Earlier this year I traveled to the Low Countries to report on Quinn Simmons, Megan Jastrab, Magnus Sheffield, and the other members of the U.S. junior national team. I wrote a feature story for VeloNews Magazine about the financial and organizational hurdles that stand in the way of these talented young men and women, and how USA Cycling is working to advance them to the professional ranks.
I also asked the junior riders to tell me war stories from the Euro races. Boy, did they have crazy stories.
They regaled me with tales of races in rural Belgium and The Netherlands that are harder than Pro/Cat1 races back home. They told of gamblers lining the start/finish area to wager on the teenagers; insane speeds in the peloton; teenaged men with beards and tree-trunk-sized legs lining up against baby-faced boys; and racing dynamics that were impossible to control.
Unlike the pro races, junior races are short, sometimes less than 100 kilometers. The short distances, when matched with the broad spectrum of physical development, creates insane racing dynamics. Often times there are no tactics, but rather a never-ending flurry of attacks for the entire two-hour race.
“From the gun it’s like none of the teams even work together, everyone is just attacking like crazy and racing against each other,” Sheffield told me. “It’s cutthroat. It’s that classic Euro racing style.”
Memories of those stories flashed into my mind this morning as I watched the UCI junior men’s world championships road race in Yorkshire. As you have likely read on our site, Simmons won the road race, attacking solo with 30 kilometers remaining. Sheffield controlled the pack for much of the day, and eventually took the sprint for bronze, several minutes after Simmons crossed the line.
What stood out about the American success in this race was the discipline and organized nature of the U.S. team, despite the chaotic nature of these junior races. If European junior races often devolve into messy and impossible fights, the American squad found a way to race like Quick-Step over the 148-kilometer course.
After the race, the American riders said they executed the plan outlined by director Billy Innes in the pre-race meeting.
“We wanted to keep Quinn and Magnus safe, and make it fast until the base of the first climb, and we’d expect to get rid of some of the smaller guys on the climb,” Gianni Lamperti said at the finish. “Stay at the front, make it fast so that when we got to the finishing circuits, it was a small group.”
Of course, the race didn’t play out exactly to plan, but races never do. Still, go back and watch the race replay, and you will see a calculated and confident U.S. team that dictated the tactics of the event. Sheffield dragged back several early breakaways before joining a move of his own at 85km. Then, with 62km remaining, four U.S. riders sprinted to the front and drove the pace on the lead into the Hill End climb, at which point Sheffield and Simmons roared up the Blubberhouses climb and ripped the front group of riders away.
It was the move of the day, and it was set up and executed to perfection by Team USA. And the boys did it without the luxury of a team director barking orders into a radio. One of the glorious elements of junior racing is the lack of direction—the boys must think for themselves.
Michael Garrison, one of Team USA’s domestiques, said the season of racing together in Europe is what allowed Team USA to execute its plan.
“Today was one of those days where you don’t really need to talk to each other. You acknowledge each other, but there’s not much verbal communication,” he said. “We’ve been around each other so much. You know based off the body language of the other guys how they are feeling.”
If you ever needed proof that USA Cycling’s junior and Under-23 development programs do, indeed, work, look no further than Garrison’s quote. The federation should distribute laminated cards, printed with this quote, to its board of directors whenever budget cuts again threaten these development programs. Sure, each of these boys has physiological talent, and experience. But that preternatural ability to read a teammates’s body language is a priceless quality, and one that can only come after dozens of hours spent racing together.
Another good quote came from Simmons.
“We had a plan, and they did the exact plan going into the second climb,” he said. “It was so cool to look up and see your team drilling it. I think we showed we have the strongest team in the world.”
The results of Thursday pen a new chapter into the long history book of American cycling, since the very short list of American junior world road champions includes, among others, Greg LeMond. And there’s another important distinction with this current crop of American juniors that could help steer the next generation of American cycling.
We all know how the success of LeMond, and then Lance, drove mainstream awareness of the Tour de France and the other grand tours. In subsequent years, American cycling produced more excellent stage racers and great time trialists than I can list (Tejay van Garderen, Peter Stetina, Brandon McNulty, etc).
By contrast, Quinn Simmons and Magnus Sheffield are like linebackers, cut from the same mold as Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. These powerful teenagers are destined to battle each other over the cobblestoned lanes of Belgium and Northern France for years to come. Perhaps one, or both, could finally raise an American flag atop the podium at the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, thus ushering in a new era of American cobblestone crushers.
And, should that day come, we can all remember this rainy day in Yorkshire, when Team USA’s teenagers rode like men, and tamed the junior world championships.