USA Cycling’s procedures for selecting riders for championship events will be getting an overhaul before the build-up to the 2024 Olympic Games, according to CEO Brendan Quirk. Although Quirk insists the changes were “already underway” in October, arbitrators last month found that USA Cycling violated its selection procedure (opens in new tab) for the 2022 UCI Track World Championships in a rare and embarrassing error from the federation.
The arbitrators forced USA Cycling back to the Selection Committee to pick the team again just five days before Track Worlds after former Madison national champion Tristan Manderfeld successfully demonstrated that the men’s endurance coach (and his former personal coach) Robert Stanley had provided biased and inaccurate data for presentation to the committee.
The Selection Committee was forced to disregard Stanley’s data and repeat the selection process. However, the team already in Portugal training for Worlds – David Domonoske, Anders Johnson, Brendan Rhim, Eddy Huntsman, and Grant Koontz – were again chosen to represent the United States at the World Championships. The team ultimately finished 14th of 16.
It may be true that Manderfeld was excluded in favour of riders better suited specifically for the team pursuit, the event he hoped to race, but the case uncovered a glaring lack of objectivity in what was presented to the Committee to inform their decision, a complete absence of checks and balances, and an environment where the door is wide open for discrimination.
USA Cycling knew that Stanley had a conflict of interest as Manderfeld’s former coach and was well aware of their “negative relationship”, according to the arbitration decision. USA Cycling’s Chief of Sport Performance Jim Miller told Manderfeld that he had to “fix his relationship” with Stanley if he wanted to continue to be a competitive cyclist, making it clear that the federation knew Stanley had a personal bias against Manderfeld.
Yet, when it became clear Manderfeld would fight the selection in arbitration, USA Cycling reconvened the Selection Committee before the hearing to present them with data on the athletes “derived exclusively” from Stanley’s notes “with no backup or support”, according to the decision.
The arbitrator wrote they did not find Manderfeld to be a superior athlete to those selected or vice versa, but “was surprised at the lack of objective data present especially in a sport where there is an abundance of data related to speed, power, and many other things”.
USA Cycling insists they were “attempting to put together the best combination of athletes for team success” looking not only at power data but also “matters like height and technical skill that may affect other athletes on the team when riding in the Team Pursuit event”, according to the arbitration decision.
“It is important to understand that our coaches aren’t on our selection committee,” an official statement from CEO Brendan Quirk read. “It is entirely made up of former world-class athletes. They have been on World Championship and Olympic teams. They have also been left off those teams. They have all been in the athletes’ shoes and know what’s at stake.”
USA Cycling now plans to reform the selection procedures, including the Selection Committee review, education, and “process decision administration”. They’ll review the selection criteria and make a “comprehensive upgrade to our athlete communication platform regarding selection”.
However, nowhere in the USA Cycling statement is there a mention of fixing a system that allows a coach to have inaccurate data fed to the Selection Committee to sway their decision against a rider the coach doesn’t like.
A soured relationship
Manderfeld is an Army Captain, West Point graduate, and the only cyclist who is a part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). The 27-year-old is the very model of a Team USA athlete – loyal, dedicated, and hard-working. He picked up cycling in 2018 after a back injury knocked him out of wrestling.
Admittedly a latecomer to cycling, he’s travelled across the country and around the globe through a waning pandemic to race on the track and has quickly risen through the ranks. He was part of the team pursuit squad that raced in the Cali, Colombia Nations Cup that earned the US its spot to race in the event at Worlds. He had dreams of racing at Worlds and continuing up the ladder of elite sport.
Manderfeld got started with the national team by attending their training camps before the 2020 pandemic shuttered all the races. He started working with Stanley, who is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University and who was at the time contracted with USA Cycling as a performance scientist.
A coach since 2016, Stanley honed his PhD research on the Omnium, an event consisting of four mass-start events introduced to the Olympic track cycling programme in 2012. He took “an integrative approach to measure and quantify the physical, tactical and contextual performance demands of the race”. He published a paper (opens in new tab) using statistics to prove positioning is key to winning track sprints.
In 2020, Manderfeld hired Stanley as his personal coach, Stanley became USA Cycling’s men’s endurance coach in 2021 and continued to coach Manderfeld until the spring of 2022.
“I thought we worked out pretty well together. I sometimes had some questions, but I thought it was pretty good. He seemed pretty detail-oriented,” Manderfeld tells Cyclingnews.
Then, he says, “slowly throughout the year, he started to care less. A partner and I who were both coached by him ended up winning Madison Nationals last year (2021) and he seemed pretty happy about that. And then from there it kind of seemed to tail off throughout that winter.”
It became apparent to Manderfeld that Stanley had decided he and another rider didn’t have what it took to be in the team. But rather than have an honest conversation with them, he says that the coach instead spoke badly about them behind their backs to other riders.
