Gavin Hoover joined the USA Men’s Pursuit Cycling Track Team two years ago when it was reborn, unified with his teammates by one singular goal: qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. While cycling season for many is on pause for the winter, it’s the opposite for the UCI Track World Cup season, which is just getting started. We were able to catch up with Gavin to learn what makes track cycling special, hear about the team’s recent travels to Minsk, Belarus, and what a road to the Tokyo Games looks like for their team.
“The team pursuit is a special event in cycling,” says Hoover. In almost every other discipline of cycling you race as a team but stand on the podium as an individual. Being a member of a team pursuit squad, they race inches from their teammates. Hurtling around a tight 250 meter velodrome at over sixty kilometers per hour, trusting the three other guys around to stay on their bikes. They train together, travel together and stand on the podium as four teammates. It’s a very exciting sport to watch as a spectator, and a special event to participate in as a cyclist.
The US program is actually in its infancy after being reborn. Hoover joined the rebirth of the USA Men’s track cycling program two years ago. From the start, he knew they didn’t have the experience or funding as some other countries, effectively making them underdogs against more established programs. More athlete, coaching and funding involvement have allowed the program to make strides in the past couple of years, making Tokyo qualification a reality. In the last two years, the USA Men’s Pursuit Track Cycling Team has collected World Cup medals, Pan-American titles and national records.
The heavy travel schedule and physical demands of the sport require full commitment from the athletes. Hoover and his teammates spend a majority of their time living out of suitcases, whereby training is one of the only constants in their lives. Since team pursuit track training is only four kilometers long, the race is extremely fast, is over in less than four minutes and is explosive while still requiring the aerobic engine of an endurance athlete. The explosive nature of the sport means these athletes spend a lot more time in the gym than other disciplines of cycling, and recovery is key.
On a typical training day, they lift weights in the morning, then ride 65 kilometers per hour on the track in the afternoon. “PR Lotion is a huge part of our training routine for the simple reason that it works! Believe me, you know whether something makes a difference or not when you shred your legs in the gym and then try to ride kilometers in less than a minute. Lactate buffering makes a huge difference for us when we’re chasing adaptations in Vo2 max. Being able to go deeper in training allows us to make those adaptations sooner and go faster on race day.” says Hoover.
In addition to training, Hoover says PR Lotion is an absolute necessity on race days. He says it’s just as important to his pre-race routine as his warm-up playlist. After warming up on trainers, and with 50 seconds on the clock, they line up at the start line and clip into their pedals. Fifty digits to watch tick down in bright red lights. That is enough time to straighten their helmets, tighten their shoes one last time and take a couple deep breaths. The buzzer goes off, and they all throw their bodies off the line. The first pedal stroke bites like nothing else as the sixty tooth front chainring starts to turn over. The fixed gear bikes require extensive effort to get started, and it’s not until the end of the first lap that they’re accelerated towards sixty-five kilometers per hour, arms into the aerobars, three laps to go to finish.
At extreme speeds, pursuit team cyclists are inches from their teammates’ tires. If anyone moves off the line, it would be dangerous for all four. They take turns being in front so the other three can draft. Once you see the wheel in front of you disappear up the track, it’s your turn to be in front and you’re now responsible to produce the speed. When you’re in this position, the lactic acid is coursing through your legs making each revolution harder and harder. Swinging up the track, the front line job done and now you just need to hang on.
The training and race schedule builds up to the path of the Games qualification, which must be done through the World Cup Series. There’s five races that take place all over the world, and you must be in the top eight teams to qualify for Tokyo - if you spend one race outside of the top eight, you have no chance to qualify. The first of these five races recently kicked off in Minsk, Belarus. From Gavin’s perspective, traveling to Belarus was unique for USA Cycling in that it is Europe’s last dictatorship, which creates a unique set of travel rules to abide by. You can only enter without a Visa and only for a very short time. Because of this, they traveled to Poland the month before for a two week training camp to prepare for the World Cup’s first race.
Belarus was a great experience for the team, but didn’t go as planned. As USA Cycling rounded the exit of the final corner, they crossed the finish line as a team. This, in and of itself, is no small feat, and is symbolic of how they operate in the world: together. They didn’t have their best time, however, and they finished in 10th for the first race of the World Cup - not good enough to qualify for the Games. For rebuilding a program from nothing, to come so close is remarkable.
For a program that is only a couple of years old in the US, they are a force to be reckoned with. They are back in the weight room in search of improving a few more tenths for next race day, so they can finish the UCI season strong, and leverage the experience for 2024. Follow along on their journey by following Amp Human athlete, @gavinhoover on Instagram.