The Stars and Stripes flew high over the pro peloton in 2020, held aloft by a rising new generation of American stars.
Sepp Kuss outclimbed the world’s best in the mountains. Brandon McNulty and Will Barta lit up grand tour stages and took steps onto the podium. Neilson Powless was one of the most aggressive breakaway riders of the Tour de France.
Just a half-step behind them, the likes of Ian Garrison, Logan Owen, and Sean Bennett all enjoyed quietly confident debut or sophomore seasons in the top tier of the sport.
- How the U.S. riders fared at the Tour de France
- How Hagens Berman Axeon graduates rocked the Giro d’Italia
- Sepp Kuss downplays potential Tour leadership
Between them, this crop of Gen-Z talents nudged the USA back onto the WorldTour map in 2020. It made for a coming of age season for a crew of young Americans that, in many cases, have been riding together since their teenage years.
“I really hope all the success this season was the start of something,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step rookie Garrison told VeloNews. “We have this group that has all raced together since my first year at under-23, with Will [Barta] and Neilson [Powless]. And Brandon [McNulty] is the same age as me. Nearly all us young guys, we’ve all ridden with each other or crossed paths somewhere.
“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. There’s a good group coming up and this year it’s started to show. I think it’ll only keep growing.”
Garrison, Powless, Owen, and Bennett are all graduates of Axel Merckx’s talent factory, Hagens Berman Axeon. Alongside them, Kuss and McNulty rose through the ranks of Rally Cycling.
Whether they booked their slots in the WorldTour via years with Merckx and the Minneapolis-based Rally Cycling squad, it was a case of success breeding success among a band of brothers for the American class of 2020.
“I’ve been racing with some of those guys since I was 17 or 18 years old,” Barta said. “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].”
“We still all know each other, and it’s kind of inspiring when one of us does well. I was lucky I got to watch the Giro before I raced the Vuelta because so many of my teammates from Axel’s team and American guys like Brandon were going so well.”
Barta rolled into the Vuelta a España uncertain of his future as his CCC Team teetered on the brink of collapse. He came out of it three weeks later with a career-best stage performance and a dream deal for 2021 with EF Education-Nippo. For Barta, seeing McNulty and former Hagens Berman Axeon teammates such as João Almeida uncork breakout debut grand tour performances in Italy inspired a self-belief that helped him book his future in the WorldTour.
“All of us coming up together, it made me realize even more that I’m also at that level,” Barta said. “So I sort of expected myself to be able to do these things, and so it was really confidence-building and really motivating to see them crushing it like that.”
Garrison, who rode out his debut season with Deceuninck-Quick-Step in 2020, similarly said that seeing peers succeed added fuel to the fire of his own ambitions.
“There’s always that sort of inner drive when you see guys who you know doing well,” he said. You think ‘OK, they’re doing that, so can I,’ and it’s super motivating.”
Kuss, 26, is a handful of years ahead of Barta, McNulty, Powless and Co., but is undoubtedly the figurehead of America’s climb up the pecking order of the WorldTour.
The Coloradan tore through the mountains of France and Spain as he helped guide Primož Roglič to second-place at the Tour de France and overall victory at the Vuelta a España. Kuss is uncertain as to whether he wants to step up to grand tour leadership duties in 2021, but whether he chooses to or not, Garrison sees him as a central source of inspiration for the Americans following in his draft.
“It seems like the sky’s the limit for him,” Garrison said. “Each year, it seems like he just really makes a big step up. He’s really got the talent and the engine, but I think also his worth work ethic is solid and he just enjoys it and that makes for a good model. So, for him, Who knows. He puts a lot of confidence into the rest of us I think, and shows what’s possible.”
The pressure will be on the U.S. class of 2020 to keep their momentum next year.
Powless told VeloNews he’s looking to win grand tour stages in 2021. Barta is hoping to build toward GC racing. McNulty wants to build on a debut grand tour that landed him four top-10s and 15th place overall.
The new American rise won’t rest entirely on their shoulders, however.
Quinn Simmons will be hoping to bounce back from a chaotic and at times controversial debut season in the WorldTour to confirm his prowess on the cobblestones in 2021. Hagens Berman Axeon graduates Kevin Vermaerke and Sean Quinn will be riding stagiaire programs with Team DSM and Deceuninck-Quick-Step respectively in 2021.
“There’s really a good level below us,” Barta said. “Those riders a bit younger than us are also really fantastic, so I think it’s super exciting to see how big that talent in the US is now.”
Further down the road, Merckx’s team has bounced back from sponsor uncertainty and secured its future for the next season and will continue feeding the WorldTour machine with U.S. talent. One stop before that, the U.S. cycling development system has undergone a radical redesign aimed at cultivating a wide and broad brushstroke of budding youth.
“The young Americans, they’ve gotten some great results, and as long as they can keep developing it shows that American cycling’s in a healthy spot,” said Tejay van Garderen, himself a graduate of the U.S. devo system. “That American system seems to be really working well right now.”
Van Garderen is now a relative elder statesman of the American WorldTour contingent. The 32-year-old is optimistic for yet more home-grown talent to be snapping at his heels for years to come.
“There’s definitely a whole trend – the younger guys in general have gotten much better, stepping into the WorldTour and not needing those two or three years to develop. And it really seems like America is a part of that wave,” van Garderen said. “Look at young guys like Evenepoel, van der Poel, Pogačar. They wouldn’t even be old enough to buy a beer in the U.S. and they’re taking over the world.”
Kuss, Powless, McNulty, and their peers will be drinking to that.