By Fred Dreier
Pat McDonough has faced his share of ups and downs since taking control of the U.S. track program after the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The lowest of the low came at the 2005 world championship, where the U.S. earned no medals at its home track, the ADT Event’s Center in Los Angeles. That failure was followed by another loss, when Australian coach Gary West — whom McDonough had chosen to rebuild the program — quit after only a few months on the job.
The ups came the next year, when Sarah Hammer emerged as the top U.S. track rider, taking the world championships in the women’s pursuit. Taylor Phinney’s rise as the top U.S. male endurance rider this year has also bolstered the strength of the U.S. team.
McDonough’s answer to the United State’s track woes has been to, as he puts it, “raise the bar” for America’s riders. He has toughened the criteria for making the national team, thus shrinking the number of athletes the U.S. takes to major international competitions. He also ended the U.S. resident program for track sprinters. Will his plan work? VeloNews caught up with McDonough on the second night of the 2008 UCI World Cup in Los Angeles to find out.
VeloNews: Explain the steps the U.S. track program has taken since that disappointing world championships in 2005.
Pat McDonough: There are probably three big ones. One, we decided to set the bar much higher than it was. It used to be that if you were the best rider in the U.S. you got to go everywhere and get everything. The selection procedures to make the team have become harder. Now we actually use the 2005 world’s to create time standards to really challenge the athletes and say, “This is how fast you have to be.” Then we created a system based on that to reward the athletes who go that fast with financial rewards. The podium program has continued to expand, and now it’s at $25,000 a year and we want to take it to a higher level. We want true financial awards so we can say, “If you get this fast, we’ll write you a check.” The third is to focus on smaller teams when we go to a world championships, but to still give the riders who really earned that spot as much support as we can. In the past we would qualify enough riders for every bike race, so we would bring enough athletes to fill every bike race, even though we’d bring people that everybody knew weren’t going to be competitive. They were just in the cabin filling up space. That’s expensive. Last year we went to the world championships with only six people. Four of them finished with top-five places, though. Of the team we had, it was a very competitive team, and that is the goal. Obviously we’d like to be at the majority of the events, but when we get to that point I only want to be there with people who are there to win or be competitive.
VN: Don’t you fear that making U.S. track more selective, talent will fall through the cracks?
PM: I don’t apologize that we’ve raised the bar. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done. I think the way to solve [riders falling through the cracks] is to increase opportunities at a lower level. We know that we have riders who can be competitive at the domestic level. But the jump from that to a World Cup is really too much. I mean, there are the Taylor Phinney’s out there, but he’s one in a million. We’re looking to create steppingstones from the domestic level to major international races. There is another level out there at European Grand Prix races, and that’s our focus right now [for riders at a lower level].
The reality is that an event like [World Cups or the world championships] it is very expensive with the mechanics and soigneurs. We’ve found that for the cost it takes for us to take a rider to the world championships, we can take that rider to race for two weeks in Europe. We look at Noel [Dejonckheere]’s road development program in Europe has been extremely successful. That’s what you’re going to see in the future with track racing.
If you look at the traditional track programs that are the powerhouses, they have had low times. Those teams only came to world’s with a handful of athletes who could be competitive. That sends a message across the board to the athletes that if they want to compete, they have to get to that level. I want athletes to know that when they line up [at a World Cup] in a U.S. jersey, they have been chosen because they can be competitive. They’re there because they can potentially be among the race leaders.
VN: And the changes to the sprint resident program are part of this philosophy?
PM: Yes. Now the resident program in Colorado Springs is only for riders who are part of the podium program, not just the sprint riders. It is for riders who have made it to that high level and feel that being in Colorado Springs can elevate their abilities. It’s been difficult for a lot of the riders. I had a talk with Jenny Reed, and this is the most successful international competition she’s had, and a lot of it is because now she can work with the coaches she wants to, not just the resident coach. I don’t have a coach who can tell Taylor Phinney, “You have to listen to me.” We did that in the sprint program for many years, and the unplugging of that will prove to be the right thing.
I mean, it used to be if someone had an unbelievable year, there wasn’t a reward mechanism to take him to another level. We fed the riders, housed them and gave them bikes. If someone had a significantly bad year, he got the same stuff. You think about that on a road team in this country:If you have a bad year, there are 100 guys beneath you that want the job. We all know that. That’s what drives everybody. It wasn’t there with the sprint program, so we unplugged it. It’s been tough on some people, but there are other riders who have stepped up. I believe those riders will be the ones who make it.
VN: How did you get by the hurdle of having Gary West bail out?
PM: Gary West was probably the last hurrah of the resident program. We spent a good deal of money to get an internationally renowned coach to come in and try to make the sprint program work. I truly believe as I look back on it now, it wasn’t that Gary was a failure at it, its that we were trying to make an Eastern Bloc program work in the United States. It had run its course. It became an entitlement program. It was a program we inherited and we just kept saying “all the countries have it.” But these are the countries that have lots of government funding. We don’t and have to find our own way.
VN: I know that in the last few years USA Cycling was recruiting many riders from the road onto the track with talent-identification camps. Why don’t I see any of the road riders competing here?
PM: Well, this is an Olympic year, which means fewer opportunities. This isn’t the place to just get experience — it would be like saying we’ll take some road riders to get some racing experience at the spring classics. You should probably start with smaller races. What you’ll see is the net will become bigger in ’09 and then funnel down toward that Olympic year. I think you’ll see an outreach to road riders after the Games, maybe even before that. We’ll do more camps but the timing will be better. But most people need a couple of years within the program to take a step up to the World Cups. We did an abbreviated quick version of that the last two years. But I think it’ll expand next year. But once again those opportunities won’t necessarily be the world cups. It could be the Italian Grand Prix races in July.
VN: What is this weekend telling you about the U.S. hopes at Beijing?
PM: It’s confirming a lot of things we already knew. We’re three-quarters into the World Cup season, and we’ve identified six or seven athletes at this point who are our core group. At least half of those athletes have come through with medals. I know this isn’t the Olympics or world championships and that not all of the international field is here. I know it’s January and not everyone is peaking. But a medal performance still shows me in an Olympic year that there are people on target. Jenny Reed’s performance in the 200 is a really good time. To me, Jenny Reed’s performance is the surprise of the meet so far. We all knew how good Taylor is going. Sarah [Hammer]’s evening session in the pursuit says she’s a fighter.
VN: Can the U.S. track program ever grow to be an Australian track program?
PM: No. I say that because we aren’t government funded, and they are extremely government funded. They have seven velodromes in their country and they are all owned and run by the government. That’s never going to happen in this country, but we can come up with American solutions. I think we stepped back and saw that we’ve been trying to follow the Australian model and it doesn’t work for us. What I truly hope is that over the next four years we can increase the hell out of the direct-athlete funding, so that every step an athlete takes comes with incentives. Those incentives will probably start at a pretty high level. But eventually we can bring them down. That’s a theme that is universally American — we’ll pay you a lot of money if you’re really good. That’s what I see us moving toward. I just don’t think we’ll ever be the Brits or the Aussies and we need to stop trying. We need to try to be the best American team.