who is “always down to do something fun, a little bit of a loose cannon, which was always good for team morale.”
“He’s got candor,” Carpenter said. “He always seems to play it straight up. Travis is super talented, and he definitely has started to embrace sprinter role. He’s not trying to be as light as he can, he’s embracing what he’s good at, letting the stages and opportunities come as they will. If he can get over a climb, great. But I think he’s gotten better at sprinting once he decided that’s more his thing.”
Though he’s brawny, and a field sprinter, McCabe is far from intimidating. When he’s not at the races, he’s often sharing photos of his cats and dog on social media.He’s one of the most liked riders in the domestic peloton, friends with riders on every team; clearly he doesn’t hold grudges against the guys he bangs handlebars against.
“To really be a jerk with guys I’m racing against, it’s like, ‘Come on man. We’re not making a ton of money doing this. We’re doing it because the sport and we love racing.’ We’re traveling with each other all the time, racing against each other all the time. When we’re racing it’s competitive — I’m not going to give someone a wheel. But afterwards, it’s done and dusted, and onto the next race. That’s just something I’ve learned throughout it all is to keep the relationships going. I’m just having fun with it. I’m happy. I don’t have a reason to be pissed off at anyone, really.”
At the 2016 Amgen Tour, McCabe was asked how he felt about being considered an American “Sagan lite” — a strong finisher who is also able to drag himself up climbs other sprinters can’t.
“I’m not nearly as strong [as Sagan], but I’m getting there,” he said. “I don’t think I’m a pure sprinter, especially against WorldTour sprinters. I don’t think I have the positioning yet, and I’m not comfortable enough yet to be at the very front with these WorldTour sprinters. I’ve been kind of freelancing it a little bit more. When you’re by yourself with these guys, all it takes is a couple hits and you’re five seconds from being on the right wheel, and three seconds later you’re 20 meters back. It happens so quickly that you just always have to be on your game and you have to know where to go and how to float through. It’s more physical in these races than it is in domestic crits. Those crits, it’s rough, but everyone’s afraid of getting hit in those crits so there’s not a lot of pushing and shoving until the end. These races, it’s contact the entire time.”
McCabe pointed to the opening stage of the 2016 Amgen Tour in San Diego, won by Sagan, where he finished 21st.
“I was watching myself and I was like, ‘I’m in perfect position,’ then I’d lose it and end up out in the wind, going too soon. I was right on Sagan’s wheel with less than a kilometer to go. I just watched him move three guys out of the way and then just move right and then go for the sprint. When that happened, Etixx came and pushed me in and then I got scared. I felt like I needed to get out so I stepped out, kind of behind them, and then sprinted way too soon into that headwind.
“For me, it’s a learning process. That’s kind of how I’ve been approaching my whole career, is just trying to figure out and learn throughout. It’s so much about just getting that experience and not making the same mistakes over and over again.”
A Complicated Question
Now at UnitedHealthcare, McCabe is riding for the most professional outfit of his career, guided through sprint finishes by Kiwi veteran Greg Henderson, former lead-out man for Andre Greipel at Lotto-Soudal. It’s a homecoming for Henderson, whose own jump to the WorldTour was on the back of results in North America riding for Health Net-Maxxis, the same team management group now sponsored by UnitedHealthcare.
“I couldn’t ask for anything else,” McCabe said. “The experience, knowledge, and timing he has is incredible. He brings such an energy to the team. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him, and I’m so glad he wants to teach me. He wants to race hard. Some guys come back [the U.S.] and they are more or less looking at it as a retirement tour. He is one of most amped up guys before racing, before [Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race], we did a crit, and Hendy was giggling like a schoolboy. Everyone else was nervous, and he was super pumped to race. It just changed the whole mood for everyone on the team.”
Henderson described McCabe as still a bit of an “unknown quantity.”
