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The state of U.S. road cycling seems to live in a perpetual state of waiting for the future to arrive. While there might not be current results flowing in, fans are always told just to wait for the new kids to arrive and turn into world-class contenders. But, in lieu of that narrative, here are some facts: nearly 10 percent of 2021 WorldTour riders currently without contracts for 2022 are American (from the United States), and in 2022, only 13 Americans will be present in cycling’s top flight, the lowest total since 2008. Even worse, the U.S. presence in the WorldTour is in the midst of an undeniable downward trend.
So, I decided to dig into this to see if there is indeed a trend of decreasing U.S. representation in the WorldTour, along with tracking historical results, and, most importantly, what this all means about the near-future prospects for U.S. cycling.
When we look at U.S. riders signed to top-flight teams for the 2022 season, we see 13 riders scattered amongst 10 WorldTour teams.
List of Riders from United States in 2022 WorldTour:
Joe Dombrowski – Astana
Larry Warbasse – AG2R
Lawson Craddock – BikeExchange
Kevin Vermaerke – DSM
Sean Quinn – EF
Neilson Powless – EF
Alex Howes – EF
Magnus Sheffield – Ineos
Sepp Kuss – Jumbo
Matteo Jorgenson – Movistar
Will Barta – Movistar
Brandon McNulty – UAE
Quinn Simmons – Trek
This is the lowest number of Americans in the WT since the 2008 season when only nine U.S. nationals raced at the top level of the sport.
U.S. WorldTour Riders 2009-2022
Not only does 2022 feature a particularly low number of Americans, there is also a clear trendline down over the past decade. For example, in 2011 29 Americans were signed to WorldTour teams, but the number has decreased nearly every season and in 2022 is down by a whopping 45 percent to 13.
Additionally, if we look at wins by U.S. riders over the same timeframe, we can see a similar downward trendline.
Professional & WorldTour Race Wins by U.S. Riders 2009-2021
It would be easy to look at these two data points and walk away with the assumption that U.S. cycling is regressing and today’s American stars simply aren’t as good at winning at the top-level as those competing just a few seasons ago.
Why Riders Are Decreasing & Why It Isn’t All Bad News
While smaller in raw numbers, the current crop of U.S. WT riders is at a higher quality than in the past, which is proven by recent drought-ending wins at the Tour de France (Sepp Kuss ended an 11-year-long drought with his stage 15 win) and San Sebastian (Neilson Powless ended a 10-year-long classics drought with his San Sebastian win). Also, despite the raw number of pro wins per season decreasing, the number of WorldTour race wins has remained relatively steady, even as the number of riders has significantly receded.
An extremely important data point that helps explain the decreasing number of U.S. riders is the number of teams the U.S. riders are spread amongst. For example, in 2009, there were 21 U.S. riders on five WorldTour teams, which means there were 4.2 U.S. riders per WT team that had at least one U.S. rider. Flash forward to 2022, and there are 13 U.S. riders spread over 10 WT teams, which means there is an average of 1.3 U.S. riders per WT team that has at least one U.S. rider.
U.S. Riders WorldTour Team Distribution
This metric is significant because it shows the reason for the declining number isn’t necessarily due to a decline in quality, but a decline in the number of American-based outfits that sign a large number of U.S. riders. Teams like BMC (defunct), HTC-Highroad (defunct) Radioshack (now Trek), and Garmin (now EF) used to each house a significant number of American riders, but as they’ve either folded (BMC & HTC) or embraced a European-based roster construction (Trek & EF), there is no longer any defacto home for U.S. riders.
The consequence of this is that for a U.S. rider to make a WorldTour team, they have to make a roster on a European-based team, and since most major team sponsors lack significant market share in North America, there is almost no exposure value in signing a U.S. rider. This means that to make a WorldTour roster, an American rider has to be better and/or cheaper than a European alternative. This has naturally driven down the raw number of U.S. riders in the peloton by eliminating any riders who are simply filling out the numbers, but means that almost every American remaining has the ability to win a WorldTour race.
What To Expect in the Future
There might continue to be teams registered in the U.S., but with the current business reality of pro cycling being an unconsolidated mess and failing to offer a viable ROI for major U.S. companies, it is highly unlikely that there will be any WorldTour teams with a real focus on assembling a roster of U.S. riders in the near future. This means we should get used to seeing a small number of U.S. riders in the WorldTour.
But, it doesn’t mean the U.S. won’t have significant wins or potentially even compete for the overall at a grand tour. There is a steady stream of young, strong U.S. riders, and with the complete collapse of the U.S.-based road racing scene, many are basing their racing in Europe from younger and younger ages (i.e. Luke Lamperti), which is the best way to become a true contender for WorldTour victories. This means that there currently appears to be an entire wave of U.S. riders capable of winning the sport’s biggest races, something that hasn’t happened since the Armstrong/Hincapie/Horner generation (1999-2013).
While there were glimpses of greatness from the post-Armstrong generation with Andrew Talansky’s 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné overall win and Tejay van Garderen’s two fifth places overall at the 2012 & 2014 Tours de France, neither, despite having solid careers, were able to turn the corner into consistent world-beaters. However, the current crop, partly due to being forced to join non-American teams, lack the perceived fragility of the initial post-Armstrong generation. And by a function of being spread amongst foreign teams, each U.S. WorldTour rider has to both integrate into the largely-European cycling culture while fighting extremely hard to stake their claim as potential protected riders and racer-winners on their respective squads.
This alchemy has combined to create an extremely high ceiling of performance due to a crop of riders that can compete for wins at nearly all of the world’s biggest races. But on the flip side, it means the floor is lower than it has been since Greg Lemond crossed the Atlantic to join Cyrille Guimard’s Renault–Elf–Gitane in 1981. If the sport’s European teams don’t believe any U.S. riders can help them win in any given year, there could feasibly be zero American riders in the WorldTour. This means that while the sky has never been higher for U.S. cycling on the world stage, the floor has never been lower.