VeloNews Awards 2019: Team USA in Yorkshire, best week of racing
This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
Chloé Dygert flashed a confident smile as she stood atop the podium and waved to the crowd in Yorkshire, the gold medal for the women’s individual time trial draped around her neck. That confidence followed Dygert as she spoke with journalists after her jaw-dropping ride across the 30-kilometer course, where she finished 1:32 up on reigning world road champion Anna van der Breggen.
“I prepared for this race and of course I came to win,” Dygert said, shrugging to the TV cameras. “I’m really happy with the result.”
Dygert’s win in Yorkshire began a historic run for Americans at the road world championships. In the ensuing days team USA won five more medals, including two additional golds, across the various disciplines and age groups. Michael Garrison and Brandon McNulty finished second and third, respectively, in the Under-23 men’s time trial; Megan Jastrab won the junior women’s road race; and Quinn Simmons and Magnus Sheffield finished first and third, respectively, in the junior men’s road race.
Like Dygert, these riders beamed with confidence, as did the officials from USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body. It was the biggest medal haul for the U.S. since 2015, when riders grabbed seven individual medals on the home course in Richmond, Virginia. Yorkshire affirmed that the governing body’s system for identifying and training talent was worth the struggle and investment. And it confirmed that American athletes were on track to score Olympic medals at the 2020 games in Tokyo.
“What we have witnessed our riders do so far in Yorkshire is proof that our development program is working,” said Jeff Pierce, USA Cycling’s director of elite athletics.
In truth, the confidence that carried Dygert and USA Cycling through its impressive medal haul at the Yorkshire Worlds sprang from a series of setbacks for both Dygert, and the governing body’s development programs. There were moments in the months before Yorkshire that Dygert wondered if she could attain the physical highs that earned her an Olympic silver medal in 2016.
And much of the year saw USA Cycling pinch pennies in order to give its athletes the racing opportunities to prepare them for the big race. The hurdles that Dygert and USA Cycling’s development program faced made their eventual success all the more sweet.
Dygert’s victory in Yorkshire bookended the most challenging period of her young career. In May 2018, Dygert crashed during the opening stage of the Amgen Tour of California and smacked her head on the tarmac. The crash left her with a head injury, and she suffered concussion-like symptoms for weeks. When Dygert began training in the fall, lingering injuries to her back stalled her progress. The series of setbacks erased her entire 2018 season.
She returned to road racing in early 2019 and had initial success, winning the Joe Martin Stage Race in March. But Dygert lacked the world-beating power output that propelled her to her track accolades. In June, at USA Cycling’s national road championships, she was handily beaten in the individual time trial.
“It was really hard to lose, but in the big picture, it gave me the motivation to work really hard—it was like, I need to do more,” Dygert said.
She returned to training on the track, and after a few strong sessions in August, Dygert said her power returned. Confirmation came at the Pan American Championships in Peru, where she won. Then, during the four-day Colorado Classic, Dygert showed the world that she had, indeed, returned. She won every stage, en route to the overall win.
Yet winning those two races hardly guaranteed Dygert a world championship, and she came into Yorkshire having never battled with reigning champion Annemiek van Vleuten in a head-to-head road time trial.
From the opening time check, it was evident that Dygert was on a special day. She was minutes up on her nearest competitor. Overhead cameras showed her passing riders who had started minutes ahead of her like they were standing still. In the end, it was Dygert’s raw power and ability to push herself that won her the day.
“I sat out last year and wasn’t even able to go to the World Championships, missed the whole track season, so this was what I was training for this year,” Dygert said.
For 20 years USA Cycling has sent talented juniors to race in Europe, where the development races are oftentimes faster and more tactical than pro events in North America. The federation’s development program is based in The Netherlands for both men and women.
At the onset of 2019, USA Cycling faced a budget crunch, and the federation steered funds away from youth development toward the push for the 2020 Olympics. The men’s Under-23 program lost most of its funding, and the junior men’s and women’s squads also took a hit. Rather than invite 20 or so juniors over throughout the year, USA Cycling’s junior team could only race the same six or seven riders.
“Hopefully we quickly get our budgets back and can get back to what we were doing,” Pierce said.
For 2019 the junior program was built around Simmons, who in 2018 had racked up a series of impressive results. Michael Garrison, Luke Lamperti, Michael Riccitello, Nolan Jenkins, and newcomer Magnus Sheffield rounded out the roster. Throughout the spring, the boys raced together, and had major success—Simmons won the junior version of Gent-Wevelgem in March.
Similarly, the women’s junior program was built around Jastrab, with Katie Clouse, Zoe Ta-Perez, Ava Sykes, and Gabrielle Lehnert all racing together through the spring. Jastrab showed signs of greatness too, winning the Healthy Aging Tour.
In previous years, the juniors would have cycled in and out throughout the season. But in 2019, the teams stayed consistent throughout the year. The consistency gave the teams more time to race together and to gel. So, by the time the squads took the line in Yorkshire, they had raced together for the entire season.
“You acknowledge each other, but there’s not much verbal communication,” Garrison said after the Yorkshire race. “We’ve been around each other so much. You know based off the body language of the other guys how they are feeling.”
The Americans dominated the junior race, riding the front to control the pack—a dynamic that’s rarely seen in junior events. They then launched Simmons and Sheffield into the winning move. Simmons then attacked with 31 kilometers remaining to score an impressive solo win.
“Riding solo on a world championship circuit, packed with fans, is amazing,” Simmons said. “We followed the plan perfectly.”
Jastrab, too, benefitted from her teammates, who kept her at the front as the race hit a crucial left-hand turn inside the final 3 kilometers. Jastrab went through the turn in third wheel, and was perfectly positioned to follow an attack by Russian Aigul Gareeva. As Gareeva powered toward the line, Jastrab stayed in her slipstream until just a few meters from the line. She then sprinted past the Russian to win.
The riders made it look easy. But in reality, the victories were the product of years of toil.