Pays de Vaud three-peat points to bright American road racing future

  
  


by Mary Topping
 
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Adrien Costa won the 2014 Tour du Pays de Vaud.
 
Now almost 17 years-old, Adrien Costa says he was “completely hooked” on bike racing from age 6 or 7 when he watched the Tour de France during visits to his grandparents who lived near Paris, France. After the stage ended, the California kid sped off on a bike along quiet country roads and let his imagination run. He transformed into a rider who had raced well in the Tour. More than likely he pedaled through a make-believe tunnel of fans screaming “Allez!” on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez.

Costa shared that bit of history by phone from USA Cycling’s European training center in the Netherlands where he participated in an age 17 – 18 junior development camp. He’d recently won the overall classification in the 46th edition of the Tour du Pays de Vaud, a UCI 2.1 junior stage race in Switzerland. The six-man USA Cycling national road team earned three of the four jerseys on offer at the event as well as the best team prize.
 
Success at the Tour du Pays de Vaud has helped many young men bridge the gap between day dreams and a professional cycling career. Past winners include Fabian Cancellara and other WorldTour athletes.
 
Americans currently on WorldTour teams have also fared well at Vaud overall. Tejay van Garderen finished second in 2006 and Lawson Craddock third in 2010, a year after Nathan Brown became the first American to win it. Then in 2012 TJ Eisenhart launched an American winning streak that Geoffrey Curran extended in 2013.
 
With that history in mind, Costa and teammates, among them Will Barta from Boise, fastened their time trial helmets on for the 2014 Vaud prologue on May 29. They not only had a winning streak to honor; they knew a good result could lead to a big future. No pressure.
 
Hilly contest tests talent
 
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Geoffrey Curran won the race in 2013 with the help of his USA Cycling teammates.

The Tour du Pays de Vaud is a four-day stage race contested by a combination of national, regional, and local teams. It takes place in the canton of Vaud which occupies the western part of Switzerland along the border with France.
 
“You would go through these mountain roads through little towns in the Swiss countryside and finish 100 kilometers from where you started,” Costa said. Residents paused from their daily business to come out and watch the juniors. Racing from point-to-point, a departure from stateside junior circuits, amplified the experience. “It felt like you were actually in a big European race,” he said. Days wrapped up with a thirty minute massage from the team’s soigneur.
 
Vaud packs a full set of challenges with lots of climbing. It begins with a prologue then continues with a hilly Stage 1 followed by a double day featuring a mountain-top finish and individual time trial. The undulating final day invites copious attacks.
 
USA Cycling coach Billy Innes has directed teams at Vaud since 2010. The rider who comes out on top, he said, is the “complete package,” a guy with the ability to move up the cycling ladder. “I think it’s one of those races that can define a cycling career, actually,” Innes noted.
 
It felt that way for Costa.
 
“Having won it, it’s kind of a check off the list, if you will, of progressing in Europe and having all those experiences,” he said. “It’s definitely a big step in my career so we’ll see where it brings me.”
 
The Americans dominated in 2014, but that didn’t mean keeping the yellow jersey was easy.
 
Taking charge again
 
T.J. Eisenhart receiving recognition for winning Pays de Vaud
Lawson Craddock was third in 2010, a year after Nathan Brown became the first American to win the race.

In 2009 and 2010 Brown and Craddock scored wins in the short opening prologue. This year Philip O’Donnell placed highest among the Americans, six seconds behind the leader.
 
The next day riders tackled a 93 kilometer Stage 1. In 2012 Eisenhart gained the overall lead by winning the stage. This year Barta nailed it from a break-away. Nicknamed “Silent Assassin,” he calls climbing and time trialing his strengths, but on Stage 1 he slayed a rival in a two-up sprint. The boys “put the throttle down,” on a climb, Barta said, and split the field. In the end he bested a Danish rider by a bike length.
 
For Costa, producing the decisive split in Stage 1 confirmed the team’s cohesion and strength. “We sent a couple of guys to the front and we just lined it out,” the Californian said. “We do this for 10 minutes up this climb – it’s the five of us, maybe five other guys, and that’s it – and we look back and the field is completely destroyed. That was a super cool moment, to have all your teammates around you.”
 