“There’s no question he’s got the ability to race at the WorldTour level,” Henderson said. “We’ve sat down and I’ve asked, what do we have to do here? There are a few options in Europe, but you have to be 100% a specialist. Either you are a full-on sprinter, and you work on your peak power, or you’re that guy who can get over the bergs, get rid of the Kittels, The Gavirias, the Cavendishes, the Greipels, and race against guys like Sagan and Degenkolb. I think that’s the level he’s at. He’s got a good average 10-minute power, but his peak power is not super. But it’s really up to him.
“I think Travis prefers to thin the peloton down and have a crack from there, but in reality he hasn’t had someone he can trust to take the guesswork out,” Henderson added. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to think too much yourself, that’s my job.’ When that clicks, and he can just worry about one thing, he might be a different Travis McCabe.”
As for a crack at the WorldTour, McCabe is realistic about his chances.
“It’s a subject that comes up a lot,” he said. “It’s something I think about a lot. That’s still the goal, that’s still where I want to get. That’s the dream. I’ve dreamt about it so many times, but now, at my age, I know that every year it gets harder and harder for older guys like me. It still happens, look at guys like Kiel [Reijnen], [Phil] Gaimon, [Mike] Woods, they were able to make it happen, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve also come to the conclusion that if it doesn’t happen, I will be happy either way. I will still race as hard as I can. I will still be the best that I can be.
“When I look at my career, I don’t feel like it would be an unsuccessful career, or that I wouldn’t have made it, if I don’t ride at the WorldTour. It’s really hard to make it to that level. I know I’m the caliber rider to race at that level, and I’m still trying. I’m still seeing what will happen, that’s still my goal and my dream. But I can honestly say I’m very happy with UnitedHealthcare. It’s a great team, a good program, and they take care of us. I’m still able to do races like California and Cadel’s Race, international races, and gain that experience. I’m still happy. I would like to get to Europe more. At the U.S. races, I feel like I’ve won almost everything I can win. It’s been great, but I want to get to Europe, to see what I can do over there.”
Reijnen knows McCabe’s plight all too well. He also came into the sport relatively late, and spent several years racing in the domestic peloton on teams like Jelly Belly, Team Type 1, and UnitedHealthcare. He won stages at the USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah before getting the call to join Trek-Segafredo in 2016, at age 29. He was a year older than McCabe, riding for the same team, when opportunity called.
“At the point that I signed with Trek-Segafredo, I knew there was a chance that I would not go to a WorldTour team, strictly based on age, regardless of the results I had,” Reijnen said. “It didn’t feel like an inevitably, but it didn’t feel like the battle was over. The moment I accepted that was the moment I could move past having my happiness hinge on the outcome. I’d given up on the frustration, because so much of it has to do with luck. The fact that Trek is an American team made it easier for me to get a spot there. I can’t pretend that isn’t true. Without that, would I have been offered a spot on a WorldTour team? I don’t know, and it’s not really worth dwelling on, either, but it is a truth.”
Asked if McCabe is good enough to race at the WorldTour, Reijnen said that McCabe has the ability, but regardless of the rider, it’s not a simple matter of ability.
“Travis has beaten me plenty of times, and I’m in the WorldTour,” Reijnen said. “He’s a bit quicker than I am, and I am more apt to survive a climb that he might not, but we have similar skill sets. How that translates to surviving in Europe is tough. I went from having a lot of leadership to having a few select days of the year that I have leadership. Are you able to adapt to that role of helper, easily? That has a lot to do with whether you are successful at the next level or not. Learning how to navigate the narrow roads, just living in Europe, period. I’m terrible at that. That almost did me in, alone, just the assimilating part of it.
“That’s a question that you can’t really answer until you are there. He has the ability to be successful there. It’s a complicated question, because the skills that got you to the point where they said ‘Yeah, we’re going to take that guy,’ may not be the skills that keep you at that level, or that are valuable at that level. That’s something I have had to learn, and transition into, over the last year and a half.”
Asked what kind of races he’d be interested in at the WorldTour level, McCabe didn’t hesitate to answer — the spring classics.
