Analysis: Horner, Julich discuss bias, randomness in Olympic selection

One of the top American riders for many years, Chris Horner has nonetheless never been selected to Olympic team, suggests bias

In a perfect world, the selection process for the men’s U.S. Olympic road and time trial team is a straightforward, objective process. The five road race team riders (two of whom also race the Olympic time trial) would all qualify for the team by doing one of the following:

– Be ranked top-10 in the UCI’s World Individual Rankings on June 15, 2012
– Place top-three at the 2011 worlds road race or time trial
– Place top-three GC at a Grand Tour between July 2011 and May 2012
– Place top-three in a Grand Tour time trial longer than 40 kilometers during the same time frame

According to USA Cycling automatic selection protocol, if a rider accomplishes any of those results and stay in form through this summer, he goes to London and lines up with 145 other riders for the July 28 road race.

But the world is neither simple, nor perfect. So far, no U.S. riders have accomplished any of these automatic qualifying tests, which means the entire team will most likely be chosen by what is called a discretionary selection process.

A USA Cycling panel of eight judges made up of past pros and Olympians will decide who is on the team by referring to the guidelines of a selection protocol — a team constructed at the panel’s informed discretion. In a nutshell, the committee’s job is to consider the international performance of all U.S. cyclists and choose five whose historical results make them most likely to win a medal in London as a team.

The emphasis on international results acknowledges the reality that Olympic road race competition is essentially the caliber of a one day classic taking place every four years. Indeed, 2010 Tour de France podium placer Sammy Sánchez won the 2008 Beijing road race and multi-time world champion Fabian Cancellara took the time trial gold.

Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s Vice President of Athletics and a 10-year USA Cycling veteran, helped write the selection protocol and select the members of the selection committee. Miller and the selection committee are not in an enviable position. With only five rider slots available, no matter whom they choose — or whom they leave out — they are going to be accused of bias.

“I’m not going to lie,” Miller said of the obligation. “It’s an enormous responsibility and it causes a great deal of stress.” He adds, “I’ve been sick twice in the last four years, and I’ve been sick twice in the last two months.”

“You try to write the criteria, especially the automatic criteria, with as objective of goals as you can.” But, he admits, due to the changing nature of rider fitness, the reality of crashes and sickness, the fact that the U.S.’s best riders will be taxed by the Tour de France that ends just a week before the Olympic road race, and the sheer serendipity that can give fitter riders worse results than less prepared riders on any given day, no matter how many objective bars a rider jumps to qualify for the team, “any time you make a choice you are going to have the objective and subjective in it.”

When writing the criteria Miller and his team tried to introduce objective measures into the subjective processes. “We went to great lengths to really try and spell out how it is that the selection committee has to view subjective criteria, make objective decisions. What you don’t want is one committee member saying, ‘Oh, I like this guy better. I think he’s better.’ You want them to say, ‘Listen, based on the results over the last 24 months and the emphasis on the last 12 months, this guy has a legitimate argument’” for being on the Olympic team.

Until the 2004 Olympics, one rider could qualify for the Olympic team by winning a series of qualifying races, or, as was the case in 2004, a single-day qualifying race. While a one-day trial gives hope to young and upcoming riders who might not yet have a history of international performances, Miller points out that the reality of the Olympics road race and time trial are that a “high level of international results is a better measure than a win-and-you-are-in scenario.” A one-day qualifier may be attractive because it is such a cut-and-dry method for choosing at least one member of the team, “but it doesn’t per se select your best athletes in this situation.”

Bobby Julich, an American who placed third both overall at the 1998 Tour de France and the 2004 Athens Olympics time trial, says the elimination of the win-and-in trial is “kind of a bummer.” Julich feels that the Olympics “should be all about development and giving everyone a chance.” While he appreciates that getting rid of the trial is a nod to the reality of the WorldTour makeup of the Olympic peloton, in his opinion, an open Olympic trial plays an important role in nurturing future American stars.

