Champion School: Inside USA Cycling’s junior development program
The peloton blew past Magnus Sheffield as if he was a boulder in the middle of a raging river.
In one moment, Sheffield was racing at the front of the pack as it bore down on the Monteberg, one of the steep and narrow lanes punctuating Gent-Wevelgem. In the next moment, Sheffield was straining just to hold onto the pack’s tail end. He had been squeezed from his position by a sudden uptick in tempo and a violent jostling of elbows.
“I caught back on after the Kemmelberg and tried to get back to the front, but I cramped and ended up in the second group for the rest of the day,” Sheffield tells me, recounting the scene. “It all happened so fast.”
Sheffield is seated on a sectional couch in the living room of USA Cycling’s development house, located just outside the Dutch town of Sittard. Sheffield bears the rosy cheeks that most young men have at age 16, however his legs are tree trunk-thick with bulging muscles. In truth, Sheffield is one of America’s most talented young cyclists, and he holds the Strava KOM on Georgia’s famed Brasstown Bald climb by nearly a minute.
But within Belgium’s ultra-competitive junior races, a rider with toned legs and Strava records has no chance if he cannot master the ebb and flow of the pack.
“You really have to have a different mentality to race over here because it’s so cutthroat,” Sheffield says. “These kids aren’t afraid to put you in a ditch if you don’t pull through.”
This spring I traveled to Sittard to interview Sheffield and his teammates for a glimpse inside the American junior development program. Throughout the spring of 2019, the U.S. junior program scored a flurry of impressive results at the junior races. Team USA won Gent-Wevelgem that day, when Coloradan Quinn Simmons attacked out of the group and soloed in for the victory.
While Simmons’s results grabbed the headlines, Sheffield’s lesson at Gent-Wevelgem may be more valuable in the long run. Failure is an important part of the development process. In his moment of hesitation, Sheffield learned about proper positioning and race craft in a Belgian classic.
“The first thing you learn is you can’t be afraid,” Sheffield says. “Nobody is your friend and they can tell if you’re afraid.”
For 20 years the United States has sent talented young riders like Magnus Sheffield to the Low Countries, to let Europe’s youth development leagues hammer them into professionals. Learning the craft of racing within the Belgian and Dutch junior and U23 races is a right of passage for most, if not all, American greats. The walls of the Sittard house are adorned with old photos of Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and dozens of other American greats, all as rosy-cheeked teens.
In recent years, the youth cycling landscape surrounding USA Cycling’s development system has undergone dramatic shifts. Sudden growth within the junior ranks—spurred on by the explosion of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA)—has brought more kids to bike races. Simultaneously, elite junior squads with travel budgets and international ambitions have popped up to meet the demand. And the decline of the U.S. road racing scene has eliminated opportunities for young riders to race on home soil.
Meanwhile, the national federation has had to cut its development budget, slicing more than $100,000 from its youth development program in 2019 alone. In early 2019, USA Cycling quietly canceled its Under-23 men’s development program in Sittard.
Throughout my reporting, I set out to understand how these dynamics have changed the process for identifying and then developing talented young riders into the star cyclists of tomorrow. I spoke with riders, coaches, and graduates about the current American development process, to try and understand where America is helping riders like Magnus Sheffield, and where it is failing them.
A change in attitude
A decade ago I visited USA Cycling’s old youth development center, a cavernous house in the town of Izegem, deep in the heart of cycling-mad West Flanders. The house was infamous for its dreary weather and no-frills accoutrements: Young riders crammed into tight rooms and the upstairs frequently smelled of sewage.
Retired Belgian pro Noel Dejonckeere and his wife, Els, operated the development program on an annual budget of around $350,000, a pittance for a program that worked with several dozen juniors and U23 riders each year. The Dejonckheeres scolded riders for overeating, spending too much time on Facebook, and messiness, among other offenses. Their stern attitude bore results: Tyler Farrar, David Zabriskie, and Tejay van Garderen all graduated from the program.
In 2013, USA Cycling bid adieu to Izegem and signed a deal with Sportzone Limburg, a Dutch company that operates a multi-functional sports park in Sittard. The agreement gave USA Cycling one of the houses dotting the grounds of the park, which had once been a mental hospital.
