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Spinning in circles: How to improve the U.S. track program

British track cyclist Jamie Staff won a gold medal in the team sprint at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Within the high-powered British squad, all that meant was that Staff could look his teammates in the eye. Of the team’s 14 track riders, only one returned without a medal. (His name was Mark Cavendish.)

The success of the Great Britain team did not come easily or cheaply. Staff, the man who blasted out of the start gate in the team sprint and pulled up after one lap, was part of a setup with 52 full-time staff and an annual budget of $15 million. Chris Boardman, the 1992 Olympic pursuit gold medalist — then head of research and development — had $750,000 to spend on equipment.

The plain black all-carbon bikes, designed and built under a cloak of secrecy, were valued at $15,000 each, with chainrings that took $150,000 to develop. The British even made a $7,000 life-size replica (complete with moving limbs) of one of the team’s riders, for wind-tunnel testing.

They had a clinical psychiatrist and an expert on hand washing. When Staff got back to the British team’s base in the northern English city of Manchester, he was ordered to hand over his rubberized skinsuit, which was then shredded so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands and be copied.

A few months later, Staff retired from racing and traveled across the Atlantic to take up a new position with USA Cycling, managing the sprint program. He knew it would be a difficult job: While GB’s track cyclists won 12 medals in Beijing, including seven gold, the American riders failed to win any. But he wasn’t fully prepared for the culture shock.

“There was no talent-identification program or development program,” Staff recalls. “There was a door, it was open, you kind of hoped people would walk through it — and you kept your fingers crossed that they had talent.

“I enjoyed the challenge, but it was frustrating at times, because you could see the potential. You see what GB have done.”

It was especially tough in the track center, always the boiler room of international competition. At World Cups, world championships, and the Olympic Games, the U.S. contingent is dwarfed by the major powers — Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, even Denmark. That might have instilled a sense of inferiority, though Staff insists not. “I was impressed from the first day I came here by the Americans’ grit and hard work and their attitude,” he says.

“I don’t know how some of them did it. For the two and a half years I was on the track program, I had 15 to 20 athletes, and they showed up for every session. But they didn’t receive a cent from us. I had no idea how they afforded it. One day, I saw this guy hacking into a can of baked beans. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘That’s my lunch.’ Some were working part time, but I have no idea how they afforded it. But it didn’t affect their mindset.”

At the 2012 Games in London, there was progress: two silver medals, one for Sarah Hammer in the omnium and the other for the Hammer-led women’s team pursuit squad. The question now, with the Rio Olympics looming, is whether this was a brief blooming that was overly reliant on one outstanding athlete, or if London was the start of a resurgence.

There is another question: How did the U.S. become the paupers of international track cycling? From the late 1880s through the Jazz Age to World War II, there was a velodrome in every city in the U.S. and a burgeoning six-day scene. At one point, there were 600 U.S.-based professional riders, and in the 1920s, New York City’s “Garden Sixes,” held at Madison Square Garden, generated $250,000 a week. Bobby Walthour, the biggest star of the six-days, earned $20,000 a year; his baseball contemporary, Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb, took in $5,000.

And, of course, Madison racing was born in the U.S. Fears over health and safety in the late 1890s prompted New York’s legislators to ban anyone from competing for more than 12 hours a day (as six-day riders did, competing day and night). The bill was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York. “I’ve never been able to understand why Theodore Roosevelt ever signed that bill,” said the Madison Square Garden promoter, Bill Brady, “since he was both intelligent and a lover of sport.”

Brady’s solution was to introduce two-man races, allowing one rider to rest while his partner raced. Thus was born the Madison.

There are various theories about why the track scene dwindled and died, but the money dried up after the war as other pro sports blossomed. The final Chicago Six (won by Peter Post and Harm Smits) took place in March 1957, and in 1961, the 75th and final six-day was held at Madison Square Garden.

Yet it would be wrong to paint a picture of modern international track racing in which the U.S. is struggling to compete in a healthy sport. The hand-to-mouth existence of American track riders is typical. Great Britain, now with five indoor velodromes, is the aberration, and there are very specific reasons for that, stemming from the British team’s dismal performance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 (one gold medal across all sports).

It was a national embarrassment that led to millions from the national lottery being invested in Olympic sports. The new head of cycling,

Peter Keen, decided to put virtually his entire allocation (initially $3.5 million) into track cycling, for two main reasons: There were more medals on the track, and road cycling was awash with drugs. A third factor was that Manchester had the country’s first indoor velodrome (built in 1994 as part of the city’s proposed bid for the 2000 Olympics). “The aspiration was to create a professional national team,” Keen says.

This professional national team went on to compete in what was, for all intents and purposes, an amateur sport. (At the time, only Australia put significant resources into track cycling.) The results were immediate. At the Sydney Games in 2000, Britain’s track cyclists won gold, silver, and bronze medals; in Athens four years later, they won two golds, a silver, and a bronze. Then came Beijing.