“There could be some guy on a domestic team that’s just ripping it up and flying and maybe he’s not considered because he’s not competing against the best guys in the world all the time.” Julich refers to the 2004 Olympic trials winner Jason McCartney as an example; the win launched the then-domestic HealthNet rider’s European career with Discovery, CSC and RadioShack.

Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) claimed there is a natural USA Cycling bias to select Olympic team riders who have come up through the organization’s development system. “I was never a national team boy. As a kid I didn’t grow up and go through the national team. And if you didn’t go through the national team then my theory is that ‘how can you justify your jobs as coaches if they’ve got a rider that’s on the Olympic team that actually didn’t come through their program.’ That’s the only reason that I could see that makes any sense.”

When presented with this theory, Julich doesn’t think Horner is spouting sour grapes. “I have to agree with that,” admitted the 40-year old Julich, now Team Sky’s racing director. “For some reason Chris was always the black sheep. People seemed to make a point of having him not there.”

While a USA Cycling-bred rider like George Hincapie (BMC Racing) has been selected for five Olympic teams, Horner, who is two years older than Hincapie and was not a national team member as a developing rider, has not made one. That vexes Horner because he feels the team should be selected from all American cyclists, not a subset. “As a national team coach, your job is to help U.S. riders, not to help just U.S. national team riders. Your job does not end with that group of ten or twenty riders that’s part of the national team.”

And by any criteria, Horner is among the greatest-racing Americans. “LeMond and Lance of course are in their own league,” Horner observed of his performances since turning pro in 1997, “but I think I’m in the next group of guys for certain.”

Julich, an astute judge of rider talent, agreed with Horner. Of the contemporary generations of American pros, “by far I would put him in the top five, top four, possibly even top three.”

Horner said that to test his theory that USA Cycling dons blinders when it comes to considering riders outside its farm system, “you would have to go ask the coaches and the Olympic team selectors.”

“There isn’t one,” Miller responded to the accusation that USA Cycling would have a natural bias toward its progeny. Without apparent defensiveness, he added, “I don’t have one at all. I don’t think the committee has one at all. In fact, the committee would probably have a hard time telling you who has been in the road program and who hasn’t.”

When asked why Horner has never been on an Olympic team, Miller gives a long pause. He says he can’t speak to 1996 and 2000, since he was not part of the selection committee then. And in 2004 Miller was only responsible for the women’s selection. As for 2008, he says, “I don’t know if I can really say why. I don’t recall the particulars in why he wasn’t selected.” Judging from the silence before each of Miller’s answers, this is a delicate topic, and one he is uncomfortable speaking to.

“I’m actually a Chris Horner fan,” Miller pointed out. “I think he’s one of the smartest bike racers in the peloton worldwide.” As for Horner’s opinion that the USA Cycling system works against Horner’s selection because he wasn’t part of it, Miller says “I can’t really speak to that,” and again pointed out that he wasn’t part of the selection committees during the 1990s and first part of the 2000s. “I really don’t feel any bias toward anybody.”

Two of the discretionary criteria the selection committee uses when choosing riders cover consistent performance over the previous two years and proven ability to contribute to a team effort: specifically, “beating the world’s best” at international competitions over the preceding 24 months with emphasis on the last 12.

Over the last two years, Horner has won both the Tour of California (2011) and the Tour of the Basque Country (2010) – one of the most unsparing races on the calendar and where Horner also placed second in 2011. In 2010 Horner placed ninth at the Tour de France. (Levi Leipheimer placed 12th at that event, and the next-highest Americans were now-retired Lance Armstrong, in 22nd, and George Hincapie in 58th. Horner crashed out of the 2011 Tour.)

Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) won the 2008 Olympics on a course with the hilly characteristics of the TBC, which Sanchez won this year, and Horner and the Spaniard have similar strengths. Asked if watching Sanchez win the gold atop that climb in China made Horner think, “That could have been me,” Horner laughed and said he didn’t need to see Sanchez win to believe he should have been racing. “I’m certain I should have been there! You’ve got five guys that are theoretically the best GC riders or the best one-day riders in the U.S. and I certainly believe I qualified for the top-five guys.”

