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Road to men’s junior gold honed in two-year cycling bootcamp

Budget cuts led USA Cycling to reorganize its junior development program, and it's paying off handsomely this week in Yorkshire

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The road to USA Cycling’s first junior men’s world title since 1991 was honed in years of behind-the-scenes work and dedication.

Quinn Simmons’ leap to the world’s stage came on the grippy roads and drizzle of a grey day in Yorkshire, where he took the title of junior world champion with a dramatic 30km solo attack.

The victory was rooted in the racing experience Simmons and his teammates honed on the similarly bleak windswept bergs of Holland and Belgium when on training camps with the U.S. Junior team. The man toiling behind the scenes to help forge the first U.S. men’s junior world champion is Billy Innes, program manager of the junior racing team.

“It’s been a two-year project to get them to coalesce,” Innes told VeloNews.

Those two years paid off with gold this week.

Simmons (left) and USA Cycling Junior Development Manager Billy Innes

Ironically, budget cuts at USA Cycling could have led the way to gold. Management and coaches were forced to change their approach to developing young riders. A leaner budget meant a smaller, but more concentrated team.

“I had budgets trimmed this year and so I decided it was necessary to concentrate on a smaller team rather than bringing a lot of guys at once,” Innes said. “I worked off a four-rider base model, rotating two others in and out. That mean that the core of four riders, Simmons, Garrison, Sheffield, and Luke Lamperti [who was ruled out of the worlds with injury] stayed together as much as possible and learned how each other race. I think that’s one of the reasons they worked so well.”

The success of the junior men’s road race punctuates a great week of racing across USA Cycling, which also saw big wins in the elite women’s time trial with Chloé Dygert Owen and victory in the junior women’s road race with Megan Jastrab.

Going into this weekend’s road races, USA Cycling was leading the national medal count, with three golds, one silver, and two bronze medals. USA Cycling skipped the new mixed relay time trial event to go all-in during the worlds. So far, the bet is paying off in spades.

Essential to the Coloradan’s victory was the team behind him, with his lieutenants Michael Garrison and Magnus Sheffield and domestiques Matthew Riccitello and Gianni Lamperti racing like specialists 10 years their senior. The blue, red and white jerseys of the U.S. team worked seamlessly to control the race and move Simmons around the field in a similar fashion as the pros in the spring classics.

Because the riders are still in high school back home, Innes would bring them to the Netherlands a handful of times a year in three-week blocks. Instead of hitting the party beaches of spring break with their schoolmates, the U.S. junior team would develop a familiarity and understanding of each other through countless gritty races in the Low Countries.

It wasn’t race radios and years of experience that allowed this teenage ‘wolfpack’ to work so well, but instead it was their time spent racing and training together from their Dutch base in Sittard.

The squad flew out to Europe at the end of August in a spell that finished with the world championships. At the front of that block, they raced two stage races, with Simmons scooping the overall and stage wins in both, and a one-day race. This final racing phase together was a key time for the team to perfect their race-craft and practice their tactics.

“The idea of that final month was to bond the team together even more, and to race with the tactic that I thought would happen in Yorkshire,” Innes said. “Each race had its own unique challenges, but the overarching plan was to sheer off the pack. This team operates better when the race is harder – getting guys on the front and drilling it on the climbs sheering off 50 guys at a time, in case you have to sprint against anyone at the end. It’s better to sprint against five rather than 105.”

Sure enough, the plan went into action with near-perfect execution, with Simmons explaining that he won with a 20km solo move in one race, and a 60km move from him and Sheffield saw the pair land podium spots in another.

That familiarity and brother-in-arms attitude paid off on the road.

“Me and him [Sheffield] have spent a lot of time racing together and have figured out each other’s strengths and how to make that work. The rest of the guys build in,” Simmons said during a chat at the team’s hotel. “We don’t really need to talk, everyone together just knows what needs to happen and that happens. We showed that yesterday, and that last month of racing really solidified that.”

Simmons and Sheffield celebrate going one-three in Harrogate. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

That well-rehearsed move of whittling down the field came into play perfectly to set up Simmons to win the rainbow jersey, with the team powering through the hilly middle of the race to reduce the size of the peloton before the Durango native launched solo.

All the hard work that Innes and the team had put into learning how to race together was threatened by derailment when Simmons finished fourth in the worlds time trial, a race he’d expected to win.

Integral to Innes’ development of such young, talented athletes has been to make them understand that careers aren’t founded on one race, but on the aggregation of results.

“I tell them you can be great now, and that’s fantastic, but what I really want is for you to be great at 21,” Innes said. “That’s where the bulk of guys are turning pro.”

Nurturing Simmons into that mindset gave the 18-year-old the maturity to bounce back from time trial disappointment and execute the well-practised tactic of attacking solo from distance when he went on to win his rainbow jersey.

Simmons’ maturity will be fully tested in 2020, where he will be racing in the WorldTour with his new team, Trek-Segafredo. With Bora-Hansgrohe and Sunweb also showing interest, Simmons was afforded the luxury of being picky with the team he turned to go pro with. However, as a rider looking to win spring classics, the American team was the most logical choice.

“If you go way back to when Cancellara was racing for them and more recently with Degenkolb, you can see they know how to support a top classics rider,” he told me. “And they have still got guys like Pedersen and Stuyven to learn from. With their success at the classics, the work they’ve done with young guys before it makes it a good spot for me.”

After hitting the podium at his first road race at the junior Gent-Wevelgem and then returning the following year to win, the Belgian race is clearly one where he prospers. And that’s where the next step in his career path will play out.

If the rangy teenager’s initial race schedule remains unaltered, he could be riding alongside seasoned classics racers at E3 Harelbeke, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the senior version of the cobbled classic that founded his love of the cobbles.