By Andrew Hood
Pat McDonough will be a very busy man in the coming months. With the Beijing Summer Olympic Games on tap for the summer of 2008, the director of athletics for USA Cycling will have his hands full as he prepares teams to compete in track, road, mountain bike and the inaugural BMX medal events.
A former director at the Lehigh Valley velodrome, USA Cycling tapped McDonough to take over the moribund U.S. track program in 2004. Then last summer, he was promoted as director of athletics for USA Cycling to oversee all disciplines.
McDonough, a silver medalist in the team pursuit at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, was on hand this week for the 2007 world track cycling championships in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, to keep a close eye on a resurgent track program.
VeloNews caught up with McDonough to get his perspective on where the U.S. track program is headed and what the realistic expectations should be for Beijing. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews.com: What are your expectations this week for the track championships?
Pat McDonough: I think our expectations are to be very competitive. We’ve come here with six athletes; five of them have won World Cup medals this year. We have a small team, but everyone on this team has been competitive internationally or ridden an international time standard we’ve set. We’re in the hunt and will be in the middle of things.
Sarah [Hammer] is almost a separate conversation. She’s in her own league, with the time’s set. I’d be very surprised if she hadn’t been in the gold medal ride. What’s great about her since her comeback, she’s been on this upward spike that hasn’t stopped.
VN.com: So you don’t think she’s reached her full potential yet?
PM: I don’t think she has. There are some things we’re going to be looking at after this year going into ’08, in terms of equipment, position, some other things we can tweak. She still has more in her tank. She’s still young and she’s just getting stronger.
VN.com: How important is it for this program to have a legitimate Olympic gold medal contender going into 2008?
PM: I think it’s important for us overall. Right now, there’s little doubt that the women’s endurance track program, both track and road and BMX; those are the disciplines where we are favored to win medals. What’s exciting to me is because those programs are growing and starting to pay off; I think you start seeing other areas move forward. This year, mountain bike has been phenomenal.
If you take a look at two or three years ago, no one would have believed that American would have been one of the top-ranked countries, so that’s taken off. I’m excited overall for track moving forward. In Beijing, we’ll probably have a small team with focused people looking to compete. But looking forward to London, I think we’ll have a full team. Once again, a team filled with riders right there in the hunt for medals.
VN.com: Things have obviously stepped up for Hammer and she’s going into Beijing as a five-star favorite for a gold medal, how does she deal with the added stress, media attention and responsibilities that go with that?
PM: I think she’s done an excellent job. She is a very driven, focused athlete right now. I’ve seen a lot of athletes deal with things differently. She knows what she wants. She’s here on a mission. She’s the kind of rider that you love to see because if there’s a problem in the cabin, she will let you know there is a problem in the cabin and it needs to be fixed. We have good communication. She will make it clear of what she needs. She’s focused on Beijing and she knows what she wants to do. She and Andy are a very good team. They work well together. I give him tremendous credit and he’s done a tremendous job. They were both in Colorado Springs as resident athletes.
VN.com: You have a small team here, but only one sprinter [Jennie Reed], why is that?
PM: We’re in the midst of making a huge change in our sprint program. For over a dozen years, we’ve housed and fed and taken care of the sprinters. To be honest, it hasn’t worked. I’d challenge someone to me that it has worked. We’ve tried different things, we’ve had different coaches do it, we’ve had different approaches, and it’s just something that’s counter to everything else we do. There’s no other place where we say this is your coach, this is your philosophy, and this is how you do things. That’s very Eastern Bloc. Certainly, that’s how it was done 20-some years ago when I was a bike racing, but I don’t think that works with American riders very well. I think by opening things up and move into a new direction. I think we’re going to see the sprinters move right back up.
VN.com: So how will the program be organized now?
PM: We have a program what’s called the Podium Program. We fund athletes who medal at world championships; it’s a results-driven program. You earn your way in, with financial support on our end, and [a] resident program if it works for the athlete. A lot of these athletes have their own coaches, like Andy [Sparks, Hammer’s coach], we’ve reached out to them.
If an athlete has shown, as Sarah has, we will bring their coach, we will support their coach, to the point of getting into the venue, making sure that athlete has their coach with them. We’re not going to do it for every athlete on the team; we’re going to do it for the athletes that have proven themselves at that level. We’re moving everything to a results based program to make it very clear. We have a lot of coaches that are developing into good coaches. We want work with them and allow the athletes to have that freedom of choice.
VN.com: How would you characterize the overall health of the track program right now? It seems like some disciplines are right on target while are others are in need of a major fix?
PM: The rebuilding of the sprint program; we’re going to partner up with a number of coaching groups that are in three different sites that we can expand and grow. The sprint athletes –ask the five or six coaches who really know sprint racing – all agree this might be the most talented young group we’ve had in years. We’re talking about very young riders and the reality is we’re going to give them some international competition, other than the world championships and World Cup.
We want to focus on the successes we’ve had on the road. What we want to do is create opportunities year-round for these athletes so they can develop as riders. It’s very difficult with the World Cups, especially next year, these are the qualifications for the Olympics, so the level is brutal. And if you throw a 20-year-old kid in there, gee, what a surprise, they didn’t make the cut. Or if they did make the cut, they ride against Theo Bos in the first round. That’s good to do once, but you’re not going to develop a whole lot. Our goal is to have some European trips to race against a good field, so they have some success. The world championships aren’t the place to get experience. When I look at those six guys, they’ve all been to world championships. They don’t need that kind of experience. What they need is success. We’re going to concentrate on building success. It’s a rebuilding process, but we’re doing it. I’m not going to say Beijing, but by London, we should be very competitive.
VN.com: Track is so much linked to the Olympics as a benchmark for success and media attention; does that help or hurt develop the sport?
