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Generation Now: Young U.S. riders rising to the WorldTour challenge

New wave of talent-laden Americans quickly climbing to the top of the elite men's peloton.

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There’s something special happening this week, and it’s only going to snowball as the season unfolds. No, we’re not talking about Bitcoin.

It’s the U.S. men’s peloton, and it’s booming.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, Brandon McNulty (UAE Emirates) and Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) started Thursday’s fifth stage at Paris-Nice in the top-10 overall. Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo) opened his 2021 season with fifth at the UAE Tour.

Waiting in the wings in Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), set to open the next chapter of his career as a GC rider at Volta a Catalunya later this month.

Also read: Sepp Kuss to see leadership opportunities in 2021

Right alongside them are riders like Ian Garrison (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Will Barta and Logan Owen (EF Education-Nippo), Sean Bennett (Qhubeka-Assos), and Kevin Vermaerke, making his WorldTour debut this season with Team DSM. And though some might not like his politics, Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) is lighting up the one-day races.

The U.S. men’s peloton hasn’t seen this kind of depth and promise at the top level in years.

“There’s this group of us that are super-passionate about racing, and you’re seeing as the years go on it’s turning into some really nice results,” Garrison told VeloNews‘ Jim Cotton. “There’s a good group coming up and it’s started to show. I think it’ll only keep growing.”

It’s been awhile since U.S. riders have been on the top fold of the elite men’s results sheet in major stage races. Tejay van Garderen hit the top-5 at the Tour de France in 2012 and 2014, but has since settled into a helper’s role. Before them, of course, came a scandal-marred generation of the late 1990s and 2000s.

For some, it’s been since the era of Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, and the 7-Eleven days that U.S. fans could feel good about cheering for one of their own.

That’s quickly changing as a new generation is making a big impact on the elite men’s WorldTour peloton.

Last year saw WorldTour rookies McNulty, Jorgenson and Garrison all join top-level teams and make an immediate impact. Even though the coronavirus pandemic interrupted some of their plans, these young and ambitious riders took full advantage every chance they got.

“I am happy with how last season went,” McNulty told VeloNews. “I was pleased with how I was going in the time trials, and this year, I want to try to improve on the climbing side of things, and see if I can put it all together.”

McNulty’s 15th place in the 2020 Giro d’Italia was the best grand tour debut by a U.S. rider since Levi Leipheimer was third at the 2001 Vuelta a España.

Also read: Brandon McNulty hoping to keep momentum going in sophomore season

McNulty, 22, is racing this week at Paris-Nice with an eye on a top GC result, and will return to the Giro in May with ambitions of building on his impressive grand tour showing last fall that included two top-3s in stages.

“The Giro result gave me encouragement,” he said this week. “I could see where I was at, and see where I could improve. I’m excited to see where I can in the future. I was encouraged how I came out of the Giro, and it really makes you stronger. I need to work on my climbing and on having the legs to race for three weeks, but I’m excited to see what I can do this year.”

Racing and coming of age together

Many of today’s budding stars trace their racing DNA to Hagens Berman Axeon. Scores of graduates from Alex Merckx’s cycling factory have made the leap to the WorldTour. The U.S. development team, which is undergoing major changes this season, also helped nurture such riders such as Garrison and Simmons.

Most of them have known each other for years. McNulty raced alongside Kuss at Rally Cycling. Barta is good friends with Jorgenson, and the pair often train together back home in Idaho. Nearly all of them have raced together during stints with the national team.

“I’ve been racing with some of those guys since I was 17 or 18 years old,” said EF Education-Nippo’s Barta, another Hagens Berman Axeon graduate who turned pro with CCC Team in 2019. “There’s a good amount of us all from a similar scene that have turned pro now, with guys like Logan [Owen] and Neilson [Powless] and Sean [Bennett].”

Also read: Neilson Powless hoping for return to Tour de France after big splash in 2020

Jorgenson, 21, is also making a big impression in every race he starts. Last season in his rookie year, he popped for a top-20 at Milano-Sanremo. This year, Movistar is changing tack and will bring him to the Giro for his grand tour debut for the Spanish WorldTour team.

“Management is wanting to test my capabilities on climbs and stage racing so this spring,” Jorgenson told VeloNews. “The point is to get me in some big stage races and a grand tour and see how far my body can go in a multi-day race and test that aspect out.”

The talent pool hasn’t gone unnoticed among the top team managers and sport directors. This season, 19 U.S. riders are represented in 10 of the 19 WorldTour teams.

Sepp Kuss on the cusp of superstardom

And then there’s Kuss.

The 26-year-old Coloradan is already among the elite of the peloton, with grand tour and WorldTour stage victories, as well as a promising 15th in last year’s Tour de France while riding in support of teammate Primož Roglič. Jumbo-Visma is giving Kuss some GC opportunities this season, with leadership chances at the Volta a Catalunya later this month.

Already among the most explosive climbers in the sport, Kuss is going to test the GC waters in his next step in what’s been a dizzying rise in the WorldTour. The quandary facing Kuss is how to balance taking on the weight and expectations of GC responsibility, while retaining his freedom as climbing-ace extraordinaire.

“The challenge is to see whether he can ever ride for the GC himself or not,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Merijn Zeeman. “At the moment, I don’t think Sepp can do that yet, but we will work with him on that, and it’s a nice challenge. And perhaps Sepp is indeed a rider who can take over from Primož, Tom [Dumoulin] and Steven [Kruijswijk] in a few years’ time.”

Also read: Sepp Kuss: ‘The Angliru is unrelenting’

Right now, like fans watching him race, Kuss seems to be enjoying the ride.

The question of how far Kuss and the rest of this young American generation can go and what their limits will be in the next few seasons will be intriguing to watch for cycling fans.

— Jim Cotton contributed to this report.