The image of sprightly gymnasts tumbling across a balance beam has always drawn American viewers during the Olympics, just like pictures of bikini-clad beach volleyball players going for gold.
In some sports, women trump the men when it comes to prestige – and success.
Might as well add cycling to the list.
As the U.S. team heads for the Rio Olympics, the women wearing the stars and stripes are among the heavy favorites in several disciplines. Megan Guarnier and her teammates are perhaps the strongest team on the road, Kristin Armstrong is the two-time and defending time trial gold medalist, and the women’s pursuit squad recently smashed the world record on the track.
The men’s squad would be happy to get a medal of any color. In any discipline.
“On the women’s side we’re doing incredibly well and we have a lot to be proud of,” USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall said, “and that’s a product of two things: America’s acceptance of women’s sport and Title IX, which has really helped with that. We’re one of the top three countries in the world. Some of our programs are superb.”
Indeed, Guarnier is the world’s top-ranked rider and recently won the Giro Rosa, arguably the biggest stage race for women. In the same race, Olympic teammate Evelyn Stevens won a pair of stages and another teammate, Mara Abbott, won a stage and briefly held the leader’s pink jersey.
Three of the four riders on the Olympic team dominated the race. The fourth member? Armstrong.
She won gold in the race against the clock at the Beijing Games and defended it four years ago in London. She has been working back from a second brief retirement for a shot at a three-peat.
The women’s road squad is so strong that two other riders, Durango’s Carmen Small and California’s Amber Neben, sought arbitration to determine whether they deserved a spot. And while both would have been a shoo-in on just about any other team, neither of them won their case for Team USA.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Guarnier said, “but I don’t think we can let that pressure factor into our performance. There is a certain point where the pressure is good and where it turns bad. The pressure to medal is good.”
Stevens will join Armstrong in contesting the time trial, and both are capable of medals. Stevens is a former world silver and bronze medalist in the discipline.
“This is really exciting,” Stevens said. “Megan is No. 1 in the world, Mara is one of the best climbers in the world, so yeah, I think we have a really great road team.”
On the BMX course, Alise Post recently stood on the podium at the world championships and is the world’s third-ranked rider. Her teammate, Brooke Crain, is ranked sixth.
Over on the track, the pursuit squad of Sarah Hammer, Chloe Dygert, Kelly Catlin, Jennifer Valente and Ruth Winder are heavy favorites after their ride at worlds in March. They were more than 4 seconds better than the field in a race that took them just 4 minutes, 16.180 seconds.
“The world record (for men) is 3:51, so that just shows how strong and fast we are,” said Hammer, who will also try to better the silver she won at the London Games in the omnium. “One of the coolest things is looking back, and we chuckle about it, the last team (the U.S.) fielded at the world championships for men, I think was in 2006. And we beat their time.”
The men won’t have a pursuit team in Rio. Their only riders on the track are omnium rider Bobby Lea and keirin rider Matt Baranoski, and both are considered longshots to medal.
The road squad consists of just Taylor Phinney and Brent Bookwalter after a disastrous qualifying period left the Americans with fewer riders on the start line than Morocco and Iran. Both will contest the time trial, too, where Phinney is an outside medal contender.
The best chance for an American medal from a men’s rider is in BMX, where Nic Long is ranked No. 2 in the world and Connor Fields has a legitimate chance to land on the Rio podium.
Still, they have their work cut out for them if they want to match their female counterparts.
“The men’s side is a different challenge and that’s where we’re struggling,” Bouchard-Hall said, “and there’s two reasons. One is our peers are operating at an exceptionally high level. It’s a big sport in Europe and they get some of their best athletes in the talent pool. For us, we compete with a lot of other sports and it’s harder to find those real genetic outliers.
“The other is investment – we don’t have near as much money to invest. We simply don’t have the money to run those track programs,” Bouchard-Hall said. “We’re disappointed where we are on the men’s side but it’s a difficult challenge to overcome.”