Team USA rosters for the upcoming cyclocross world championships for U23 men and women, along with the junior men, were announced Thursday, Dec. 20 That announcement quickly became contentious. The issue drawing the cyclocross community’s ire was that the women’s U23 roster included only four athletes out of a possible six (five assigned selections plus the Pan Am winner). This was the only category announced in which USAC did not fill all available spots.
To get a better idea on the selection process and how it was applied in this instance, I talked with Scott Schnitzspahn, USA Cycling Vice President of Elite Athletics. Our lengthy conversation touched on the history and evolution of the process, the thinking behind the U23 women’s selection, and why USA Cycling chose not to select riders for all six spots. We also talked about how USA Cycling could improve the selection process and its communication with the cyclocross community.
Just to get this out of the way at the top, Schnitzspahn confirmed that this year’s roster is not going to change. Many of you may stop reading, here, and I get it. But for me (and I may just be a gullible rube being played by the man), an important takeaway, here, is that there is a realization within USA Cycling that they could’ve done better.
“We should have had a more development approach with the U23 women in crafting the criteria,” Schnitzspahn told me. “I think that’s pretty clear and we will do better in the future.”
In a previous post, I published the criteria USAC used to select the Worlds team. We refer to that document several times in this discussion. You can find the entire text here: http://www.cxhairs.com/2018/12/21/cyclocross-worlds-selection-criteria-and-uci-rules/
To make the discussion that follows easier to follow, the requirements specifically for U23 women are appended at the bottom of this article.
Selection Criteria and Philosophy
I started our conversation by asking Schnitzspahn for a more in-depth explanation of the discretionary selection process and specifically the U23 women’s roster. He told me that this year’s selection criteria were born out of issues with how the organization made discretionary picks in the past.
In past years, Schnitzspahn explained, “our selection committee and our coaches were tasked with selecting athletes by discretion, who were somewhat equal in terms of their results, and weren’t going to factor into the medals—as far as we could tell—with their performances to date.”
[Ed. note: The selection committee mission and a list of current members is here: https://www.usacycling.org/team-usa/international-events.]
Under that process, the committee was looking at athletes ranked out of the top 100 or so in the world and trying to pick between racers based on arbitrary metrics. Schnitzspahn said they would look at similar riders and the conversation became “okay, you won seven out of 10 races head-to-head, you raced a bunch of other races that were not head-to-head…” The committee, according to Schnitzspahn, would end up looking at two athletes with relatively low rankings who never performed well at a World Championship and have to choose one or the other.
“Your rankings are both low, you’ve never finished inside the top 30 at the World Championships before … flip a coin, right? Whatever [the committee] picked by whatever rationale they had was never going to be a super strong selection … and people are always upset.”
It eventually became clear that the committee was in a no-win situation regardless of who they picked. Picks were often perceived as a “popularity contest”, and the athletes in contention for a spot had no performance-based metric to follow.
To move past that scenario, USAC revamped the philosophy of its discretionary selection criteria “to select athletes that for some reason weren’t selected through the criteria, automatically, but who would have a chance at a medal either now or in the future.”
As an example, Schnitzspahn used Katie Compton’s 2017-2018 season, in which she earned a silver medal at the World Championships. He noted that Compton started out the year sick and had other setbacks. “She did have a podium that got her selected to the team automatically, but let’s say she didn’t. And let’s say for some reason she didn’t do well at Nationals—had a mechanical or something—but was clearly on good form.” Under this scenario, she would not have been automatically selected for the team but the selection committee could still say “look, this is a medal capable athlete, we want her on the team” and make that selection discretionarily. That is the process applied to this year’s U23 women’s team selection.
For this year, Schnitzspahn said that the one athlete the selection committee put forward for the women’s U23 team, Madigan [Maddie] Munro, showed “a pattern of improvement, based on her age and her results against much older and more experienced women, that put her on a trajectory to be medal capable at some point in the near future.”
He added that with the new junior women’s division coming in 2020, “we thought, okay, she’s still going to be in that age range for juniors and she would have a good shot at a Junior Worlds medal when this goes through in the future.” Schnitzspahn added that “following the trajectory she’s on, she could be one of our real true elite riders in the future, challenging for medals at the elite level.”
Schnitzspahn said that, of the athletes that petitioned, Munro was the only one “that really stood out as a future medal capable athlete, and all the other athletes who were medal capable had qualified themselves.” Schnitzspahn added that based on the petitions submitted there weren’t others “that showed clearly that they were on a similar trajectory as Munro.”