When I arrived at the center in mid-April I was struck by the sunny weather and tree-lined campus, which sits just a short ride from Sittard’s picturesque main square. I was met by Billy Innes, the junior program’s manager. A former pro rider, Innes often rode alongside the junior riders instead of following them in a team car. He spoke to them like a teacher, not a headmaster.
“These guys have the rest of their pro careers for cycling to be a job,” Innes told me. “When they’re 16 years old, it should still be fun. It doesn’t have to be torture every single day.”
The program’s mission and overall structure was much the same as it had been under the Dejonckheeres, even if the attitude had changed. Young Americans still come to Sittard to compete in the breakneck European races, which are held on narrow, twisting European roads, as opposed to the wide avenues in the United States.
“In the U.S. we have four-lane roads where you can move from the back of the field to the front in five seconds,” Innes says. “It’s a lot harder to move from the back of a 150-rider junior race to the front when the road is only eight feet wide.”
After two-decades in Europe, USA Cycling’s coaches had concluded a simple truth about development, Innes said. The more European races a rider completes from age 15 to 22, the more likely he or she is to graduate to the WorldTour ranks. Proper coaching and tactical teaching can help in this development, of course, but exposure to European races is the most important component.
“Riding and racing on the roads you eventually see should you turn pro makes a big difference in getting them to that level,” Innes says. “A guy like Tom Boonen was racing on the roads of the Tour of Flanders when he was 12. He knew every twist and turn.”
Americans always lag behind their European competition in the chase for race days. During the junior and U23 years, European riders rack up hundreds of race days and thousands of racing kilometers. An American junior, by contrast, is lucky to accrue 15 race days a year in Europe. That’s why USA Cycling coaches often seek out the youngest riders who show promise and invite them back to the Sittard center year after year, while older riders who may win events in the United States may be passed over.
“The education begins as early as we can,” Innes says. “It’s exponentially calming if they’ve been doing this since they were 15, as opposed to if they are 18 and they’re in Gent-Wevelgem for the first time. That’s like being thrown into a major league baseball game.”
The program’s financial model also rewards this. First-year riders pay upwards of $1,500 to attend a racing block in Europe; the second year the fee is cut in half. By year four, it’s paid for by the federation.
There are always riders who slip through the cracks, or who are overlooked by the system. And while the program continues with this philosophy, it has deviated from year to year.
In previous years, USA Cycling’s junior program targeted stage races with its time trial aces Adrien Costa, Will Barta, and Brandon McNulty. For 2018 and 2019, the junior team focused squarely on cobblestone classics, such as Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.
“Our guys were motivated to do well on cobblestone classics, so we built a team around those races,” Innes says. “It changes focus depending on the group.”
There was another more unfortunate deviation in 2019 to the program’s structure. In the past, Innes might invite a dozen or more juniors to Sittard throughout the year.
Cuts to the program’s budget forced Innes to narrow his focus onto a core group of riders. In 2019 he had just seven juniors on the team. These boys raced the UCI’s prestigious Nation’s Cup series, which is comprised of the biggest junior events on the calendar.
“This year it’s working, but I know how it is with young athletes—this might not work in 2020 and beyond,” Innes says. “I believe it’s worth the risk developing a culture that will carry on and along their development.”
Rise of the elite junior trade teams
The leafy neighborhoods of Limburg whiz by as Innes and I pedal alongside Simmons, Luke Lamperti, Seth Callahan, and Nolan Jenkins on a training ride. Innes wears the star-spangled kit of the U.S. national team while the four boys don the orange and white kit of their trade team from the United States: Lux Cycling. It’s only early April, and the four have already raced and trained alongside each other for much of the year on Lux’s dime.
“We had a three-week camp in January in California for Lux,” Lamperti says. “It felt like a higher caliber of riders than we’re used to. Flights, hotels, everything was paid for.”
The Lux program is the latest in a long line of elite junior trade teams focused on junior development: Hot Tubes, Swift, Mengoni, among others, came before it. In 2019, one could easily mistake Lux as the de facto feeder program for the national team. Of the seven riders on the U.S. junior national squad, six came from Lux. Sheffield was the only outlier; he raced for Hot Tubes.
Innes chose his national team the same way he always has, by awarding automatic spots on the squad to riders who performed at his three selection races. It’s just that Lux won them all. In 2018 Lux placed five of its riders in the top-10 at the U.S. junior national championship road race. Simmons won. At Arizona’s Valley of the Sun stage race, Lux swept the podium.
