USA Cycling’s plan to turn green into gold
American cyclists left the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro with five Olympic medals, tying the country’s second-best hardware count since its nine-medal haul in 1984.
The success caught the attention of the United States Olympic Committee, which has agreed to boost USAC’s funding every year between now and the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Now, USA Cycling has an ambitious plan to transform the extra cash — approximately $1 million in total increased funding each year — into an even greater medal count in 2020.
“Seven medals is the goal in Tokyo,” says Derek Bouchard-Hall, USA Cycling’s CEO. “We’ve studied what we should go after, and we will focus on athletes that are on a trajectory to win medals.”
The plan calls for a restructuring of USA Cycling’s athletics department, including the hiring of new coaches and executives. USA Cycling will also revise its selection process for choosing athletes for both world championship and Olympic events. Finally, USA Cycling will increase focus on the events where the country has traditionally won the most medals: BMX racing and women’s road and track cycling.
“We’re really good at BMX and women’s cycling, and we want to stay really good at those,” Bouchard-Hall says. “Some of our best athletes retired after Rio, and we need to refresh those talent pools.”
IN THE FALL OF 2016 USA Cycling officials went before the USOC to present a budget increase for the four-year run-up to Tokyo. Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s vice president of athletics, asked for the USOC to increase its funding by $500,000 each year, which would then be matched by a grant from USA Cycling’s development foundation. The total $1 million would be earmarked for USA Cycling’s Olympic development programs.
The presentation emphasized America’s recent success at the Rio games, where Kristin Armstrong and BMX racer Connor Fields won gold, and track star Sarah Hammer, BMX racer Alise Post, and the women’s team pursuit squad won silver. Furthermore, the country narrowly missed out on medals in the women’s road race (Mara Abbott) and men’s BMX (Nicholas Long). The USOC agreed to the plan.
“The timing was right,” Bouchard-Hall says. “Not too many national governing bodies got five medals and two fourth-place finishes.”
USOC representatives did not return requests for comment, however the group’s decision to boost USA Cycling’s spending is consistent with its policy to reward medal-favorite sports with cash. According to a recent story in The Sports Business Journal, which referenced the USOC’s 2016 tax filing, the USOC gave the biggest funding bumps in 2016 to medal favorites such as track and field, gymnastics, and cycling, while less successful sports such as shooting, sailing, and water polo saw their funding cut.
The million-dollar infusion will boost USA Cycling’s spending on its high-performance programs to between $4-5 million each year for 2017-2020. Bouchard-Hall believes the increase in cash will allow USA Cycling to move beyond its previous budget-conscious approach to high performance.
“In the past we wanted to have a greater complement of world-class coaches and staff, but it was too expensive,” Bouchard-Hall says. “By virtue of resources, we’ve had to operate by the seat of our pants with very limited people resources.”
IN RECENT YEARS USA Cycling faced repeated legal challenges from athletes who were not picked for the UCI World Championships and Olympic games. In 2016 alone three athletes arbitrated against USA Cycling for its discretionary choice of three roster spots on the Olympic women’s road race team. The challenges were all unsuccessful.
Currently, the organization posts its automatic selection criteria to athletes. For spots that are not automatically earned, a panel of nine retired riders chooses the remaining roster. The discretionary method often leaves the door open for challenges.
“Inevitably, because it’s a selection, somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt,” Miller said in a 2016 interview. “If you ask five people for their opinion on selection, you get five good arguments.”
USA Cycling’s restructuring will likely change the process and criteria by which it makes those selections, Bouchard-Hall says. For 2017 the organization has hired Steve Roush, the USOC’s former chief of sports performance, to help develop a new way to choose teams. Roush should deliver his final report to the organization in the early fall, and Bouchard-Hall believes USA Cycling could see a shakeup to its selection criteria even before this fall’s road world championships in Norway.
There are multiple ideas on the table, including one-day Olympic trials for the men’s and women’s road race, Bouchard-Hall says. He also believes USA Cycling will change the composition of who sits on the discretionary committees. The organization will also improve its communication with athletes who are in the running for these spots.
“Some of those arbitrations could have been avoided with better management and better communication,” Bouchard-Hall says. “We have more talented athletes than we have spots for on these teams. It’s a quality problem, but it’s still a problem.”
USA CYCLING’S FIRST STEP is to reorganize its athletics department, which oversees elite athlete development as well as the administrative efforts around team selection, fundraising, corporate partnerships, and athlete contracts. Each year, approximately 400 elite racers across road, track, mountain bike, cyclocross, and BMX fall under this wing of the organization. In the past, Miller sat atop this pyramid of coaches and administrators.
The new plan calls for a split at the top; Miller will continue to oversee the coaching and athlete development wing, while new Vice President of Elite Athletics Scott Schnitzspahn will oversee fundraising, administrative work, and corporate partnerships. Schnitzspahn, 44, joins USA Cycling after working with the USOC as a high performance director.
Underneath Miller, USA Cycling will also hire an undetermined number of new coaches that will work with specific pools of between eight and 12 riders. In the past, USA Cycling hired coaches to oversee specific national teams, such as the U23 road development squad or the women’s sprint track team, for example. The first of these hires, Gary Sutton, was added to USA Cycling in August. Sutton will oversee USA Cycling’s new endurance track program. USA Cycling also hired Kristin Armstrong in late August to work with its endurance riders.
Bouchard-Hall believes this structure focused coaching only on star athletes, rather than on athletes who actually needed coaches.
USA Cycling will maintain its national team structure, however the new coaches will target athletes that require additional training help. The first new coaches will focus specifically on women’s cycling.
Additionally, USA Cycling will earmark funds for elite or development athletes who lack the sponsor support to afford to attend international events, such as the Pan American Championships or the UCI World Championships. In many cases, female elite racers or development athletes pay their way to larger international competitions.
“A guy like Taylor [Phinney] already has access to amazing resources and coaching, but a female mountain biker, for example, may not,” Bouchard-Hall says. “We will have these high level coaches to help out with that.”
The influx of new coaches is indicative of USA Cycling’s greater focus on women’s cycling, which is where Bouchard-Hall believes Americans can win the most medals in Tokyo. Of the five Olympic medals won in Rio, female cyclists claimed four.
The renewed focus comes at an important time for American women’s cycling. In the last year Armstrong retired from competition, as did veterans Abbott and Evelyn Stevens. Subsequently, newcomers Ruth Winder, Chloé Dygert Owen, and Kelly Catlin have begun to rise within the sport.
There are other women in the development pipeline that Bouchard-Hall believes could benefit from the extra coaches, development camps, and international racing trips.
“America has structural advantages in women’s cycling,” he says. “When we look at the medals that could come in [Tokyo], it’s mostly going to come on the women’s side.”