“We didn’t want to just leave all the other slots to the discretion of the coaches and the committee and [return to] that scenario,” Schnitzspahn said, “so we created a new aspect of the selection, which was called ‘final selection.’” This aspect includes five additional criteria that athletes can meet to become eligible for selection. The criteria are listed at the bottom of the post and include accomplishments such as winning the national championship and the Pan Am championship. The fifth bullet point reads as follows:
- If positions remain, then athletes may be selected according to UCI ranking among athletes in the Top 150 Elite Women as of December 11, 2018.
In the selection committee’s rationale, by using this ‘final selection’ aspect of the process, the team was selected by the athletes on the field of play. “And I think that’s all good,” Schnitzspahn said, “until you get to this line that we drew in the sand which was if you’re not ranked above this arbitrary  rank, you’re probably not going to be competitive at Worlds.” He added that the committee also believed that if you don’t have the experience needed to be successful “it may be detrimental for you to go to Worlds.”
The bottom line is that the requirement that a rider, who does not meet any of the other final selection criteria must be in the top 150 in the world to fill a spot, painted the committee into a corner and led to the controversy. In the men’s U23 and junior categories, the athletes were all inside of that minimum ranking, meaning they all met that arbitrary threshold and every spot was filled. But in the women’s U23, there was not a full slate of athletes who (1) met that minimum criteria, and (2) petitioned for selection.
“That left a couple spots open and I think that’s the thing that’s probably most concerning to people in the cyclocross community,” Schnitzspahn said. “That we’re leaving spots open and not taking them when an athlete may get to go and participate and wear the stars and stripes and have a great experience … even if they’re going to place 40th in the race.”
UCI Rankings and Racing Age for U.S. U23 Women as of Dec. 23
33 Clara Honsinger 22
48 Katie Clouse 18
57 Emma Swartz 22
70 Emma White 22
204 Hanna Arensman 21
297 Bridget Tooley 17
302 KK Santos 22
323 Shannon Mallory 21
358 Petra Schmidtmann 18
362 Sophie Russenberger 22
369 Haley Batten 21
422 Turner Ramsay 19
486 Ava Lilley 18
495 Clio Dinan 22
507 Madigan Munro 17
509 Ellie Mitchell 19
When the rosters were announced and the U.S. cyclocross community noticed the unfilled slots for the women’s U23 squad, social media quickly set forth a list of riders who could fill those spots. I asked Schnitzspahn specifically about Sophie Russenberger, who earned a bronze medal at U.S. Cyclocross Nationals. She finished behind Clara Honsinger and Katie Clouse and ahead of Munro.
The problem people are having with athletes like Russenberger being left off the roster is that she put in a top performance at nationals. Her ranking may not be above the bright line, but in the biggest race of the year, she earned a medal. Not being selected after this performance is a head scratcher for the ‘cross community, which keys in on nationals as the biggest race of the year. That it holds no weight in the U23 selection criteria, unless you win, is tough to comprehend.
Schnitzspahn said that he could see the argument but that they were looking more at Russenberger’s ranking [362nd] and her age  compared to someone like Munro [age 17 and ranked 507], who had a similar nationals performance but is around six years younger.
That age difference is notable, and it’s where I believe the system failed because of the absence of a junior women’s event. We should not be in a position where we are putting 22-year-old athletes up against 16-year-old athletes and saying only one deserves to go. Nobody makes the same comparison on the men’s side because the 16-year-old and 22-year-old race in different events.
“We did take a different tack with the junior boys. And if you look at the criteria, the last one is that ‘if positions remain athletes will be selected according to points earned in those other events,’” Schnitzspahn said. “It wasn’t like in the U23s and in the elites, where we drew a line in terms of ranking and said, ‘positions will be filled by rank up until this point and then there may be open slots.’”
Schnitzspahn added that for the elite and U23 fields, “we could have said, ‘yeah, you know these other athletes out there, they placed on the podium and that’s pretty good,’ but is that future medal capable?” He explained that the goal was not to fill the entire roster just because they could, but rather to set performance-oriented markers. Schnitzspahn acknowledges the criteria are not perfect, but they do rely on a performance emphasis for U23 and elite athletes.
A performance-oriented system is not a bad thing. It’s fair and sets a standard we should have for elite athletes. The problem is that because no junior women’s race exists, not all of the women who are lumped into the U23 field are elite athletes. Treating cyclists in that category as elite athletes rather than development athletes is a disservice to women’s cycling, which continues to play catch up on the world stage.
For historical perspective, the first women’s cyclocross world champion was crowned in 2000. The women’s U23 race is in only its fourth year. The junior event, does not yet exist and will not have its first winner until 2020. In contrast to that, the men’s world championship started in 1950, the men’s U23 began in 1996 and the men’s junior race was created in 1979.