PM: That is our number-one issue, is that you have a sport where the Olympics – that’s it. Then on the annual basis, there are the world championships. Maybe once a year the media comes out to cover the world’s, but in between, the World Cups are just blips on the radar screen. We need to get to the point to, where like on the road, the calendar is important enough. Wow, I went to this event and I won this event, that’s a big event. It’s not all about the world’s. That’s what we need in track cycling. What we need to do is grow the calendar so people can race the track.
VN.com: How is the U.S. track program doing in terms of finding a sponsor or additional funding?
PM: We are looking for sponsors, but we’ve tried to create the program to be self-sufficient. Membership is what has driven our sport. The USOC does give us significant funding, we’re looking to grow that through membership and through sponsorship. We needed to get some results and get some things going. Last year was a phenomenal year for us. We won six medals in Olympic events. We won medals on road, track, BMX; and in mountain bike, we’ve had our best performances since it’s been an Olympic sport. I’m excited across the board. You try to be cautiously optimistic. It’s still sport, anything can happen. That’s what the trouble with track is that so much is wrapped up in one day. This is so measured on this one particular day. Overall, we have a good team that can come with some good results overall. I’m excited we can set the tone for everyone else. If you want to come to this level, you have to be competitive. I’d rather bring a small team and be competitive than bring a full team just to show up.
VN.com: Do you look at envy at such well-funded teams as Great Britain and Australia?
PM: They have a track tradition and have significant budgeting that’s helped them over the years. I know Australian is receiving less money and, the funny thing is, you’re seeing them come back to earth. That goes in cycles. They had tremendous funding leading into Sydney and they were absolutely the powerhouse for a long time. Their funding isn’t the same and the results aren’t the same. The Brits have more funding than anyone right now and it won’t be a surprise to see them win the medal count this week.
The government funding is a huge thing and not only do we not have it, we’re never going to have it. I’ve told people many times, what we’re trying to do is create an American system. It has to be cut and dry, it has to be based on results. We will fund you, we will help you, all based upon your results. We’re not going to tell you who your coach is, we’re not going to tell you where to live. We’re going to go out and try to secure some very good equipment sponsors, so if you don’t have support, we’ll put you on high-quality bikes and equipment, but we understand all the elements of it. We cannot do what some of these countries do, which is to say you’re my athlete, you have to do what I tell you to do, you have to ride this bike. We just can’t do that. It just doesn’t work in America. And when we’ve tried it, it just hasn’t worked. So we’re moving forward with what we think is a good program that will work in America.
VN.com: What happened to the men’s team pursuit effort? Last year there was quite a buzz with riders from TIAA-CREF [now Slipstream/Chipotle]?
PM: That was a financial decision they made. Jonathan’s [Vaughters] goals have changed; not his long-term goal, he flat out said his long-term goal is to be a ProTour team. They stepped back and looked at it, they got some buzz out of it, but I think on his end they obviously decided that the Tour of California and racing in Europe were a much better place to put an emphasis on, You can disagree with it. They still have a couple of athletes [Brad Huff and Mike Friedman] who are track focused. Mike has gone through a heck of a time, but he will be one of the top track endurance riders for the coming years. The team pursuit program is just so difficult. It’s just one medal, it’s so much time, it’s so much effort. I know – I was on one! I was on the ’84 Olympic team. I know how much work it takes. It’s a mammoth undertaking for one medal. What we’ve discussed here and what we want to focus on, we are really interested in a developing a Madison program, a six-day program. We’ve had great success with Noel’s [road development] program. He was a world champion on the track. He has lots of contacts. We’ve discussed it and we’d like to move some of our young riders to the six-day program, because it gives them another professional outlet, which is what the national development program has been about. You come in, we take you to Europe, we put you under stress, but we’ve had great success.
We’ve placed close to a dozen guys on ProTour teams. If we can do something similar on the track and show them there is money to be made over here. That’s the only way it’s going to work. The only way a team pursuit effort is going to work is with government money. As we’ve already discussed, that ain’t going to happen. The nice thing is, that off the Madison you have an individual pursuiter, a scratch race-type of rider and certainly a points race-kind of rider. The concept of the men’s omnium was dreamed up by the six-day promoters. I look at the overall and say this is an event that we can do, where is the payoff for the kids? What is the payoff? It’s a pro contract. And on the men’s side, that’s where the financial pay off is, much more than an Olympic medal. That’s where we’ve had success. I think that’s where you’ll see the men’s endurance program go. The women’s endurance is doing well with Sarah and it will do even better next year. The women’s team pursuit will be added next year. We are going to take it very seriously. Because we believe with the women’s team pursuit it will be a different thing. It’s very realistic with the motors we have for gold medals.
VN.com: We’ve seen a spike on the road following the success of Lance Armstrong, is it hard to get kids interested in racing on the track in the U.S.?
PM: The hard part is you need to have a track. The obvious problem is that we have 20 in the entire country. Once you get somebody to make that commitment, it’s easier. A lot of tracks have proven that because so many American parents are venue-based, because they’re used to taking kids to one place, drop off the kids and then go do something else. You can do that on track. It’s more difficult on the road or mountain bike. Track is very traditional in the minds of parents. It can be developed easily. When I was in Trexlertown, we had success there. I believe it’s just up to the tracks and up to people to go out and make it happen a little bit. At the same time, the best thing we can do is to help the tracks is to have success here. There will be dividends down the line. We just don’t have the funding to go out and fund programs in every track across the country. By creating incentive programs at the top, by having the Sarah Hammers, that will pay dividends. It’s not surprising to see at the junior nationals how many kids are coming out of LA. Sarah’s success is only going to fuel that. It is one of the reasons, too, by getting rid of the resident program and let the athletes go back to the tracks. When they are racing and being present in the community, that’s what’s going to attract young riders.