The mountain-top finish on Stage 2A is a prime reason why USA Cycling makes Vaud a staple event. It’s where Costa seized the yellow jersey with a solo win. All three consecutive winners from the U.S. took the stage. Brown finished a strong third.
 
Barta, who is 18 years-old, said he first heard about Vaud at the age of 14 or 15. He thinks the race matches the current group of juniors’ strengths. “A lot of the U.S. junior riders know about Pays de Vaud,” he said. “It’s one of those big races. And there’s a lot of good climbers these days coming out of the U.S. in the juniors.”
 
The category 1 ascent to Les Diablerets on 2014’s Stage 2A consumed about 40 minutes; that’s twice as long as a typical juniors climb, Barta explained. “Vaud is probably one of the only junior races that offers that [alpine climb] experience. By the time you finish, you can see the snow.” WorldTour riders scaled Les Diablerets during the 2013 Tour de Romandie.
 
Stage 2B’s individual time trial favors riders with advanced bike handling skills. “This TT was basically on a 1.8 meter wide [road] barely wide enough for my Passat,” Innes said. “It had multiple 90 degree turns, 120 degree turns, sand. It’s controlled chaos out there.” Costa won it, following in the tracks of Craddock and Taylor Phinney. Barta made the podium with second place.
 
Retaining the yellow jersey on the final day required maturity to handle relentless assualts. After covering a flurry of attacks and securing O’Donnell’s mountains jersey, three or four guys remained on the front to control the race. Attacks flew furiously in the last 30 kilometers.
 
“That was definitely the critical moment of the race I think. Not panicking and really taking time to think about the situation and how to act accordingly to each attack,” Costa said. “It was definitely a bit of a scare but really, really relieving to come across that line and have the group still be together and not blown up.”
 
The solidarity between the six juniors that Costa references, among several key factors, has fueled the repeated Vaud laurels.
 
Thriving with Vaud
 
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Lawson Craddock was third in 2010, a year after Nathan Brown became the first American to win the race.
Vaud was Costa’s first European UCI race. “It was a race I’ve been aiming at for a while because it’s one of the few races for juniors in the world that has significant climbing with such a strong field,” Costa said. “And since I consider climbing to be somewhat my specialty, I definitely wanted to see how I stack up against the climbers in Europe.”
 
The juniors exceled at and welcomed rising roads, but frowned when they learned the army barracks race lodging lacked wireless internet access. They soon found a silver lining.
 
“They end up talking to each other,” Innes said. While the other teams and coaches stared at buzzing phones, the Americans conversed over the dinner table where their phones are banned.
 
“Every year this is the group that comes out that has the most trust, the most communication and the best camaraderie of any group the entire year,” Innes continued. “I attribute it to this race, I really do.”
 
The recent three-year winning streak suggests another reason for achievement at Vaud: the USA Cycling development program, thanks to funding from the USA Cycling Development Foundation, has progressed in the support it provides. It has matured.
 
“I think we’re really good at training. I think we are really good at being fit,” Innes said. “We are quick to adopt science, new training plans and ideas, and I think young athletes are benefiting from that.” For example, he feels the U.S. takes a more advanced approach to nutrition compared to other countries. This year the European training base began to stock loaner power meters.
 
Ten years ago, according to Innes, the goal was to have every rider finish his race. Now young Americans collect flowers at Belgian kermesses, and local fathers sometimes inquire about the Americans’ schedule so their sons can race elsewhere.
 
Innes noted that the talent pool has grown significantly in the past five years; starting 15 – 16 camps in 2006 helped tremendously. By his estimates that pool used to number two to three guys; now it can run as high as fifteen in a given year, inclusive of ages 15 to 18, all of them “equal and highly talented.”
 
With that collection of young men and a history of success at Vaud leading to spots on WorldTour teams, there’s good reason to believe cycling fans can look forward to future professional pelotons populated with more American men.
 
Want to help support young riders like Adrien Costa or Will Barta? Consider a gift to the USA Cycling Development Foundation with an online donation today.

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