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Americans face uphill battle to break rainbow drought

Although the Americans will race on home roads in Richmond, they haven't seen success in elite road races in more than two decades.

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For one week a year, the Americans race as a nation. The UCI Road World Championships are unique in professional cycling, a sport where national allegiances mean nothing, and it’s the paycheck that drives loyalty.

Perhaps that’s why the world championships are so special. Riders that are rivals all season long are once again teammates on the national team. There is no need for dinner-table translations, or awkward explanations of jokes. For one week every year, the U.S. team competes against the best of the world, wearing the stars-and-stripes.

And this week, Americans will be experiencing something that’s only happened once in the nearly century-long history of road cycling world championships — the chance to race on home roads. Nearly 30 years after Colorado Springs, Colorado became the first American host of worlds in 1986, Richmond, Virginia is accommodating the world’s best road cyclists. How far can Americans go in front of the home crowd?

There were big expectations at the 1986 world championships for the U.S. team, especially with Greg LeMond hot off winning his first Tour de France, but the team only managed one medal.

In the first-ever worlds on American roads, Janelle Parks was second to Jeannie Longo (France) in the elite women’s road race, the only American medalist. In the men’s road race, Moreno Argentin (Italy) took the stripes, with LeMond as the top American in seventh.

In Richmond, the U.S. team has already surpassed that 1986 medal haul. BMC Racing defended its pro team time trial title (Taylor Phinney took gold as part of the American-registered team); Chloe Dygert and Emma White went one-two in the junior women’s time trial, and Adrien Costa and Brandon McNulty claimed second and third in the junior men’s TT. (Junior events were not held at the same time as the elite races in Colorado Springs in 1986.)

For most of the 20th century, the U.S. cycling scene was playing catch-up to its European rivals, especially at the world championships. Road racing at the international level dates back to the 1920s, first organized under the banner of the Amateur Bicycle League of America. Teams competed in the Olympics, Pan-Am Games, and eventually the world championships. It wasn’t until the 1960s that things became more organized, and by 1975, the United States Cycling Federation was created.

An American didn’t win a world road title until 1969, when Audrey McElmury won the women’s elite road race. The race was held in Czechoslovakia, and she took a surprise win to make U.S. cycling history.

Going into Tuesday’s competition, the American team has won 54 total medals at international competition among men’s and women’s elite, under-23, junior, and team time trial disciplines. U.S. men have delivered three rainbow jerseys — two by Greg LeMond, one by Lance Armstrong — and U.S. women have won two road titles, with McElmury, and Beth Heiden in 1980.

Americans have won gold medals in every discipline, except in the U23 men’s road race, and the elite men’s individual time trial.

But there’s only one name when it comes to U.S. world championships racing, men or women, and it’s LeMond. A winner of five career medals, LeMond became America’s first junior world champion in 1979, and won two more golds at the elite level, with rainbow jerseys in 1983 and 1989. His winning rides are among the most celebrated (at least by Americans), but LeMond also took silver in 1982, in his famous clash with Jonathan Boyer in Goodwood, and again in 1985, second to 38-year-old Joop Zoetemelk.

Taylor Phinney, back to racing in this worlds following his knee injury in 2014, holds the record for most worlds medals by any U.S. competitor, with seven. Phinney boasts three golds, two silvers, and two bronze medals in international competition. He’s won medals at the junior, U23, and elite level, among them two golds in the team time trial event, in 2012 and 2015.

Kristin Armstrong has an equally impressive haul, with two golds, one silver, and one bronze, all against the clock. Amber Neben also won two golds, in the individual and team time trial races.

Americans won’t rank among the favorites for the rainbow jersey in Richmond, at least not for the elite men’s road race. Established European teams, such as Belgium, Italy, and Spain, typically control the race with deep, powerful teams and strong candidates for victory. Making matters worse, the U.S. fell out of the top-10 nations’ ranking, meaning that the team will race Sunday with a six-man team rather than a full, nine-man squad.

While women’s, junior, and U23 racers have consistently delivered medals over the years, the U.S. elite men’s team is in a rut dating back to Lance Armstrong’s 1993 world title. Dave Zabriskie scored two podiums in the elite men’s time trial (silver in 2006, bronze in 2008), but no U.S. male has finished on the road racing podium since the now-banned Armstrong won in Oslo in 1993.

Armstrong never put much importance on the world championships after 1998, and never competed in the worlds during his now-tainted Tour run from 1999 to 2005. During that time, Chann McRae and Chris Horner each posted top-10 results. Tyler Farrar’s 10th in the 2011 worlds in Copenhagen was the best U.S. result in a decade.

When it comes to ranking the most successful nations in the elite men’s road race, Belgium is king. Perhaps it’s no surprise for a country that’s so infused with cycling tradition. It’s the home of Eddy Merckx, of course, who won three golds in 13 participations. Belgium has delivered 26 world champions, with a total of 48 worlds medals. Using a graded scale, with gold holding most importance than the total number of medals, Italy is ranked second, with 55 total medals, and 19 golds.

France, the Netherlands, and Spain follow, three traditional cycling nations. The U.S. ranks seventh in the medals count — just behind Switzerland, and ahead of Germany — with five.

Notable U.S. men’s results since 1995:

1994: Armstrong – 7th
1995: Andy Hampsten — 20th
1996: Bobby Julich – 11th
1998: Armstrong – 4th
1999: Chan McRae – 5th
2000: McRae – 8th
2002: Guido Trenti (Italian racing with U.S. license) – 16th
2003: Fred Rodriguez – 18th
2004: Chris Horner – 8th
2006: Rodriguez – 15th
2007: George Hincapie – 23rd
2008: Steven Cozza – 23rd
2011: Tyler Farrar – 10th
2013: Alex Howes – 31st; Peter Stetina 37th
2014: Brent Bookwalter – 25th