The other discretionary criterion used by the selection committee when selecting the Olympic squad is the ability to work as a domestique: in the words of the criteria (available online here), an international track record of contributing “substantially to the overall team performance or to the performance of a medal-capable team member.” Everyone can’t be team leader, so USA Cycling looks for riders able to sacrifice personal desire for gold in the interest of protecting a race leader. As Miller put it, “the real challenge with the Olympic team is build a group of guys who make the best team, not a team of the best guys.”

Of Horner’s qualifications here, Julich says that when Horner finally did move into the Lance Armstrong-Discovery fold, “you saw how amazing of a team player he is.”

“I’m a good team player. I’m going to race for what is best for the U.S. and help them get a gold medal,” Horner pointed out. “In my 18 years as a professional athlete – and you can go back to my amateur years too – I don’t think you could ever find a race where I did not do what was best for the team.

“And certainly I’m a rider who can go the distance of a 200 or 250km stage. I mean, I’ve produced that multiple times throughout my career. It’s completely got to boil down to politics. It’s the only thing that makes any sense.” With that, Horner clarified that he is not singling out USA Cycling for being affected by politics, and mentioned controversies in both Australia and the UK over their final worlds and Olympics selections.

Referring both to USA Cycling’s national team, and the 7-Eleven-Motorola-Discovery squads it fed and that traditionally seeded Olympic squads, Julich pointed out that Horner “was never in that fold for some reason.” (Although Horner did have a brush with it: he recounted that Motorola boss Jim Ochowitz phoned him about a position with the team for 1996, but Motorola ended up shutting down and Horner signed with Française des Jeux instead.)

“Oh, absolutely,” Horner said when asked if not being part of the 7-Eleven legacy harmed his Olympic bids. “There’s politics involved that way in terms of just the biggest U.S. team getting to take their boys.”

Bobby Julich pointed out that Horner was also the victim of trade team politics on the race course when USA Cycling held Olympic qualifying events.

Jason McCartney won the 2004 Olympic trials in Redlands, California in a solo breakaway. But consensus has it that while Horner was the strongest rider that day, trade team tactics doomed him. From Horner’s point of view, negative racing on the part of U.S. Postal team riders allowed McCartney to slip away with the win. Julich agreed, and pointed out that it also happened at the 1996 trials, which Julich rode while a member of Motorola. “He should have made the team in my opinion in ’96,” Julich said. But Horner did not win and qualify since “basically the whole Motorola team raced against him because we knew that he was so strong.”

Another reason Horner may have never made the Olympic team is that he is willing to talk about the Olympic process. Just compare Horner’s forthright assessments of the selection workings with the responses of other riders in the running for a 2012 Olympic spot.

When asked for thoughts on how he might alter the selection procedure, 2008 Olympic veteran Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Barracuda) merely said that he doesn’t know how they work. George Hincapie declined to comment, referring through a BMC team spokesman both to the political sensitivity of the issue and fact that BMC’s Assistant Director Michael Sayers is tangentially involved with the Olympic selection through his role as USA Cycling’s professional men’s team director.

While some other riders keep their opinions to themselves, Horner has never been shy about expressing his. Does criticizing the body responsible for selecting the team help his chances of getting on it? One can only speculate that while it might not hurt, it may not help, either.

Miller, however, pointed out that he respects Horner for his frankness. “I like his style. He’s very candid. He’s very up front. If you don’t want to hear what Chris has to say, don’t ask.”

Given that Horner’s performances at the toughest WorldTour races over the last two years fit both the team player and consistent international results standards, do they increase his chance of making the team? Does he have a legitimate argument?

Out of fairness to all the riders vying for a spot and the selection committee, Miller can’t answer this question directly, but he did allow, with an appreciative chuckle, “I think it certainly helps him, yes.”