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The six US riders who will line up for the UCI Road World Championships road race on Sunday, September 24, have realistic expectations for their potential results on the lumpy, Classics-like course in Bergen, Norway.
Over the past five years, the best USA Cycling elite men's result has been Alex Howes' 12th place in Richmond in 2015. Before that, Brent Bookwalter's 25th place in 2014 and Howes' 31st in 2013 were the most recent top results for Americans. Tyler Farrar's 10th place in 2011 is the best US result since Chris Horner pulled off an eighth-place finish in 2004. Last year on a windswept course in Doha, Qatar, Taylor Phinney managed 42nd place, while Robin Carpenter came in 53rd, the last finisher ahead of a long list of DNFs.
Given that history, expectations for the USA Cycling team in Bergen are not through the roof, but Bookwalter, 33, will once again guide a solid group that also includes his BMC teammates Joey Rosskopf and Tejay van Garderen, Cannondale-Drapac's Nate Brown and Alex Howes, and Trek-Segafredo's Kiel Reijnen.
"I'm definitely proud to be selected again," said Bookwalter, who spoke to Cyclingnews by phone from Spain, where he is recovering from a crash in the Tour of Britain in which he collided with a car parked along the course. "I never take selection for Worlds for granted, especially these days with quite a few Americans in the WorldTour. We may not have the Peter Sagan superstar in the US right now, but we have a lot of good, talented, well-rounded guys."
This year's 267.5km route in Norway actually starts in Kollsnes for a short ride to the 19.1km Bergen circuit, which includes three punchy climbs on each of the 12 laps. Unlike Doha's relatively flat parcours, the Bergen course is a lot more like Richmond's challenging route. The three climbs come close together, with the 700-metre Løbergsveien reaching gradients of 5 percent. Just a few kilometres later the peloton will tackle another 1km climb at 4.8 per cent. A flat kilometre leads to the bottom of Salmon Hill, which averages 6.4 percent gradient for 1.5km. A technical descent into Bergen leaves another 8.1km to the line, the last 2.7 of which are flat.
"I haven't seen the course firsthand, but profile-wise there's a lot of accumulated climbing, and technical-wise it's similar to Richmond," Bookwalter said. "I think the last kilometre at Richmond, from what I understand, is more demanding than the one in Bergen, which will definitely play in. I anticipate more of a kind of Richmond outcome without Sagan going away, but with him, who knows. He's shown that anything is possible. But on paper it looks to be a reduced bunch sprint."
That kind of course could once again favour Howes, who recently won stages at the Colorado Classic and tour of Alberta, or Reijnen, who has been doing the yeoman's work of a domestique in his second season with Trek-Segafredo. The competition in Bergen, however, will obviously be top notch, and the US riders have to be realistic about what they can accomplish there.
"Well, again, we don't have a Sagan or a Van Avermaet or a Boasson Hagen, who looks to be flying right now, but I think most of us have also been to Worlds at this point, and Alex and myself have done the rides and slotted into the top-20, top-15 result, so obviously we are capable of that," Bookwalter said. "But I'd like to see us play a little more active role in the race, maybe gamble a little more and not be worried about finishing all the guys or finishing in the top 20, but just play a little more active and present role in the race."
As Bookwalter implied, the best option for the US riders could be to try and shake up the race before the finish, but that's a tall order with many bigger, more powerful teams hoping to line things up for their designated sprinters.
"That's always a long shot because it's so long," Bookwalter said. "You know, there's not too many times during the year or in your career that you ever race that long. It's not mountainous, but I think the total climbing metres are still comparable to an all-mountain stage in a GrandTour.
"It's demanding, and then as everyone is talking about, the weather will be pretty influential, cold and likely wet," he said. "It'll be a battle of attrition, and I think a battle of keeping the head and the body in the game until those last moments."
Although they may be outgunned by the bigger names and bigger teams, Bookwalter said the US squad will take a lot of motivation into the race, if for no other reason than to represent the country's colours well and be a factor in the race. Although World Championships as of late have been somewhat predictable, it's still cycling, and anything can happen.
"I've got two BMC teammates there and three other guys who I haven't been on a trade team with in the past, but I have definitely raced with them, maybe not Nate, but Kiel and Alex with the national team," Bookwalter said.
"They're good guys, guys that I live in Girona with and train with, like-minded guys who are red-white-and-blue-hearted American dudes who are all equally passionate about it. There's no one who's on the team by just sort of default or filling a spot. I think everyone is really passionate and motivated."
USA Cycling Elite men's roster for World Championships road race: Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Nathan Brown (Cannondale-Drapac), Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac), Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), Joey Rosskopf (BMC Racing), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing).