The country’s best female cross-country mountain bikers are on track to earn three spots for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The number of spots for the games is determined by each country’s position in the UCI nation rankings, which counts UCI points earned by top riders over a two-year period. Currently, the U.S. sits second behind Switzerland, with The Netherlands, Canada, and France rounding out the top-five.
The cutoff for the final rankings is May, 2020.
Only the top two countries receive the maximum three start spots. So, while the U.S. is in good standing after the 2019 World Cup season, with a 637 point lead on The Netherlands, American riders cannot afford to be complacent, said Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling’s mountain bike program director.
“Coming out of the World Cup finals we feel good about where we are” Gullickson said. “But between now and the end of the second cycle we fully expect some other countries to chase points, so we’ll also send some men and women on points chasing trips. Then, we’ll just have to see where things shake out.”
What does that mean? Gullickson may send riders to chase UCI points around the globe in the coming months in an effort to defend the second-place ranking. Possible destinations are the Israel Epic stage race at the end of September and a pair of UCI races in Greece in October.
“We don’t want people to creep up on us,” Gullickson said.
The U.S. does have a substantial advantage on the European nations, however. While those countries have already contested their continental championships race—an event that pays out a bevy of points—North Americans have not. That race will be held in the spring, likely in Bolivia.
“That’s a big chunk of points that we can get that [the Netherlands] can’t,” Gullickson explained. “That gives us a safety net in the Olympic rankings even if they do close the gap because we’ll get at least couple hundred points from that event.”
Should the U.S. obtain the maximum three spots, USA Cycling must then decide which riders deserve a chance to race in Tokyo. Kate Courtney received an automatic spot due to her fifth-place finish at the UCI world championships. Now, there will likely be a battle between current U.S. national champion Chloe Woodruff, Erin Huck, Lea Davision, and Under-23 rider Haley Batten.
USA Cycling has one more opportunity for a rider to secure an automatic bid: The 2020 World Cup opener in Nové Město, Czech Republic. Finishing inside the top-eight secures a rider an automatic spot.
Should no riders qualify automatically, USA Cycling will award the spots.
“Honestly it’s very close,” Gullickson said. “That race will be really important, but we’ll also look very closely at what’s happened up to that point. There are a lot of pieces to examine and we don’t want to assume anything beforehand.”
Based on the latest UCI rankings, after Courtney in third, Woodruff, who’s 13th, would be next up. Then it’s Davison in 26th, with Huck sitting 40th and Batten in 47th. But Gullickson is quick to point out that making the final selection will be more nuanced than simply taking the top three from the UCI rankings.
For example, Huck’s lower ranking is the product of a broken ankle, which forced her to miss all but one of the 2019 World Cup races.
“Obviously Erin had a big issue this year and only raced the Snowshoe World Cup, which was not ideal for her chances,” Gullickson said. “But she looked good in West Virginia. And even though the other women did beat her, it was a pretty impressive ride given her lack of preparation.”
Courtney was fifth at the Snowshoe World Cup, followed by Woodruff in sixth, Davison in eighth and Huck in 12th.
The outlier may be Batten, who competed in the Under-23 ranks this year and won the Under-23 World Cup race in Nové Město.
“She raced the under-23s this year, so it’s hard to compare,” Gullickson said. “But if she elects to race up at the first World Cup next year and gets a top eight, then that gets her in the mix, too.”
The U.S. mountain bike Olympic team selection process will be finalized the week after the Nové Město World Cup event, which ends May 24th.
“We’ll present all the information we have to our selection committee and then likely have multiple conference calls depending on the complexity of the situation,” said Gullickson.
Of course those calls will also involve selecting the U.S. men’s XC team, which as of now will consist of just one rider. Indeed, the U.S. sits 10th in the current Olympic qualification rankings. Team USA would need to jump to seventh or better to earn a second start spot in Tokyo, a scenario Gullickson deems unlikely.
The chase for that apparently lone spot appears to be a two-rider contest between current U.S. national champion Keegan Swenson (currently 26th in the UCI rider rankings) and Christopher Blevins (43rd) who spent much of 2019 racing in the under-23 category.
“The only other rider in the conversation is Luke Vrouwenvelder,” Gullickson said. “He had a tough year due to injury and has not competed in many World Cups. But you never know what happens early next year. Right now, though, Blevins and Swenson are the more likely candidates. No one else.”
The final 2020 U.S. Olympic mountain bike team will be announced on June 1. The men’s Olympic cross country race takes place July 27, with the women following a day later. The goal in that second race will be nothing short of a gold medal.
“Obviously we look at Kate and the season she’s had this year, winning World Cups, winning the World Cup overall,” said Gullickson. “When she’s at her best she seems to be able to ride way from the competition. At the same time we saw that some of her main competitors were a little better at the end of this season. But I think some of the stumbles she had could end up being a huge benefit. She and her coach pushed pretty hard until that point. Now they know where the line is.”