No medals, but plenty of mettle, for Team USA
RICHMOND, Virginia (VN) — The six-man American squad lined up on home roads Sunday as outsiders and underdogs, but they put on a show for the hometown crowd worthy of a medal.
Much to the delight of U.S. fans watching the first UCI Road World Championship in the United States in nearly 30 years, three Americans went on the attack, first with Virginian Ben King, followed by late-race moves by Taylor Phinney and Tyler Farrar. Alex Howes (12th) and Brent Bookwalter (19th) punched into the top-20 to finish off an animated day in the saddle.
“I don’t think we had a top favorite in this race. It was important for us to put on a good show and race aggressively, and we did,” Farrar said. “I think all things considered, I think we rode the best race we could.”
Fit for a King
The Americans toed the line at the University of Richmond on Sunday morning with an extra dose of nerves and expectations. No American had raced on home roads in the worlds since Colorado Springs in 1986, when Greg LeMond rode to seventh.
“We’re very excited to race here in front of the home fans,” said Texan Lawson Craddock. “We know we are not starting as favorites, but we want to make a good race for the fans.”
That’s exactly what the team did. King, who grew up and still lives in Virginia, knew the roads around Richmond better than any of the 192 starters. He was the team’s choice to follow the early moves.
“When they told us in the race meeting to watch for anything with eight to 10 riders, I was pretty excited,” King said. “As a Virginian, everyone I know was out on the course. It was very cool to be out front and put on a show.”
King soon linked up with the day’s main breakaway, riding at the nose of the action for the first 100km. King led the way up the twisting cobblestoned climb at Libby Hill, with throngs of American fans cheering, ringing cowbells, and calling out his name.
“Libby Hill was unbelievable. It gives you goose bumps. It was just incredible, and it gets you pumped up to have that kind of support,” he said. “We probably went out a little hot, and then you look down and realize you still have 200km to go.”
Unlike other worlds, where an early break would sometimes open up a major gap, the King group never gained more than three minutes as the Dutch team stayed pinned at the front in the opening two hours of racing. For King, it was one of his career highlights.
“It was really cool for me to be out front, and when we got caught, I was still able to contribute to the team,” he said. “It was great to be on Team America, in America, in my home state of Virginia. It was super cool.”
Moments after the King group was reeled in, crowd favorite Phinney surged into the frame. Phinney, whose father, Davis, raced in Colorado Springs in 1986, linked up with a promising, late-race breakaway, putting him into the spotlight in what’s been an amazing comeback from injury at the 2014 U.S. nationals.
“When Ben came back, I got into that group. It was an incredible experience, to be in that break, with five laps to go, going up Libby Hill,” Phinney said. “It was good, it was bad, it was not fun, it was fun at the same time.”
Phinney, who’s been battling back from a career-threatening injury, was relieved to be able to be a factor in the world championships, which he never dreamed he would be racing just a few weeks ago.
“I was trying to feel out my legs. I had a lot of mechanical issues in the first half of the race. I was in the cars for six laps, and tried to keep my head on straight,” Phinney said.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the last 50km. The last two laps, my left leg started to deteriorate, and I was having to hump it around the pedals pretty hard. I couldn’t have expected more from myself.”
For Phinney, the road to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro went through Richmond. A strong performance here feeds his optimism that he can be in top shape by next summer.
“We can be happy that we gave the people of Richmond, Virginia, something to cheer for all day,” Phinney said. “That was very special for us.”
Just as Phinney’s group was swept up heading into the decisive final laps, the surprising figure Farrar jumped clear with less than 10km to go. Farrar had his reasons.
“I was suffering all day on Libby Hill, and I knew if I waited and waited, I’d be in the second group,” Farrar said. “My tactic was if they hesitate just long enough that they catch me at the top of Libby Hill, then I’m in with a shot. Sometimes you have to gamble big. Instead, they caught me at the foot of Libby Hill, and it was game over.”
For Farrar, whose 11th at the 2011 worlds remains the best U.S. finish in a decade, the aggressive tactics helped carry the team through an emotional day.
“Our goal was to never use our energy just dragging the peloton along. We’d rather have been on the front foot all day making them chase us as opposed to always playing defensive, that’s what we did,” he said.
“It was just an insane day. I had goose-bumps from start to finish. It was deafening on the climbs. As an American, with the world championships in America, I’ve never had six and a half hours on the bike go by so fast.”
Finishing off the job was Howes, who stayed hidden in the bunch all day, only to sprint to 12th on the day.
“We wanted a result, but we also wanted to represent on home soil. It is hard not to be active when you hear the ground shaking with the words U-S-A,” Howes said. “It was the general plan to be aggressive. Deep into the final you have to take your chances.”
The U.S. team was hunting for top-15s, results that will bolster their chances to earn spots in the Rio Games next summer.
“I am happy with how things went,” Howes said. “I mean, you always want more unless you are in the rainbow jersey. I don’t think we can be too disappointed with our ride today.”
The Americans didn’t win any hardware Sunday, but they raced with pride in front of the home fans.