Commentary
Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Commentary: How to get more Americans in the Tour? Invest in youth development

The solution to having more Americans in the Tour de France rests on our current youth development system. And right now, the American system faces hard times.

You may have read Andrew Hood’s recent story about the flat trend in U.S. participation in the Tour de France. There are just four Americans competing in this year’s Tour, and that number hasn’t changed much since 2014.

Hoody’s story comes with impeccable timing, as our newly printed issue of VeloNews magazine focuses exclusively on the American process for developing the Tour de France stars of tomorrow. Chris Case chronicled the physiological development that Will Barta underwent from the junior to the WorldTour ranks.

I wrote about the current U.S. system for funneling riders to the pro ranks. Earlier this year I traveled to USA Cycling’s development house in Sittard, the Netherlands, and I also spoke with more than two dozen sources from within the American system for developing talent.

What did I learn through my reporting?

The U.S. system for developing tomorrow’s Tour de France stars could be in serious trouble.

Imagine a pipeline stretching from left to right, with the left-hand side of the pipe representing a young American’s entry point to cycling and the right representing the Tour de France. The good news for U.S. cycling is that the left side of the pipe is rapidly expanding, fueled by the dramatic growth of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), and by the creation of new junior racing programs across the country.

So, what’s the bad news?

The middle point of the pipe has collapsed.

Before I continue, let me make one thing abundantly clear: I am not writing this column to cast blame on anyone within the U.S. development system. I long ago learned that the country’s youth development apparatus is kept afloat entirely by passionate individuals who work long hours and receive little, if any, financial reward or recognition.

So, where is our pipeline failing? Unfortunately, there are multiple areas.

As we all know, the U.S. domestic racing scene has hit hard times for far too many reasons to discuss in this column. For past generations, the U.S. domestic races like the Tour of California served as a proving ground for up-and-coming youngsters. But with teams shrinking, races going away, and the Tour of California holding WorldTour status, young riders have fewer opportunities to shine on home soil.

Next, the gap from the Under-23 to the professional ranks is widening, and there are fewer opportunities now to bridge that gap. A decade ago WorldTour teams like BMC and Garmin maintained U23 squads, which gave talented Americans opportunities to race in Europe.

Those teams have disappeared, and the country’s premier Under-23 team, Hagens Berman Axeon, is taking a step back. In a recent call with Axel Merckx, he told me that the team will likely step down from UCI Pro Continental back to UCI Continental status next year due to the enormous costs. That means Hagens Berman Axeon may be excluded from the Amgen Tour of California, and lose out on valuable racing days in Europe.

“It is very difficult to persuade people to put money into development cycling,” Merckx told me. “For the last three years, Steve Berman has put a lot of money into it, and you cannot rely on one or two people to fund the whole thing.”

Team housing in Sittard provides an opportunity for riders to relax and watch the pros go at it on TV. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The final blow involves USA Cycling’s junior and Under-23 programs in Europe. This year the federation executed cuts to its youth programs, canceling the Under-23 program and whittling the junior team down to just six or seven riders. USA Cycling officials told me this step back came after the federation had to steer funding toward Olympic programs that have the potential to produce medals at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“We don’t want to cut back, but we had some hard decisions to make on where we were spending our money,” Scott Schnitzpahn, USA Cycling’s vice president of elite athletics, told me. “We want to step back, redistribute some resources this year, and maybe build it back up in a slightly different format as we go forward.”

In total, these cuts will limit the exposure to European races for junior and Under-23 riders. For the last 20 years, USA Cycling has sent talented youngsters to the Low Countries to compete in breakneck races in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands. It’s no secret that the junior and Under-23 races over there are far more tactical and challenging than any criterium or road race in the United States. They race on narrow European roads, and battle against the talented and cagy youth teams from Belgium and The Netherlands.

In the United States, a strong junior can simply ride to the front of a pack whenever he wants to; in Belgium, getting to the front may take 40 kilometers of constant fighting. And after 20 years, USA Cycling’s coaches have learned a basic fact about this development plan: The more exposure a talented youngster has to European racing, the more likely he or she is to graduate to cycling’s highest echelon. It’s that simple.

The fewer opportunities for exposure, the less likely he or she is to make it. It’s also that simple.

Like all problems in U.S. cycling, there is no easy answer to these problems. The solution likely comes from investment. As a fan of the sport, I wish I could snap my fingers and produce millions of dollars in funding that are earmarked for youth development.

I hope that the federation reinvests in the junior and Under-23 teams. I hope that the industry and outside sponsors put more marketing dollars into junior and Under-23 development teams. These pinch points in the system could destroy what may be a new golden era of U.S. racing.

I’ll leave you all with words of optimism, however, from someone who knows this system better than I do. I spoke with retired pro Mike Sayers, who formerly managed USA Cycling’s Under-23 program in Europe. Sayers said that the explosion of NICA and the growth in other development areas are signs that American cycling can produce more stars of tomorrow.

To return to our pipeline metaphor: Sayers believes we just need to fix the broken areas of the pipe. Funding a team or maintaining the national squad — every little effort helps the final goal.

“The individual pieces we have are super good — we just need to draw them together,” Sayers said. “I actually think it’s an easy fix.”