Just 11 years have passed since the biggest doping scandal in American sporting history, but the landscape of cycling in the country has been transformed.
While Lance Armstrong has been excommunicated, his former teammates – with hard lessons learned – are quietly populating the peloton with progeny who can put their talents on display without a pervasive culture of doping.
One junior team, EF Education-ONTO, has two riders with familiar surnames – Enzo Hincapie, 15, son of George Hincapie, and Ashlin Barry, 16, son of Dede and Michael Barry. Both young riders have shown enormous potential on the bike and seem destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.
Rusty Miller, their moustachioed team leader, was one of many riders who chose integrity over success in the EPO-laden aughts and is firmly convinced that they won’t have to make the same choices their fathers did.
“I don’t think any professional cyclist in the aught woke up and thought, ‘what I want to do is extract my own blood and inject it three months later’,” Miller says when asked the obvious question about his riders’ heritage by Cyclingnews. “Even the guys who did that didn’t enjoy that. And they know that it left both physical and mental scars.
“I’m able to talk to my riders about what it was like in a past era, when there was this drug that made you invincible, and the testing couldn’t catch it. I talk to my riders about the prisoner’s dilemma – if you’re in the aughts, you can’t compete against the guy who’s doping, and the test can’t catch him for doping. What do you do? Do you keep cycling? … I try to teach my riders what a terrible, terrible situation all professional cyclists were in and then pivot them to understanding the fact that they are not in that situation.
“If anyone’s cheating, today, they’re cheating at such tiny marginal effects, that it’s not worth the risk – they’re going to get caught eventually. Whatever marginal effect they can get from cheating is not the same thing that we were facing in the aughts.
“I can tell kids with certainty today, if you go get your butt kicked by another junior, he just trained harder than you did and was better than you were that day. You don’t have to be cynical about your fellow competitors’ performances today.”
Miller is cynicism-averse. He raced for a prominent Southeast team in that EPO-filled era but gave up the sport when it became clear that to go any further, he’d have to give up his integrity.
After working at Duke University for a decade, his partner heard him tell a colleague things were ‘same shit, different day’ – and expressed her surprise at the cynical statement. That led to a re-evaluation of what he wanted to do with his life.
“I kind of jumped off a cliff and quit my day job and went into coaching and directing cycling – back into the sport that changed my life, that I love,” Miller said.
He took up coaching the Duke collegiate team until his partner’s job took them back home to Greenville, South Carolina. He built a successful collegiate team at Furman University until the budget dried up. Then, Rich Hincapie (brother to George) asked him to run his junior programme.
“Within just a few months, I realised this junior thing is my lane. This is where I need to be, this is where I can make a difference in cycling and make a difference in the world.”
Miller got some coaching from Hot Tubes team manager Toby Stanton on how to create a nonprofit and raise enough funds to keep the team running, and five years ago, the team started racing as Onto.
Last year, the team joined forces with Jonathan Vaughters’ organisation to become EF Education-Onto, opening up more doors for the team and its riders.
The team is not exactly a feeder team for the WorldTour squad, and the riders’ aren’t obliged to sign with them in the future, but Vaughters keeps an eye on the riders’ development. Both the relationship and the international racing opportunities are giving young Americans either a path to the pro ranks or the experience of a lifetime if they leave the sport.
Miller, much like Stanton, prioritises character over power numbers. “We have kind of one big rule inside the team, and it’s don’t be a jerk. If I sense that an athlete doesn’t have control of his emotions or his competitive streak, if he can’t get along with other riders inside his own team, or especially outside of his own team, that’s not the guy for our culture.
“We look for kids that are responsible, smart, kids that I can trust to respond to emails that I send to the team. I look for kids that I can trust to represent all of our sponsors out there in the world. Beyond that, we look for fast cyclists. It’s always a combination of results that riders can get in any kind of races, plus having a look at the power files that they produced over the year.”
The team has competed internationally in Europe and Asia, winning the Tour of DMZ in Korea and the team competitions at the Tour de l’Ain under-17, along with racing the Junior Tour of Ireland, kermesses in Belgium, among others, and have similar plans for 2024.
Ashlin Barry turns 17 in 2024 and has yet to test himself in Europe but, as a dual citizen of the US and Canada, has decided to race under the stars and stripes. At 6’2″ (188cm), Miller says, “There’s nothing that he can’t do – he can sprint, he can time trial. I believe that he can be among the best riders in the world at everything except pure climbing.
With back-to-back wins in the Green Mountain Stage Race, the biggest junior race in the US, Miller says, “I honestly think I think he has the tools to be a rider on the level of a Wout van Aert or a Mathieu Van der Poel.”
Barry will be one of six riders at the upcoming Valley of the Sun Stage Race.
“We have another 17-year-old this year, Gray Barnett, he’s the reigning US national Time Trial champion. His time as a 16-year-old would have been second place in the 17-18 bracket if he was competing against those guys at Nationals. So we’re very excited about Gray as well. He’s a stunning talent,” Miller says.
“We also have a very special rider from Louisiana named Peyton Burckel. Peyton’s a two-time champion in the criterium and he is much more than a sprinter or a criterium rider. I see him developing a lot like a Julian Alaphilippe, a guy who gets a fairly small guy who can climb and sprint and time trial and do everything that can be done with a bike.
Enzo Hincapie hasn’t turned 16 yet so he also hasn’t been racing internationally but Miller describes him as “an astonishing young talent”.
“If the US National Championship and the time trial, if he was able to compete in the 17-18s, he would have finished third as a 15-year-old.”
The team gets started at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race next week with Barry, Burckel, Barnett, Streif and guest riders Presley Evans and Harry Lasker, where they will “aim for big rides in the Arizona desert”, according to Miller.
“It’s great to have a big early-season event to motivate the training in December and January, although we are mindful that it’s a long season and our riders should hit their peaks much later,” he said.
“I want to see us come together as a six-headed monster and race on the same page. If we can do that, I think it’s possible for us to win. VoTS will feature 108 riders in the 17-18 field, probably the biggest junior race in North America in the last half-decade or more. That’s a promising sign for the health of American cycling, but it also means that the competition will be stout.”