When riders roll to the start line for the road cycling race on the first official day of the Rio Olympics, more will be wearing Iranian and Moroccan jerseys than those of Team USA.
It’s a thought that causes Jim Miller plenty of anguish.
A bit of embarrassment, too.
Miller is the vice president in charge of the elite teams for USA Cycling, so it’s his job to build the American squad for events such as the Summer Games. And part of building the team is making sure that the most possible riders have qualified to hit the start line.
“It’s a highly unenviable situation to be in,” Miller says grimly.
The two-man U.S. road squad will be announced June 24, and the fact that both riders must also race the time trial makes the selection even more difficult. But the challenge for whomever is picked won’t come until August, when they line up for the start at Copacabana Beach and realize that they only have one teammate while nations such as Italy, Belgium and Spain have five riders apiece.
So, how did the Americans get to such a sorry state?
Bad luck, a convoluted qualification system and some untimely injuries all conspired against Miller and his riders.
The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, doles out 144 start spots based only on results from 2015, rather than a two-year window like some other disciplines. It also puts a premium on World Tour results, then considers the lesser continental rankings of member nations.
So when Tejay van Garderen abandoned the Tour de France due to illness, then the Vuelta a Espana with a broken shoulder, it cost the U.S. dearly. Ditto when Taylor Phinney missed most of the season as he recovered from a devastating injury sustained the previous year.
The top five nations in the World Tour rankings received the maximum of five spots, and the next 10 countries earned four apiece. The U.S. was ranked 18th after the 2015 season.
Further conspiring against the U.S. was the fact that WorldTour riders are unable to earn points in lower-level continental events. So when Joe Dombrowski won the Tour of Utah and performed well at the Tour of California, it did not help the U.S. in the continental rankings – the Americans wound up fifth, and that equated to just two start spots at the Rio Games.
The same as Turkey, Latvia and Lithuania, fewer than Canada and Denmark.
“It’s really frustrating,” Miller said of the entire process. “With five riders we can put together a good team – we put together a great team in London (in 2012) with five guys. We can ride another really good race with five guys. But two guys, it gets really tough.”
The number of riders in the road race is significant because more teammates not only provide more chances of landing on a podium but better chances, too. Teammates can help reel in breakaways, pace each other up grueling climbs and deal with the tactics of rival nations.
With only two American riders, the U.S. will be forced to freelance through the race.
Meanwhile, funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee and private donors alike is often tied to medal capability. And that medal capability is hampered by only having two riders at the start.
“We know we need to get more money into it, but success breeds success,” said USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall – adding that the opposite tends also to be true.
One thing qualifying two riders for Rio has done is up the ante for those trying to earn a spot.
Even though van Garderen has withdrawn his name from consideration – his wife is pregnant and he does not want to risk contracting the Zika virus – plenty of others are fighting for a spot. Phinney is a likely choice given his time trial ability, but in truth the competition is wide open.
“I kind of had 2016 circled on my calendar years and years and year ago, thinking if I’m going to go to the Olympics, this is the year,” said Brent Bookwalter, a 10-year veteran of the pro ranks.
“I’m 32, on the top of my game. I’m still definitely holding the belief that I can make the team,” he said, “but with only two spots, it’s much more challenging than if we had four or even three.”
Miller makes it clear the U.S. isn’t giving up hopes of landing on the podium in Rio. He thinks there are several riders at his disposal who are capable of surprising the rest of the field.
It’s only a shame that so few of them will have a chance.
“There’s a lot against us,” Miller said. “But as they say, it is what it is.”