State of the 2023 US Cycling Union: American Rider Quality in the WorldTour Holds Strong While Quantity Declines
Also, how the domestique trend threatens future major race results from an extremely talented young core
The release of the 2023 BTP NET Ratings will be released next week, after, at least hopefully, the current top remaining free agents, Mark Cavendish and Nairo Quintana, have officially signed contracts to race for the coming season.
When I sat down for an in-depth examination of the state of Americans in the WorldTour last off-season, I found that while the raw number of US riders was at a 13-year low, the performance and quality of each individual rider was not dropping off at a corresponding rate, and was in fact increasing on a per rider basis.
Since I found this to be an interesting and helpful exercise, I wanted to turn it into an annual check-up of sorts. And, checking back one year on, I found that this trend of the declining number of riders, which is down to twelve riders in 2023, is once again the lowest count since 2008, while wins, even after a post-2019 increase, were still extremely hard to come by relative to a decade ago. By themselves, these numbers would seem to indicate that US cycling is a complete free-fall, but beneath the surface, the numbers tell a more complex story.
US WorldTour Riders 2009-2023 Downward Trends
To kick things off, let’s take stock of every US rider slated to race in the WorldTour in 2023 (listed in order of their PCS points gained in 2022):
List of Riders From the United States In The 2023 WorldTour:
1) Neilson Powless-EF
2) Brandon McNulty-UAE
3) Magnus Sheffield-Ineos
4) Matteo Jorgenson-Movistar
5) Sepp Kuss-Jumbo
6) Quinn Simmons-Trek
7) Lawson Craddock-Jayco AlUla
8) Sean Quinn-EF
9) Joe Dombrowski-Astana
10) Kevin Vermaerke-DSM
11) Will Barta-Movistar
12) Larry Warbasse-AG2R
The first thing that jumps out from this list is that it shows the lowest number of Americans in the WorldTour since the 2008 season when only nine US nationals raced at the top level of the sport.
Not only is the 2023 tally a modern-era record low, but 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 2023, has fallen a whopping 58% down to 12.
Additionally, if we look at wins at the top two tiers of professional races (WorldTour & .Pro) by US riders over the same timeframe, aside from recent a post-2020 resurgence, we can see a similar downward trendline.
Looking Deeper Tells a Different Story
Despite these gloomy numbers, if we peel back a layer, we can see an extremely important data point that helps explain both the decreasing number of US riders and results in top races from those riders, which is the increasing number of teams the US riders are spread amongst.
For example, in 2009, there were 21 US riders on five WorldTour teams, which means there were 4.2 US riders per WT team that had at least one US rider. Flash forward to 2023, and there are 12 US riders spread over 10 WT teams, which means there is an average of 1.2 US riders per WT team that has at least one US rider.
This dilution of US riders tells us that the main reason for plunging US participation at the top level of the sport is more due to the decrease of US-based teams signing US-based riders just for the sake of sponsorship reasons than decreasing levels of quality in the rider pool.
It also has the effect of giving US riders fewer chances to ride for themselves and net wins since instead of a team few consolidating the country’s top stars onto a single team in an effort to highlight their talents, they are instead hired away by superteams to bolster domestique support for their superstar riders.
For example, Thibaut Pinot is currently worth more to Groupama-FDJ as a team leader, whose main goal is to highlight French riders, than as a domestique on Team UAE.
But, without the presence of teams like Groupama, Pinot’s market rate as a leader/featured rider would plummet and mean he would have to market himself to a bigger team as a helper in order to command a high salary.
This dynamic also means the ‘quality bar’ US riders are forced to clear to make it into the WT is much higher than in the past since the concept of a team picking up three non-result-generating US riders just to satisfy a sponsor is quickly dying and any American being picked up by a European-based team has to be able to out-produce the locally available talent since the sponsors of nearly every WT team have nothing to gain by increased promotion in North America.
Even though there are technically two US-registered teams in the WT (EF & Trek), their focus has shifted towards the European market in terms of rider and sponsorship acquisition in recent years (the parent company of the EF team is based in Switzerland and Trek’s main title sponsor, Segafredo, is based in Italy and almost wholly focused on the European market).
This means the US is now on a similar footing that other outsider countries have historically had to operate from, and, in the case of Australia, has seen them produce far more world-class riders than one would expect from a population and culture standpoint.
Pro Cycling Stats Points Earned Per US Rider
In part, even the decreasing Pro Cycling Stats points per US rider over the last 14 seasons is evidence of an increase in the ‘quality bar’ that US riders are forced to clear to make the WT. While the points per rider have slightly decreased since 2009, it is at a much lesser rate than the wins and the total number of riders.
The 208 PCS points per rider in the most recent 2022 season is higher than the 178 PCS points per rider back in 2017 when American riders won over twice as many races in the top two tiers of professional races (13 vs 6).
Team Sponsor Market Forces Could Limit Future Upside
After reviewing these stats, I am generally aligned with many of my thoughts from last year’s State of US Cycling, mainly that while modern WT team sponsor market forces mean we will see a lower number of US riders in cycling’s top tier for the foreseeable future, that the US will be able to create a strong, steady stream of US riders, which, due to forging themselves in the much hotter fires of European racing, is capable of winning the sport’s biggest races (ironically, this is partly due to the decline of the professional racing scene in the US forcing riders to get to Europe earlier).
However, while this assessment might still be true, it potentially underestimated the trend of top American riders being deployed as domestiques for even more talented riders on cycling’s superteams.
For example, three of the top five US riders in terms of PCS points scored in 2022 are currently employed as support riders for higher-profile teammates in major stage races (Neilson Powless, Brandon McNulty, and Sepp Kuss).
This means that even assuming McNulty, Powless, and Kuss have the physical capabilities to win major one-week stage races and lower-tier grand tours like the Giro and Vuelta, the market values them more as highly-paid support riders to the sport’s top GC riders (Richard Carapaz, Jonas Vingegaard, and Tadej Pogačar).
As long as the top US riders are recruited away to highly paid roles on the sport’s major teams to facilitate victories for other riders and there are no protectionist US-based teams dedicated to giving US riders opportunities, there will always be an additional obstacle between US riders winning major races stage races that simply isn’t present for young European-based stars.
It would be difficult to imagine a Spanish team like Movistar, now that they have a homegrown Spanish GC talent like Enric Mas, bringing in foreign talent to lead their GC ambitions in a way that EF has brought in Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz instead of attempting to recruit and develop riders like Powless, McNulty, and Kuss in leadership roles.
With the next crop of young US riders, like Quinn Simmons (21), Magnus Sheffield (20), and Luke Lamperti (20) looking even more talented and like potential stars than the current one, this trend is something to keep an eye on, especially since it doesn’t take a giant leap to imagine Sheffield being slotted into a domestique role, similar to Michał Kwiatkowski, at the expense of his own one-day and stage win ambitions.
Excellent analysis. Here was my take a few days ago--hardly as detailed as Spencer's number crunching. https://ridingwithkaplan.substack.com/p/2023-more-faster-better
Really interesting analysis, as always. Sitting hear thinking about how competitive a consolidated U.S. team could look in a 1-week race with mountains on the backend. Something like: McNulty (GC), Kuss and Simmons (mountain domestiques), Powless-Sheffield-Jorgenson (to hunt stages), and rounded out with either Craddock or Dombrowski. I think they could do some damage. Also feels like there is someone in this mix who could look to make trouble in the 2028 Olympics if things fall right.
Also, I liked the little I saw from Vermaerk last year, was a shame he got hurt. Excited to see more of him this year.