I asked Schnitzspahn if there was any consideration into how the selection of fewer U23 women than U23 men would be received by the cyclocross community. I stressed that the ‘cross community has worked really hard to ensure that cyclocross racing in the United States continues to lead in the move towards equality. From equal prize money, to parity in daily schedules, amenities, and marketing, U.S. cyclocross, while not perfect, does a much better job than other countries in treating athletes equally. In that environment, to have the governing body leave these slots unfilled, and to do it only on the women’s side, hits a sour note with the community. Especially under the current Worlds schedule in which there are only two women’s races and three men’s races. In effect, USAC will take 1.66 women’s squads and 3 men’s squads to Worlds.
Differences Exist Between the U23 Men’s Team and U23 Women’s Team
The irony, here, is that USAC believed that making the process for the U23 women different from the U23 men would appear to be treating the categories unequally. In reality, the two categories are completely different to start with and should be treated differently to ensure equality across the board.
“That’s where [we] had conversations about Junior men,” Schnitzspahn said. “But for U23, we were like, ‘oh we should make it the same, you know, we wouldn’t want to make it different from the men because that wouldn’t be fair’ and that’s what has gotten us into a pickle, here.”
The U23 men’s field consists solely of U23 men. The U23 women’s field also includes juniors and that should be part of the equation when selecting a team. “Every selection we try to get better and I think we need to look at the U23 women more as junior men then as elite women or even U23 men,” Schnitzspahn said. “Trying to make it equal between the U23 men and U23 women, we sort of handcuffed ourselves here in the development of our women because they don’t have a junior division and I think that’s feedback that we will take on and that we will make changes for the future,” Schnitzspahn added.
“I don’t know any better way to say this,” Schnitzspahn said. “When we’re leaving athletes at home, especially female athletes, which the U.S. does so well with, why would you want to do that? And I don’t have a great answer for it.” “I do know that we’re trying to do so much more for the cross community than we’ve done before. Jesse is one piece of that as is going out and raising the money for the Mud Fund.”
Worlds vs Olympics and Medal Capable
One of the disconnects that exists within the system, and we saw the same thing to some extent with the creation of the USAC National Team, is that cyclocross is not an Olympic sport and, therefore, does not fit into the same mold as the other cycling disciplines. For cyclocross, the World Championships are the closest thing to the Olympics in terms of importance. For World Cup mountain biking, Worlds are still a big deal that everyone wants to win, but it’s not the biggest deal. That’s the Olympics. That’s the ultimate goal for athletes competing in the sport. There isn’t a parallel goal for cyclocross.
The disconnect is apparent when the mountain bike selection process is used as a template, or rationale, for cyclocross. “Look at other disciplines,” Schnitzspahn said. “We typically don’t fill [all of our teams] and it’s funny just the different cultures and the different disciplines, but I know this is a big deal for the cross community … cross doesn’t have an Olympics,” Schnitzspahn stated. “And this is the Olympics.”
Which brings us to the loaded phrase, “medal capable,” a predominantly Olympic phrase that doesn’t seem to fit with cyclocross. It’s a phrase that is unfamiliar to the cyclocross community. It’s a technical term, that in a vacuum, sounds like an insult. Much of the friction we are seeing in the community following the announcement, and a review of the eligibility requirements, is the use of the phrase “medal capable” or more specifically, “not medal capable” as a rationale to leave spots on a women’s team vacant.
It’s even more troublesome when the United States brings a full contingent of men’s racers to cyclocross Worlds, yet leaves women’s rosters unfilled. Historically, U.S. women have performed better in world championships than men. If we wanted to hold a lens to the men who will compete at Worlds, even those men who automatically qualify, we would be hard-pressed to place the “medal capable” tag on any of them. This is not a slight on the men’s field, but a reality for what we’ve seen in this era of Dutch and Belgian (and British in the younger classes) dominance. The conclusion the cyclocross community has made, fair or not, is that USAC is biased against women.
If anything, changing that language, and eliminating the “medal capable” phrase from cyclocross selection criteria, could be a step in the right direction in building public good-will towards the selection process. Doing so would not jeopardize a fair, performance-based system for selecting a team. In the end, the cyclocross community wants to see U.S. athletes go to Worlds. Olympic results and corresponding funding are not factors. Getting rid of the “medal capable” language should be a no-brainer.
Will Any Of this Outcry Change the Roster For This Year?
Although USA Cycling recognizes that this year’s U23 women’s
selection process could have been handled better, the roster
“It’s the criteria that was written,” Schnitzspahn said. “We follow the process and this is the team that was selected.” Schnitzspahn does not believe anything is gained by changing what has been decided using the published criteria. “We’re not going to go back and say ‘the outcry was such that we want to look good in the community, so we’re going to add a couple more riders.’” Doing so, Schnitzspahn said, would put the selection process back to where it was a few years ago, rationalizing the choice of one rider over another who are all fairly equal in their abilities. “It would be hard to fill those two slots on a different set of criteria, now.”
