The 2015 UCI Road World Championships open in Richmond, Virginia, on Sunday, Sept. 20. It’s the first time in 29 years that the U.S. has hosted worlds. And just like in 1986 — after Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France — several American cyclists are medal favorites.
Back then, LeMond was — surprisingly — not a favorite to win the 162.5-mile men’s road race, held on a course around the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Before the race, he told VeloNews that the course was too easy to favor him, with not enough long, hard hills to separate the strong climbers from the pack.
In the end, on a cold, damp day, Italy’s Moreno Argentin won and LeMond was the top American cyclist in seventh place.
But U.S. cyclists were not shut out of the medals that year. Olympian Janelle Parks finished a surprising second in the 38-mile women’s road race behind Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo.
This year, at the Richmond world championships, races will include individual time trials and road races for men, women, Under 23 men and juniors. Elite men and women will also compete in a team time trial, but for their multinational trade teams, not as nations.
Here are five reasons to follow road worlds next week:
1) U.S. Cyclists Can Qualify For Rio
The 2015 road world championships serve as a 2016 Olympic qualifying event. In the men’s individual time trial (ITT) and road race, a top-three finish will qualify U.S. athletes to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, with the caveat that those athletes must continue to demonstrate their ability to perform until the official nomination date of June 24, 2016. Maximum team size for the men’s Olympic ITT is two cyclists, although the U.S. must finish in the top 15 in the 2015 WorldTour and have an athlete in the top 10 at the world championships to earn those two spots.
For the women, a top-three finish in the ITT or road race will earn them a nomination to the 2016 Olympic Team.
The U.S. women are currently second in world rankings.
A maximum of two athletes per gender can qualify this way.
2) Kristin Armstrong Is Back
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong retired after winning her second consecutive gold medal in the women’s ITT at the London 2012 Olympic Games. She then had several hip surgeries and procedures. Last spring, the 42-year-old announced her return to competition. In May, she won the 2015 national time trial title and earned a berth on the 2015 world championship team — and a chance to make her third Olympic team and defend her gold medal.
“If you have the capacity between your ears to really mentally get through the suffering and the training, then you still have it,” Armstrong told VeloNews.com in August. “If you can’t, and the mind goes, get out of it. As long as I have the mental part of it still there, I’m there.”
3) Team USA Has Three ITT Medal Favorites
At the 2014 road world championships, Evelyn Stevens claimed the ITT bronze medal — to go with her silver from 2012. With her eye on finally claiming the world title, Stevens worked with coach Neal Henderson and sponsor Specialized on the track and in the wind tunnel last winter to perfect her aerodynamic position.
“It is the small things, when you do it right, that lead to that success," Henderson told Cyclingnews.com.
Carmen Small is also shooting for another trip to the worlds podium in the ITT. She claimed the bronze medal in 2013, and in May, she finished 13 seconds behind Armstrong at 2015 U.S. nationals for the silver medal.
But should the U.S. women sweep the ITT medals at worlds, only two can earn a nomination to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
4) Taylor Phinney Is Recovered And Ready
After Taylor Phinney’s horrific crash at 2014 nationals, his cycling career was in doubt. Could he recover from a shattered left knee and leg, and again rank among the world’s best?
The answer, so far, is yes. The 25-year-old Olympian returned to racing in August and then won a circuit race in the USA Pro Challenge (his second stage race since the crash). He also finished sixth in the individual time trial.
Last week, he raced the first six stages of the grueling Tour of Britain to round out his fitness before worlds.
“Any time trial in the U.S. is obviously special, and the team time trial is something that I've specialized in for a long time,” Phinney told Cyclingnews.com in early September. “I didn't know if I was going to be good enough for it but last week we had a camp and I felt really strong.”
5) Why Not Tyler Farrar Or Megan Guarnier For Road Race Victory?
World championship road races are always hard to predict. Last year, while the race favorites waited to see which (of them) would lead out the final sprint, unheralded Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski jumped off the front and soloed to victory.
Adding to the unpredictability, the worlds road race is like baseball’s all-star game, where the top players from various teams come together to play on the National and American league teams. Cycling rivals who normally compete on different trade teams compete at worlds for their countries.
So even though the U.S. men are not listed among the favorites — particularly after top-ranked American Tejay van Garderen recently broke his collarbone — why couldn’t Olympian Tyler Farrar win it? If he did, he would be the first American man to win the world title since 1992.
The 16-kilometer road race circuit around Richmond features 25 corners — two of them U turns — meaning that the men will face 400 decelerations and accelerations as they round the course 16 times for a total of 161 miles, and the women 200 times in their eight laps (80.5 miles).
It also features sections of cobblestones and only three climbs, but all in the final five kilometers. It’s similar to a Flemish classic, Farrar told Velo Magazine recently, adding that the short, steep climbs and cobblestones are “kind of my thing.”
Working against Farrar, however, is that the U.S. men fell out of the top 10 ranked nations and can only field a team of six, not nine, riders.
While the men are dark horses, the U.S. women look strong. Megan Guarnier and Evelyn Stevens are strong classics riders. They are also teammates for Dutch team Boels-Dolmans. Guarnier won the inaugural Strade Bianche race in March and finished third in the Flemish classic Flèche Wallonne a few weeks later (Stevens won the Flemish classic in 2012). With help from Stevens, Guarnier also won her second national road race title in May.
“Incredible racing by @boelsdolmansct @evelyn_stevens powerhouse,” tweeted Guarnier after nationals. “Wouldn't be on the top step without the Team! Thank you!!”
If the women are willing to work together for a win at nationals, what can happen when a world title is on the line? The last U.S. world champion for the women was Beth Heiden — of winter Olympic speedskating fame — in 1980.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.