To speak to Andy Sparks, director of track programs at USA Cycling, is to be reminded of Keen’s vision and enthusiasm. Sadly, Sparks doesn’t have Keen’s budget. Significantly, though, he does now have a covered track. The 333.33-meter velodrome at Memorial Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was fitted with a dome roof supported completely with air pressure this fall. The climate-controlled, 7-Eleven Velodrome is part of the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

“Everyone wants to use British Cycling as an example,” Sparks says. “When I was selling the idea of a covered track, everyone said you have to have an indoor 250 [-meter facility]. I said, ‘Where we are at, we just need a factory for champions.’ We needed somewhere where we can run camps day in, day out, for 20, 30 riders, where we can process team pursuiters. We could never do that in L.A. [the indoor velodrome traditionally used by the national squad despite being so far away from USA Cycling headquarters]. We needed a unique American solution, and this was the best fix for us.

“We have five times the population of Great Britain; talent should not be the problem. We just have to go out there and find it.”

Additionally, Sparks points out that the United States’ poor Olympic record does not tell the full story. “In the last 10 years, we have won 21 elite world championship medals — more than in any other cycling discipline. And we have the premier women’s endurance athlete, who is a figurehead for the whole team.” Her name is Sarah Hammer, and she also happens to be Sparks’s wife.

But, of course, the biggest hurdle Sparks has to overcome is the lack of funding. “The U.S. Olympic Committee is the only Olympic committee in the world that does not receive government funding,” he says. “Our budget is exponentially lower than any of our competitors. We can sit about and cry about that or we can try and get the job done.”

On the flip side, Sparks says he thinks USOC boasts “the world’s best training facility,” with world-class support infrastructure. “We have access to sports psychologists, to physiotherapists,” he says. “At this level, people are always managing small injuries and niggles, and we can manage that easier here. In L.A. we were piece-mealing together the best we could, and it was also a major budget-killer. It cost us $2,000 a day to train in L.A., and you’re paying for non-ideal training conditions — staying in a hotel, eating in a restaurant, with road rides non-existent.”

The next step for Sparks, in his year-round base in Colorado Springs, is to create a culture of excellence from which might emerge an excellent team. While the silver medal in the women’s team pursuit at the 2012 Olympics was a tremendous result, it was of little value in forward planning, as three of the four riders retired after the Games. But Hammer remains, which is crucial. And a new team has been built around her — one that excites Sparks. “Our entire team will be under 21 years old,” he says.

There is Chloé Dygert, 18, the world junior road race and time trial champion. “On the track she is an absolute phenom,” says Sparks. Completing the squad are Kelly Catlin, 19, (“another of our finds last year who only started full-time on the track on January 1, 2015”), and Jennifer Valente, 20, the junior world scratch race champion in 2011 and individual pursuit silver medalist at the 2015 elite world championships. “These are riders we’ll get three Olympic Games out of,” Sparks says.

There is less to be optimistic about on the men’s side. Of the sprinters — now looked after by Bill Huck, East Germany’s former world champion — much is expected of 22-year-old Matt Baranoski, who continued his progress with a bronze medal at the World Cup in Cambridge, New Zealand, in early December.

The team pursuit may be the nadir. The national record — 4:06:73, set in 1995 — is an indication of just how far off the pace they have been against the world. The world record, set by Team GB at the 2012 Olympics, is 3:51:659, with a squad that included WorldTour riders Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh. In 2016, the British team is likely to include 2012 Tour de France winner and hour-record holder Bradley Wiggins.

But the U.S. team’s lowly place could rapidly change, with some retooling of the team. Why is Taylor Phinney, who competed in the pursuit at the 2008 Olympics, not part of a U.S. team pursuit squad? What Hammer has done, and continues to do, for the female team, Phinney could do for the men.

“Taylor got his kick start with the track, but I realistically don’t see him coming back,” Sparks admits. “The problem with Taylor’s generation is that we didn’t have a program in place … I mean, I think he had a positive experience — I was Olympic coach in 2008 — but we have not had that system. It’s a beautiful thing to see somebody like Wiggins coming back to the team pursuit. They’ve created something really special there. They invested in kids who grew up together; you are like their parents and they are committed to you.”

It is that commitment, suggests Sparks, which brings the likes of Thomas and Kennaugh back to the British set-up — it’s like going home. The same applies to the Australian cyclists who grew up together on the track, he adds.

Systems are not built, nor cultures created, overnight. It can take more than a decade. There were 14 years between the opening of the Manchester Velodrome and the British performance in Beijing, as well as 11 years of serious funding.

Money remains an issue for Sparks, but not an insurmountable one now that he has his covered track. “In Rio, the majority of the team will be first-time Olympians,” he says.

The target at the 2016 Games is two medals — at a stretch, three. That would equal the team’s take in London, but Sparks is looking farther down the track. With the support of Derek Bouchard-Hall, the progressive new CEO and president of USA Cycling, he is planning a massive restructuring of the track program post-Rio, with new junior and under-23 programs. The results will come in 2020 and 2024, when Sparks dreams of a home Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

He might not have a budget of millions, space-age bikes, or even a hand-washing expert, but Sparks, who says he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, is committed to more modest but meaningful success. Meanwhile, his immediate goal is revealing.

“In eight months, the U.S. will have a team they can be proud of,” he promises.

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