Although no change to the roster will happen this year, Schnitzspahn is open to restructuring the system, incorporating input from the greater ‘cross community, for next season’s selection.
Transparency and the Cyclocross Manager
For many years, the knock against USA Cycling has been a lack of transparency. Changing that perception was a key goal for Derek Bouchard-Hall, outgoing USA Cycling CEO. The decision to not fill the spots on the U23 roster rekindled the view that USA Cycling is working in a bubble and not being open about its decision-making process.
“That word ‘transparency’ has been like tattooed to my forehead since I started a year ago,” Schnitzspahn said. “It’s a big thing for us and it’s definitely something that we didn’t do well in the past and we still don’t do great. We’re trying to do a better job of with selection criteria, I always assumed that my staff are in touch with their constituents in this process.”
Schnitzspahn believes that the creation of the new cyclocross manager position will help ensure transparency and communication improve within the cyclocross community.
“With Jesse [Anthony] on board now, we’re going to be much more in touch year-round and even daily with our ‘cross community across the board from the elites to rank-and-file and new kids getting into the sport and I think we’ll be able to see some of these things coming a little bit better, and get feedback.”
Schnitzspahn wants Anthony to get to a place where the criteria are shared and feedback such as “you might not fill the U23 women, is that what you want to do?” is dealt with well in advance. Schnitzspahn is confident that USAC will be in a better position by having someone in the cyclocross manager position full-time. Someone who can “get feedback from athletes before things are written in stone and posted and we’re stuck with them.”
The cyclocross manager, according to Schnitzspahn can also help avoid situations in which talented athletes are left off rosters because they are unfamiliar with how the system works. “That’s something that Jesse definitely can help with, especially next year’s as the PRO CX gets started.”
Schnitzspahn envisions riders with points in the PRO CX standings receiving communication from the cyclocross manager saying “you’re having a great season, just so you know, here’s where the selection process is, here’s where you apply, here’s where you petition … so people who are really just new to the sport, but turn out to be really talented athletes have that opportunity.” Schnitzspahn added that “we don’t want athletes like that to get caught out … we want athletes like that on the teams.”
Maximum Start Positions: 5
Athletes may receive nominations to the team based on the following prioritized criteria:
- Any U.S. eligible athlete placing in the top three (3) at the prior year’s World Championships in the same event and category. In order to maintain their position on the Team, the eligible athlete(s) must continue to demonstrate the ability to finish in the top three (3) at the World Championships during the current racing season. This evaluation will be based on results from major international competition and current ranking on the appropriate UCI Individual Classification. If more than one rider meets this criterion, then the rider with the highest placing will be nominated.
- Any U.S. eligible athlete placing in the top-ten (10) at a UCI Elite Women’s World Cup event between the dates of October 21, 2018 and December 11, 2018.
- Any U.S. eligible athlete placing in the top five (5) at a Telenet Superprestige Series or DVV Verzekeringen Trofee Elite Women’s UCI cyclo-cross event between the dates of October 7, 2018 and December 11, 2019.
- If positions remain, then athletes may be selected by the USA Cycling Selection Committee following USA Cycling Principles of Athlete Selection. Any athlete seeking discretionary selection MUST complete the World Championship CX Discretionary Athlete Nomination Form on the USA Cycling website.
- The winner of the 2018 U23 Women’s Pan American Cyclo-cross Championships provided that race is held in its entirety and run under UCI regulations.
- The winner of the 2018/2019 U23 Women’s National Cyclo-cross Championships (December 16, 2018) provided that race is held in its entirety and run under UCI regulations.
- Any U.S. eligible athlete placing in the top-fifteen (15) at a UCI Elite Women’s World Cup event between the dates of October 21, 2018 and December 11, 2018. If more athletes meet this criterion than there are places available on the team, the athletes with the highest placing in a World Cup will be nominated. If two or more athletes achieve the same World Cup finish result, the athlete with the highest World Cup ranking as of December 11, 2018 will be nominated.
- The top placed U23 Women’s aged rider if in the top-fifteen (15)
overall in the race at each of the following domestic UCI races will be placed
into a World Championship pool, from this pool of athletes the highest placed
rider at the 2018/2019 USA Cycling National Championships (December 16, 2018)
will earn the automatic nomination.
- Jingle Cross I, Iowa City, IA September 30, 2018
- Charm City Cross, Baltimore, MD, October 6, 2018
- Cincinnati Cyclo-cross-Devou Park, Covington, KY, October 27, 2018
- Ruts N’ Guts Day 1, Broken Arrow, OK, December 8, 2018
- If positions remain, then athletes may be selected according to UCI ranking among athletes in the Top 150 Elite Women as of December 11, 2018.
Feature Photo © 2018 Ethan Glading