Then, at the 2019 U.S. junior national road race, four Lux riders broke away from the peloton, crossing the line together.
“Lux gives us a lot of racing because they believe racing is the best training,” says Michael Garrison, another Lux rider on the national team. “My calendar is full this year.”
Founded in 2013 as a regional Southern California junior squad, Lux is managed by Roy Knickman, an Olympic medalist and member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. The team gained international recognition in 2014 when its star junior, McNulty, began to win domestic and international events. In 2015 McNulty won the junior world title in the time trial.
Knickman’s coaching and international connections, when matched with McNulty’s fame, attracted more talented youngsters to the program, and Lux’s success snowballed. The team’s ownership increased its investment and began sending its riders to events across the country and even overseas. Over the course of two seasons, Lux became the powerhouse junior team in the United States, and teenagers from across the country joined its roster.
“Some other teams aren’t as cooperative with USA Cycling—my purpose is the same as theirs,” Knickman says. “The emphasis is on getting them as many quality race days as possible If we have to spend money on plane tickets, we do it.”
In 2018 the team paid for its 15 and 16-year-old riders to race in Ireland and Belgium. Those crucial race days in Europe gave Lux’s riders a leg up on other Americans hoping to make the national junior team.
Like all youth cycling programs, however, Lux’s success masks an unglamorous and bare-bones operation. Knickman works full time as a firefighter and runs the squad in what little spare time he has, often running the operation from a cell phone. The team relies on hand-me-down equipment and is largely run through private backing from its owner, sponsorships, and a small grant from USA Cycling.
“Last year [Simmons] was third at Gent-Wevelgem on a four-year-old bike that had been crashed and fixed,” Knickman says. “We bought our team trailer at a pawn shop and every week I have to put new sheet metal screws into it. This is just our reality.”
The major challenge that Knickman faces is in deciding who to invite to his team. Resumes now pour in from across the country from coaches and parents of talented youngsters, asking Knickman for a spot. And the number of kids wanting to pursue pro cycling is growing, fueled in part by the national expansion of NICA. In 2018 NICA fielded 20,000 youth participants across its 23 state leagues. Across the country, regional junior racing teams have popped up to work with the cross section of NICA participants who want to progress in the sport.
USA Cycling has already seen the impact of NICA in its development ranks—program graduates Neilson Powless and Sean Bennett both entered the sport through the program.
The swelling ranks of NICA, however, present an opportunity and challenge for Knickman and Innes. Thousands of new riders are entering the U.S. development pipeline, and Lux and the U.S. federation now represent a pinch point on the journey to the pro ranks. How are two men supposed to analyze the talent, choose the best riders, and then shepherd them to the professional ranks when resources are already so thin?
“I only have so many seats on the bus,” Innes says. “Sometimes it’s really difficult to choose.”
A missing step
Steam rises from heaping piles of pasta and vegetable marinara as members of the junior men’s and women’s teams grab plates and cue up for dinner. Team meals at the Sittard house mark an important social hour for the teenagers who are living and racing far from their homes.
The six members of the U.S. women’s junior team sit amongst the junior men and discuss the challenge posed by the junior women’s events.
“Last year we had really strong girls, but we could never find each other in the pack—we never clicked as a group,” says Zoe Ta-Perez. “This year we’ve been more conscious about finding each other in the pack.”
Teamwork may sound like an intuitive skill, yet it’s an important lesson that takes junior riders several years to master. When Ta-Perez returns in 2020 with the program, it’s a safe bet that she and her teammates will boast even greater success in the races.
Teaching youngsters the basic elements of pro cycling was the direction USA Cycling took when it faced its budget cut—or redistribution, depending on whom you ask—at the outset of 2019. What was scarified? The advanced learning that cyclists receive at the U23 level.
Multiple officials discussed the decision to eliminate the U23 European team with me for this story. In broad terms, the pinch stemmed from the federation’s push for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. More funding was needed for programs that are favored to win medals: The U.S. women’s track and mountain bike programs, along with the BMX program, all boast medal contenders.
“We’re 14 months out from the Olympics and you start to redistribute,” says Scott Schnitzpahn, USA Cycling’s vice president of elite athletics. “We don’t want to cut back, but we had some hard decisions to make on where we were spending our money.”
