The USA Cycling’s Women’s National Development Program had a clear goal at the start of the year: accumulate UCI points to get a top 5 nation ranking to be able to field 4 riders, the maximum, at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Mission accomplished – as of May 31st, the USA was ranked third.
The man behind the program is Jackson Stewart, who took over last year after retiring as a pro rider with the BMC Racing Team at the end of the 2010 season. As the manager, Stewart had to juggle his team and the’ personal goals of the riders that rotated through the program.
Jackson found it an easy juggle. “I think the team goal is first and so far I haven’t really seen any issues with that. Luckily we have really cooperative women, they all see the objective and they all work towards it.” Stewart told podiuminsight. We caught up with Stewart a few weeks ago, while he was spending time at home in California after the birth of his second son Timothy.
“It’s kind of interesting actually, from teams I’ve been on in the past I think you’d see more selfishness amongst the guys maybe – but working with the women I’ve seen, when they’re with me they’re racing for the team’s goal.”
Back in December, 13 women were named to the Olympic long team and the spots are highly contested.
“Pretty much everyone on the long team has raced with us and they’ve all put aside their own objectives for the team objective which in reality I think it really aligned. The points objective is for the four spots and I think the majority of these girls on the long team, that fourth spot is the objective. It’s kind of we need those points before we even have a spot for whomever is fighting for the fourth spot.
“That said, with this program over the years, the girls that have been brought back and the girls that have worked with the program have all learned how it works and how you have to race as a team and how you can’t do anything else or how you won’t be invited back or you’ll be sent home.” continued Stewart who, so far, has not sent any riders home.
Stewart does admit that his biggest stress and challenge came from the sometimes different priorities between trade teams and the USA cycling team.
“You can look at the job as oh awesome, you’re not limited to so many riders like a UCI team, you’re not limited to how riders are going. With the USA women, if you’re riding well, I can invite you over, in that aspect it should be easier I can take anyone who’s riding well and showing that they’re good for the team and I can make these great teams.” explained Stewart.
The trade teams, who are paying the women, have their own objectives and Stewart has sometimes found it difficult to weigh all the different goals.
“As a national program, we have no real interest in national races because that’s just not where we develop riders, we develop them in Europe and that’s where the highest level is and that’s where we need to be. Luckily this year, I’ve had really good cooperation with a lot of the teams, I’ve had some trouble with some riders. At the end of the day, I think the rider has to weigh out what’s more important for her.”
He added, “I don’t challenge them on it too much but I definitely disagree at times in how I would want to do the program and how they would. Who’s to say who’s right?”
The buck does stop here. Though Stewart does not have a free pick of riders, he does make the selection for the team. Last year, as he was learning the ropes, USA Cycling Director of Athletics Jim Miller showed him the ropes.
“I think the first selection call I was on was for PanAm Championships last year, I really just didn’t know what to say, I didn’t feel experienced enough to make the decision, Jim, a lot of the selection people know the history of these riders better than I did, I think I’ve caught a lot in that area. I really had to learn about women’s cycling really fast.” chuckled Stewart.
How does he keep track of all the talent? “I have a spreadsheet.” he said with a laugh. “That’s the hard part, you have a great team with talent, there’s so many of them, it’s hard to really keep up to date with hundreds of riders.”
What brought a then 30-year old pro rider to this new role especially since he admits to not really following women’s cycling?
“What really happened is that I started to get sick in the middle of the 2010 season.” he replied. Many times, people had told him that he should direct and in June, he turned down an offer of becoming an assistant director.
“I’m going to earn another spot, I was at the end of my one-year contract, I’m going to turn this around like I had done other years when I really had to earn my contract towards the end of the year. I just started to bury myself. I knew in May that it wasn’t looking good, the team was growing, I was doing fine domestique work but I wasn’t doing the caliber that you needed to do to stay on the team.”
So he put another huge block of training in his year that had already included a new baby, moving to Spain and racing at Qatar and the Classics.
“I think I just plain over did it. I still don’t know what happened but come about end of June, one day coming back into Spain and I went shopping, I almost passed out in the grocery store. I didn’t know what it was, it was just a really weird sensation, the only thing I could compare it to was it feels like to bonk, I was just scrounging for a coke off the shelves there, (thinking) it must just be low sugar. I don’t know how I could just instantly feel just exhausted and like I’m going to pass out. I went home, I just couldn’t figure out, it was basically the worst night of my life, I couldn’t fall asleep, I was having these weird flashes, it was really tense. I finally fell asleep and basically slept two days straight and didn’t know what had happened.”
When he woke up, he contacted the team doctors and continued to rest. But they could not figure it out. He returned to racing soon after at the Tour of Austria but the never bounced back. Stewart returned to his home and Spain to try and recover but it wasn’t going away even with resting.
“Maybe the five days before I came home, every day even with resting it was just getting worse and worse, I felt like I was on my death bed. I didn’t know what was happening but I had no energy, I felt sick to my stomach, I felt dizzy it was just really bad.”
He then returned to the United States and was still trying to figure out what was wrong with him. “Just months of trying to check it out, going to random doctors, going broke, trying to figure it all out. I never really did, even now I still have a lot of the symptoms, but it’s much better. It was really just time that made it much better there’s nothing that I ever did that made it better.”
The situation lead to big questions by the month of October. “That whole month I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew that I couldn’t race the rest of the season, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I didn’t know if it was going to go away and I could race the next season, talking to friends, what should I do? Should I try to line up another contract in the US in case I am better, I still want to race but then I called back BMC, ‘hey if I can’t race what directeur gigs do you have?’ and those had already been filled. At that time, I was like what am I going to do?”
Then he got a call from USA Cycling’s Miller. “I thought about it and I liked the idea. I didn’t realize at the time, the reason I liked it was because when I think about America, the women are the best, the women are the World Champions, the Olympians, the women are our best area in the sport and I like that.”
Mid-year another realization came to him. “It was really good to go in women’s cycling because I don’t think I was ready to lead men’s cycling, when I go in the women’s side, it’s still the sport I love, it’s still everything I love about it but it’s not all the guys that I used to know and all the guys I used to race with, and all the same races, it’s not all that emotional stuff where if you still want to be racing, it bugs you. When I look back at it, it’s actually a really good opportunity. I always wanted to be a directeur, I just didn’t really see it panning out in that way.”
Now that he’s had a year in a half under his belt as the USA Cycling’s Women’s Development Program manager, he does feel that the UCI nations ranking is fairly accurate. “I think when you start putting us on the time trial, we’re one of the best, if not the best but if you look at us as a road team, I think those are pretty accurate results. Clearly (Marianne) Vos is on her own and Holland has a lot of depth and Germany has almost the same, so those guys are just really superior to the rest. That’s really just the fact that they have more riders, I think our top riders are clearly just as good, but they just have a depth.”
Stewart concluded, “As a National Director I wish I could create that depth and grow, it would just make me job harder in selecting rosters but in the end it just makes our country that much stronger.”