In the hunt for gold: How the US rebuilt its track team


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Flashes of color lash past, blurring four figures into a single streamlined train of power and speed. What looks like a methodical movement from the outside is a whirlwind of organized chaos from within as the US women’s chase team races down the velodrome during the 2016 London Track World Championships gold medal race.

In the formation, four drivers take turns accelerating at the front, then releasing and then swinging sharply back into the slipstream. On the final lap, the Americans have a three-second lead over Canada, their direct rival, which translates into a distance of several kilometers in an event that is often decided in fractions of a second. The win brings the USA their first world title in a team pursuit.

It also marks the women as the team to beat in the Rio Olympics.

The ease with which the American team won in London overshadowed a painstaking year-long revision of the country’s persecution program. To build this winning team for London, USA Cycling had to rethink its rider selection philosophy, introduce a new talent identification system and work with sponsors to develop revolutionary race-specific equipment. Dozens of coaches, engineers and athletes took part in the process, which lasted almost four years. Viewed through the lens of history, this chase team represents the best of America’s innovative and pioneering attitude towards the sport.

“We have five thoroughbred horses,” says Andy Sparks, USA Cycling’s technical director and long-time track coach for the national team. “There’s no other team in the world that I would look at and say I wish we had this or that person. We have the best of the best. “

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THE CONVERSION HAS BEEN CAUSED by changing the event format. Previously, three driver teams had to complete a 3-kilometer race in the women’s team pursuit. In 2014, the UCI changed this to teams of four over four kilometers and thus created equal status with the men’s event.

Already one of the toughest events in track racing, increasing the distance made the challenge even worse. A driver has to maintain sprinter-like speed while pulling on the front and then perform a perfect peel-off maneuver on the elevated velodrome before snapping back into the slipstream. It’s an exertion that requires relentless perseverance and laser focus – even a small bobble can cost precious seconds or, worse, throw the team on the boards.

The extension of the distance created more opportunities for disaster and changed the physical demands on the athletes.

“There’s a big difference between a three-minute exertion and a four-minute exertion,” says Sparks.

In the past, the U.S. rail program has recruited cyclists with a professional road racing background for the team pursuit. For the new format, Sparks wanted to draw from a deeper pool of athletes. In 2014 he started talent identification camps for riders from all backgrounds: road, racetrack and even BMX. And he invited younger, less experienced drivers.

Established professionals like Carmen Small, Allie Dragoo and Lauren Stephens came through these camps along with 50 less experienced women. The athletes were pushed to their limits on and off the bike to test mental strength and physical potential.

“We started at 6:00 am with three workouts a day,” says Sparks. “We basically asked, ‘Are you tough enough?'”

After 12 months, Sparks chose riders Jennifer Valente (21), Kelly Catlin (20) and Ruth Winder (22). Catlin is a talented time trial woman with a street background. Winder has raced on both the road and the track and has specialized in team chasing since she was a teenager. Valente, a mountain bike and track specialist, has won national junior titles in keirin, sprint and points races.

Spark’s wife, Sarah Hammer, was the fourth member of the team. The two-time silver medalist at the London Games is the most successful American athlete of this generation. Hammer said the women were chosen primarily for their leg strength and their ability to start quickly.

“We are all strong girls who can get off the line quickly,” says Hammer. “And that was really the killer blow for worlds.”

In December, the team added the then 18-year-old Chloé Dygert, who brought the squad further international awards. Dygert won the 2015 Junior Road Race and Time Trial at the Richmond Worlds.

“She’s the Michael Phelps of cycling,” says Sparks. “She’s a huge, huge phenomenon and a real matchday player.”

The last five women team was determined. Although only four racers compete at the same time, five racers make up the squad, with the fifth acting as a substitute in case another driver becomes ill or injured and can also take part in one or more of the earlier competition rounds. As Sparks says, “It’s all based on a supply and demand equation, so let’s see which four drivers can best help meet the racing needs. The teams are so close together that you have to queue for every round and think it’s the final. “

They are young, with an average age of 23 years. Remove the 33 year old hammer and the average is close to 21. But they have already proven they can win.

The felt superbike used by the US track team in Rio. Photo: felt

THE TEAM’S FOLLOW-UP a troop to be driven with a refined maturity. The event is a complex discipline, even for veterans, in which drivers must adhere to a tactical strategy that generates the most collective force without distancing the weakest drivers. Each team member has to drive in the most aerodynamic position and perform nimble maneuvers at the same time. And they have to travel dangerously close together or risk losing the aerodynamic advantage of draft.

“To outsiders, these little things look so fluid. But it’s super raw when you’re in there, ”says Hammer.

To give women an aerodynamic edge, USA Cycling added another important component. In June, the team unveiled its Felt Track Superbike, specially designed for the women’s pursuit team. The bike features a left-hand drivetrain and asymmetrical tubular shapes that engineers say give it a superior shape for battling the wind on the velodrome.

A gold medal is never guaranteed, even after the American dominated worlds. Australia’s chase team currently holds the world record and will try to recover from London where there was no medal. Britain’s team is another favorite and is fueled by the same innovation and support that led their track and field program to a formidable medal win at the 2012 Olympics. Canada and New Zealand cannot be overlooked either.

As the reigning world champion, the Americans will start the race with one goal behind them, with the pressure that comes from great expectations. After all, dozens of people will have contributed on their way to Rio. But as Sparks says, that pressure can also be the best drive.

“The most important part of the chase team is the team,” he says.

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