2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships presented by Tissot: is Team USA bouncing back?

Five days of action are almost upon us as the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships presented by Tissot start in Berlin on Wednesday 26th February.

Following a thrilling 2019-2020 Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup season, and with the Tokyo Olympic Games looming, the Worlds in Berlin will see new stories written and 20 World titles decided. These UCI World Championships are also the last chance for the nearly 400 athletes – representing 45 nations - to pick up qualification points for Tokyo 2020.

One race that is keenly anticipated is the Women’s team pursuit. Qualifying starts on Day 1, with the final being the last event on Thursday 27th. It’s the form and fortune of the USA  team that intrigues.

Turning the clock back four years, the American dream team set real momentum at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The experienced Sarah Hammer headed to her fourth Olympic Games with debutants Jennifer Valente (then aged 21), Kelly Catlin (20), and Chloé Dygert Owen (19) who pushed the more favoured Great Britain team all the way.

The powerhouse of Katie Archibald, Laura Kenny, Elinor Barker and Joanna Rowsell Shand had to set new World and Olympic records in qualifying, heats and the final to fend off the young Americans. Their performance seemed to turn a tide, and so the record showed over three successive UCI Track Cycling World Championships.

Three in a row

In 2016, at London’s Lee Valley velodrome, the same USA Olympic quartet had beaten Canada to take the world title, with Great Britain in third. Hammer claimed the USA’s only other medal – bronze in the Omnium behind Britain’s Kenny – as the USA finished 8th of 22 nations in the medal table.

A year later in Hong Kong, the USA beat Australia in the final, with New Zealand third. While Hammer had been replaced by the powerful Kimberly Geist, the three other riders remained. Dygert Owen also won the individual pursuit with Catlin in third, and Hammer took silver in the points race, helping push USA to 6th position.

The same four American women arrived confident in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, for the 2018 Worlds and duly beat the British quartet of Archibald, Barker, Kenny and Emily Nelson (with Italy taking bronze). In a near re-run of 2017, Dygert Owen also won the individual pursuit gold and Catlin the bronze, while Valente got silver in the points race, just as Hammer had a year earlier – with USA hitting 5th in the table.

But in 2019 in Pruszków, Poland, it was a different story. The championships were dominated by the Dutch and Australian squads, with six gold medals each, and Australia victorious in both the Men’s and Women’s team pursuits. The USA’s quartet of Geist, Valente, Christina Birch and Emma White were classed 7th. It was almost a completely barren Worlds for the USA, with Valente picking up the only bronze medal in the Omnium, and the USA propping up the bottom of the table with hosts Poland.

Tragedy strikes

If that was tough to take, what happened next is very difficult to contemplate: within a week, Kelly Catlin had taken her own life. Her passing simultaneously put bike racing into perspective, and elevated it, serving as a motivation for others to follow dreams and find the best in themselves.

Kelly had suffered a crash weeks earlier, riding with her road team, Rally UHC Cycling, and it remains inconclusive whether that incurred a head injury or concussion. She had certainly fallen badly the previous October with injuries including a broken arm. But what seems more clear is that Kelly, then a post-graduate student at Stanford University, had been suffering from some untreated mental illness that appeared to consume her, and, it emerged, had previously attempted suicide.

Utterly tragic for the young woman’s family and those close to her, and something that remains ever-present for her Team USA squad-mates.

If that was rock bottom, it was time for the women in the stars and stripes to bounce back.

Turning the tide again?

In September 2019, Chloé Dygert Owen stared down the start ramp of the time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in rainy Yorkshire, England: 42 minutes and 11 seconds later she stepped off her bike and briefly collapsed onto the soaking wet Harrogate street – having scorched the 29km TT course, beating the supremely capable Dutch duo of Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten by more than 90 seconds.

22-year-old Dygert Owen became both the youngest ever Elite Women’s time trial UCI World Champion and the champion with the biggest ever margin. Had the tide just turned again?

Performances at the 2019-2020 Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup seem to suggest it had – with the first and final rounds won by the USA’s women. Dygert Owen, Valente, Birch and White beat Germany in Minsk (Belarus) in November before Dygert Owen, Valente, White and Lily Williams got the better of France at Milton (Canada) in January. It’s these four who make the USA squad for Berlin with Kendall Ryan as Alternate.

“The win in Canada was a great confidence boost, but we know the competition will be strong in Berlin, so we can’t let our guard down,” said Valente. “This event will be our final chance to make a statement with Tokyo fast approaching.”

The other four rounds of the UCI World Cup were shared between the usual – reigning UCI World Champions Australia and beaten finalists Great Britain, who each return with the same squads, and New Zealand, who name the squad of Rushlee Buchanan, Kirstie James, Holly Edmondston and Bryony Botha, who won round 5 of the UCI World Cup in a time just 0.5 seconds off the world record. None of these three nations will make it easy for the USA to reclaim top spot.