Officials decided that youth development would absorb a cut. Jeff Pierce, now the director of athletics for road and track, said officials chose to cut the U23 program due, in part, to the success of U23 trade teams Hagens Berman Axeon and Aevolo.
“Most of our best U23 riders are now on pretty well-supported trade teams, so we decided to focus on the earlier stage to provide opportunities for them,” Pierce said. “Hopefully we quickly get our budgets back and can get back to what we were doing.”
The decision sent shockwaves through the close-knit community of youth development teams, coaches, and riders across the country. Nate Wilson, the U23 program’s coach and manager, reached out through his relationships to try and find connections for those riders who did not have a professional contract. Through a French contact, Wilson helped U23 rider Matteo Jorgensen secure a spot on the AG2R La Mondiale development team.
“I spent years cultivating the relationship, and [Jorgensen] was the right fit,” Wilson said. “These relationships can be fragile. If you bring the wrong guy to them and it’s the wrong fit, you won’t get someone on that team ever again.”
Multiple riders and team managers expressed their disappointment in the cutback. The cut prevented the U.S. from fielding U23 teams for the Nation’s Cup races at Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In May, USA Cycling fielded a national team at the Amgen Tour of California, which was composed primarily of U23 riders. In the eyes of some, the move was not enough.
“It’s very dangerous, because if it weren’t for us and Aevolo, I’m not sure what would happen to a lot of these riders,” said Axel Merckx, owner of the Hagens Berman Axeon team. “Even the gap between the U23 and the WorldTour is just getting bigger and bigger, so if you take away [the U23 funding] I don’t know what happens to these guys.”
Of the 16 riders on Merckx’s 2019 roster, nine were American. Throughout the season Merckx’s team again took its U23 riders to major international races in France and Belgium, as well as the Amgen Tour of California. But the team could not bring all of its Americans to the races.
Reigning U.S. road champion Johnny Brown was passed over for the team’s squad for many important spring races, including Liège. Had a U23 national team existed, Brown could have participated. Instead, Brown went on training rides. It was a harsh pill to swallow for Brown, who was in his final year in the U23 ranks, and did not yet have a pro contract signed for 2020.
“It’s really going to hurt us if this keeps up for the next few years,” Brown says. “I really worry about the juniors. What happens to them when they leave the program? You can go race Redlands, but if you want to make it to the WorldTour, you need more exposure in Europe.”
Filling holes in the pipeline
The mustache on Quinn Simmons’s upper lip makes him look older than 17, as does his beefy biceps and hulking frame. Simmons tells me the story of his young racing career: He grew up in Durango, Colorado, and gained vital confidence as the 14-year-old kid who could hang with Ned Overend and Todd Wells on the local group ride.
“You show up on the group ride and look around and it’s like there’s the top three at nationals,” Simmons tells me. “And all of a sudden I’m rotating through with them and not getting dropped.”
I do some quick back-of-the-napkin math. Simmons is just three years removed from his “Aha moment.”
Simmons has been one of the best junior riders on the planet in 2019. But it’s very evident that he’s an early bloomer, a teenage boy who inhabits a man’s body. It’s a safe bet that Simmons’s European competitors could soon catch up to his brawn and overcome what natural gifts he may own at 17.
Simmons’s progression likely hinges on USA Cycling’s development resources. Simmons could one day grow into the classics rider to finally win a cobblestone Monument for the United States. Or, he could end up racing domestically, or working a desk job. The lynchpin could be how many European races Simmons completes between now and his exit from the U23 ranks.
The wider pipeline of American development relies on these programs. The U.S. pipeline for youth cycling is undeniably strong, but crucial steps are currently missing or underdeveloped. NICA represents a robust entry point of the talent funnel; a pinch point exists at the elite junior level, where only Lux cycling and the U.S. junior national team have resources; a gaping hole exists at the Under-23 level.
“The individual pieces are in great shape,” says Mike Sayers, a former director of the Under-23 program. “We just need to put the individual pieces together with smoother transitions from step to step.”
Throughout my reporting, I asked a familiar question to sources: Why can’t the United States, a country of 300 million people, discover a grand cycling champion to inspire the next generation of riders, and reinvigorate the American racing culture? And after speaking to dozens, a truth about development became painfully obvious.
You do not find a great champion. You develop one.