As the Tour de France drew near, Jonathan Vaughters was still poring over power outputs and training results, trying to determine the nine riders that he would send to represent Cannondale-Garmin at the start line in the Dutch city of Utrecht.
Andrew Talansky was a given, his best shot for an overall podium. But by the time Vaughters had finalized the rest of the U.S.-based team, Talansky was the only American on it.
One of just three in the entire 198-rider field.
The rest of the Cannondale-Garmin team starting Saturday come from Ireland, Canada, Slovakia, New Zealand, Australia, Lithuania and the Netherlands. And that raises an intriguing question: In the post-Lance Armstrong era of American cycling, is the fewest riders to start the Tour in nearly two decades a fluke or cause for concern?
“This is a little bit of a blip,” acknowledged Bob Stapleton, who owned the highly successful U.S.-based HTC-Highroad and is now the chairman of USA Cycling’s board of directors.
“I think there’s kind of an ebb and flow,” he said. “We have a huge bunch of juniors and U-23s coming forward that are going to be really good. But I do think our head count is down a bit.”
The last time there were this few American riders in the Tour was 1996, when Armstrong was joined on a team by George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu. Since then, there have been years when as many as 10 riders from the U.S. were on the start line, and just last year nine began the three-week odyssey when the peloton rolled off from Leeds, England.
Only two are back: Talansky and Tejay van Garderen, another rider with overall ambitions. The third American is Tyler Farrar, a former Tour de France stage winner.
In fact, one of the three U.S.-based teams, Trek Factory Racing, is without an American rider at all after Matthew Busche was left off its roster.
“It’s totally a blip,” said former pro cyclist Todd Gogulski. “Teams are literally just this week announcing their teams, and that tells you how tough it is to make the selection.”
There are plenty of reasons for the lack of stars-and-stripes flavor.
Injuries is perhaps the biggest.
Time trial specialist Taylor Phinney, part of the U.S. team at the London Olympics, has been out of racing since a devastating crash in last year’s national championships. His teammate at BMC Racing, Peter Stetina, endured a horrific crash of his own at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco when he collided with a metal pole at nearly 40 mph and broke numerous bones.
Assuming both were healthy and fit, they would have had a good chance of making the team that will try to deliver van Garderen to the podium on the final day in Paris.
“It’s a bummer I can’t be there with Tejay and the guys,” Stetina said. “I know they’re saying it’s one of the most mountainous tours, and I know that’s where I could come in handy.”
Another reason for the lack of Americans is a simple changing of the guard. The generation of Chris Horner, Danny Pate and Tom Danielson is nearing the end of its career, while a talented group of riders waiting in the wings is not quite ready for prime time.
So, guys like 23-year-old Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin) and 24-year-olds Ian Boswell (Sky) and Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin) were passed over in part for more experienced riders.
While that makes this year’s Tour de France more like “Tour de-void of Americans” — not a good thing with the world championships returning to U.S. soil for the first time in 1986 this September — it is also a big reason why Vaughters and so many others are bullish about the future.
“You have a great crop of talent that, you know, haven’t won a grand tour yet, haven’t won the Tour de France yet, but are showing a lot of potential,” Vaughters said. “I don’t know if you have a Greg Lemond figure in the ranks right now, but we have a lot of depth.”
What is lacking in quantity is at least partially made up for in quality.
Farrar is back to contending for sprint stages with South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka, while Talansky and van Garderen are at their best in the mountains, where they hope to trump favorites Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali for the podium.
“I’m in a really good place going into this Tour,” van Garderen said. “I think I have a really good team. All the vibes I’m getting for this Tour are really good, I want to make the podium or go even higher. Anything is possible.”
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