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USA Cycling just overhauled its youth development system. Here’s why:

The new Olympic Development Academy system charges riders $10,500 to participate, but offers high-performance coaching and racing opportunities to a wider group of cyclists.

For decades, USA Cycling has handpicked the country’s best young cyclists and shipped them off to the Low Countries, to let the hyper-aggressive youth racing leagues in Belgium and The Netherlands mold them into the superstars of tomorrow.

For 2021, that entire system has undergone a complete overhaul.

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Last month USA Cycling rolled out its Olympic Development Academy, a bold new model for talent identification and youth development that officials believe will bring a wider swath of riders under the federation’s development umbrella. Only now, the cost of developing the stars of tomorrow will be paid by the riders themselves.

“It’s going to get more kids in the pipeline,” said Rob DeMartini, USA Cycling’s CEO. “We haven’t been reaching that deep — [riders] have needed to come out of other programs, like Durango Devo or Bear Development [Team].”

The Olympic Development Academy will work with riders in the junior and under-23 divisions, and it will be applied to all six disciplines under USA Cycling’s guidance: road, track, cyclocross, mountain bike, BMX Freestyle, and BMX Racing.

Riders will apply for spots in either the fall or spring semesters, and a committee will select anywhere from six to 20 athletes per semester for each discipline. Rather than simply weigh race results, the selection committee will value a wide range of criteria, from racing history to personal character, sportsmanship, and work ethic.

“The big benefit is that this is more inclusive, and anyone can apply and go through the application process,” said Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s head of elite athletics. “In the old model you were vetted already — it was a little exclusive.”

Those riders accepted into the program will receive daily training guidance from USA Cycling’s high-performance coaches, and they will learn from sports scientists and nutritionists. Riders will attend regular training camps and have the opportunity to participate in races at home and overseas.

The program carries a sizable bill: $10,500 per semester for each cyclist.

But USA Cycling officials say the federation’s charitable foundation will offer scholarships to help cover the cost of participation. Currently, the federation is aiming to offer scholarships to 20 percent of all attendees.

“The last thing I want to do is eliminate someone because they can’t afford it,” Miller said. “We can’t eliminate someone if they have the ability.”

The Olympic Development Academy is the brainchild of Miller, who helped develop and oversee USA Cycling’s previous youth development system for nearly two decades. Miller came back to USA Cycling in March of 2020 amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cancelation of races across the globe delivered a heavy blow to USA Cycling’s operating budget, and youth development was one of the programs slated to take a heavy hit heading into 2021, an Olympic year.

The pay-to-play model, Miller said, was the way to fund a youth development program for 2021.

“We’re coming off a COVID-19 year and entering an Olympic year, and a lot of the dollars we have we’re going to spend on the Olympics,” Miller said. “Devo was going to be in a bad spot and we needed to figure out a new way forward.”

Charging tuition represents a major shift for the federation. Under its old model, the federation covered much of the costs for its junior and under-23 national teams. First-year riders paid their way to compete overseas, while second-year riders split the cost with USA Cycling.

The federation covered the costs for riders after their third year in the program.

In 2019, new riders paid $1,500 to attend the junior national team’s springtime racing bloc.

That model had its limitations, and the size and scope of the national team was dependent on the federation’s budgetary ebb and flow. In 2009 VeloNews attended USA Cycling’s development house in Izegem, Belgium, and met more than two dozen junior and under-23 riders participating in the springtime racing bloc.

In 2019, the program had fewer than 10 juniors and no under-23 riders in Europe for the spring races.

“What used to be really robust programs were already getting diluted,” Miller said.

The Olympic Development Academy will not entirely replace the U.S. junior and under-23 national teams, and for 2021 those squads will still be handpicked by coaches and compete in the top international youth events, such as the Nations Cup, World Cup, and Tour de l’Avenir races.

The Olympic Development Academy will instead field squads for lower-level development races throughout the year. For 2021, the Olympic Development Academy under-23 road teams will compete in the Trofeo Piva 1.2 and Giro del Belvedere 1.2 events in Italy, as well as the Ronde van Overijssel in The Netherlands and the Fleche du Sud 2.3 in Luxembourg, among other events.

DeMartini said USA Cycling has already received more than 280 applications for 2021.

“It’s an amazing response so far,” he said.