“You watch Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, all those races. I would love just to do that,” he said. “Any chance I got I would say yes to that in a heartbeat. I would love to do those. The hard races, the shitty weather. The hard races where it just beats you up. That’s what I dream about. I don’t really see myself doing a Grand Tour or anything like that, maybe one day. Again, I just want to empty the tank on a one-day and see what happens. That’s the goal. That’s the dream, you know?”
Why do older American riders struggle to make it to the WorldTour?
Asked if he had considered signing Travis McCabe, Cannondale-Drapac team manager Jonathan Vaughters — who has brought more American riders into the WorldTour than any other manager over the past decade — shared his views on McCabe, and on the risk of hiring older Americans, no matter how successful they have been racing in the U.S.
“The process of getting a guy settled in Europe, getting used to the distances, to the intensities, to the handling skills, it’s a long process. A typical cycle is that an American rider goes to Europe, and in their first year they are pretty good, the second year they are fatigued, the third year they come back a little bit. It takes four or five years to fully develop as European rider. If you are looking at a 28-year-old guy, by the time they are riding at their best in Europe, they are 33 years old.
“A second thing to consider is that all team managers are playing a game of hit the jackpot, meaning if you look historically at the greatest riders, guys like Miguel Indurain or Tom Boonen, they rarely switch teams. A team discovers them, develops them, then they go on to win the Tour de France or Tour of Flanders, and the team is able to grow. So managers are always fishing around for the next incredible talent that will do unbelievable things. A 28-year old on a domestic team is rarely going to fit into the possibility of hitting the jackpot.
“Also, usually a WorldTour manager is only changing over five riders a year. So you have a few spots to either take on a five-year project to take on a guy who will be pretty good, or you can spend five years on a guy who might be a Paris-Roubaix winner.
“I think Travis potentially has a place in the WorldTour, it’s not that it’s impossible, it’s that every year, every WorldTour manager is only changing over five, six, seven guys, so his number of possibilities is always fairly low. And everyone knows that same calculus. Looking at foreign teams, when was the last time an American rider did well on a team like Astana or Katusha? Half of the WorldTour teams don’t even know how to deal with American riders, so you’re only looking at maybe eight teams that would know how to handle it. Of those eight teams, say they are only changing over five riders, so there are 40 possibilities each year.
“I seriously gave [McCabe] some thought, but for whatever reason — you have contracts you have to honor, you have sponsors requesting this guy or that guy — it ends up there’s no spot for him.
“Also, from a physiological standpoint, not everyone is robust enough for WorldTour. Trent Lowe was a perfect example. He was a junior world mountain-bike champion, he nearly won the Tour de Georgia, but when it came down to racing 85 days, all over five hours of flat-stick racing, and the amount of training required, his body just fell apart. Even though he had a 90 Vo2 max, his physiology just wasn’t robust enough. With a lot of guys in the U.S., you take a gamble. You may be peaking yourself perfectly for California or Utah or Redlands, and that’s really awesome that you can do that, but it’s a whole different thing to be doing 200km races when you are not at your peak, just because the team is obliged to do certain WorldTour races. And there is a cumulative effect.
“When I look at the SRM files from guys who do the Tour of Flanders or Amstel Gold, there is nothing in the U.S. that’s even close. In something like Amstel Gold, they do around 100 10-second sprints, because of all the corners and fighting for position for the climbs. Look at Dylan Van Baarle, who finished Amstel Gold in the second group — his normalized power was 355 watts for six and a half hours. If you had him do a five-minute interval, versus Travis McCabe, Travis might be better, but can he do 355 watts for six and a half hours, and do it over three weekends, consecutively? And there are all of these bursts of 400 watts and 500 watts in that 355 watts average. It’s not what you can do for five minutes, but rather what you can do over and over and over and over again.
“It’s not that a rider like Travis doesn’t have what it takes, it’s just he’s getting fewer chances. If he were 21, it’d be a no brainer.”