“One of the people he ended up talking to was one of our good friends. And he said that after he had that conversation with [Stanley], he couldn’t stomach it, and had to come and tell us.” That led to Manderfield ending his coaching relationship with Stanley.
The falling out led to a frustrating summer of being told he didn’t make the team for the Pan-American Championships in mid-August 2022, then being flown in at the last minute and “reluctantly”, according to Manderfeld, added to the race roster. He finished fifth in the individual pursuit but, while the rest of the Pan-Am team was invited to a subsequent team camp, Manderfeld was only belatedly brought in after learning about it second-hand and fighting to be included.
Since none of the men’s endurance riders made USA Cycling’s automatic selection criteria, all were subject to the discretionary selection rules. The deadline for submission was September 1 but, Manderfeld found, some riders had already been told they were going to Worlds in August – before the application period had even closed.
USA Cycling called into question Manderfeld’s power, technical skills, and even his height. “They said I was too aerodynamic compared to the others,” he says. Cyclingnews spoke to a former coach for USA Cycling who is familiar with the case but declined to be named for this article. They disagreed with USA Cycling’s representation of Manderfeld’s abilities and said he is one of the top four track racers in the country. However, the Selection Committee chose some riders who were competing at Worlds as their first international competitions.
‘Life will be hell’
USA Cycling has been embroiled in numerous arbitrations surrounding its selections for the various World Championships and Olympic Games, including a recent case involving the women’s cross country picks for Tokyo 2020, and road selections for Rio and London.
In almost every case, riders objected to discretionary selections. There were accusations of favouritism, and of Jim Miller coaching riders and swaying the selections, so USA Cycling added a layer between coaches and the Selection Committee. There is no way to remove favouritism (or discrimination, in this case) as long as USA Cycling staff continue to privately coach the athletes vying for selection.
But the Manderfeld arbitration revealed some unusual aspects of this well-worn script. The Selection Committee met on September 8 to confirm the coach’s selection. Manderfeld, upon learning of his exclusion, had his call with Miller who informed him his “life would be hell” until he fixed his relationship with coach Stanley.
Towards that end, Manderfeld had a long conversation with Stanley which he thought went positively. “Then I get to the arbitration, and it’s all negative… the conversation was just a pile of garbage and just blatant lies, and hoping that I wouldn’t arbitrate because at that point, I hadn’t officially started that arbitration yet.”
Manderfeld filed the arbitration on 27 September, and before the pre-hearing on October 3, the Selection Committee reconvened on October 1 to review data from a single race for each athlete “compiled and written by Mr Stanley (i.e., the individual with an acknowledged conflict)” and Manderfeld’s data was inaccurate.
According to the decision, USA Cycling initially argued that the 1 October meeting of the Committee was the final selection of the team for the World Championships and the 8 September meeting was merely a predecessor meeting even though the Procedures clearly stated the “final announcement of the team” was to be made on 13 September.
However, on cross-examination, Gary Sutton, the Head Coach of the USAC Women’s Endurance Team, confirmed the 1 October meeting was called because “[Manderfeld] was going to arbitrate” and due to a “conflict of interest between [Mr. Stanley] and [Manderfeld].”
The final hearing on 7 October was just five days before the World Championships and Manderfeld says he found out only 30 hours before the team pursuit was to start that the same riders had been chosen.
“I provided a tonne more data and videos and splits and everything from the most recent camp that was before the World Championships. They said it was not admissible because it had taken place after the petition period was done,” Manderfeld said.
CEO Quirk’s statement said only, “The coaching staff and the selection committee followed the arbitrator’s instructions, applied the procedures as written, and selected the same athletes for the Men’s Team Pursuit Team, which did not include Manderfeld.
“Discretionary selections are difficult, but ultimately, USA Cycling is responsible for putting the best Men’s Team Pursuit team on the track. That’s not always the same as putting the four best athletes on the team. We owe it to all the athletes, to ourselves and to the country to do so.”
It has been a rocky road for USA Cycling’s men’s endurance programme that once seemed to have so much promise. Former pursuit world record holder and defending world champion Ashton Lambie was notably absent from the roster, choosing to go back to gravel and mountain biking instead.
The results that came pouring in after USA Cycling restructured their elite athletics programme in 2017, with Gary Sutton coming in and Miller leaving in 2018, came grinding to a halt. The pandemic delayed the Tokyo Olympics and the USA failed to qualify a team pursuit squad for 2021. Now, the pressure is on for the programme to justify its expense after a dismal Worlds for the men, who finished 14th in the team pursuit, with Gavin Hoover and Grant Koontz’s top ten finishes in the Scratch Race and Points Race, respectively, the only glimmers of promise.
Quirk hopes that the upcoming changes to the selection process ahead of the Paris Olympic Games will “offer more transparency into the selection procedures and enhance the process. This will give us the best chance to meet our highest priority: Race-day performance by Team USA. Ultimately, that’s what matters most.”