RICHMOND, Va. -- It was an unpremeditated attack. There were four riders in the breakaway with a gap approaching 50 seconds, and Chloe Dygert wanted to push harder on the last lap of the 40-mile world championship junior women's road race. Dygert came to Virginia thinking she could deliver, and she wanted to lick the envelope and seal it shut.
She bore down, opening daylight between herself and the other three. Among them was U.S. teammate Emma White, who admired the extra gear and the moxie even as she fought to stay within sight.
"She made me suffer,'' White said. "I was hurting, but I couldn't be happier. I knew what I had to do to help her up the road and I knew she could keep it.''
Dygert didn't expect to stay away, but when she felt that absence on her wheel, she glanced back and elected to go it alone. As she approached the finish line, she zipped her jersey to the neck, then lightly tapped the Team USA logo with a gesture so understated it was easy to miss. White sprinted clear into second place, 1 minute, 23 seconds behind, giving the duo the same 1-2 finish it achieved in the time trial earlier this week. Dygert is the first U.S. junior woman ever to sweep those titles.
"We all worked so hard, and I'm just so glad we could do what we could do,'' the preternaturally composed 18-year-old Dygert said, a slight tremor in her voice the only betrayal of the extent of her effort and fulfilled ambition.
The talent pool is deep in the United States. Gifted women keep finding their own way into the sport, whether they're teenagers like Dygert and White, or grownups who put graduate degrees and careers on hold to race.
So what could be amiss with this picture? From the outside, it may look as if USA Cycling has a healthy competitive pipeline. Yet a national development system for young women in this country is still largely ad hoc, underfunded and reliant on individual support structures and random, serendipitous path-crossing between athletes and mentors, rather than rational structure.
Dygert's and White's success this week begs the question of how many gifted girls are lurking out there, yet to be spotted and nurtured.
Dygert, from Brownsburg, Indiana, didn't devote herself to cycling until her bruising style on the basketball court resulted in ACL and shoulder surgeries. Her father and brother introduced her to riding. Nicola Cranmer, whose Twenty16 team is the only U.S.-based elite outfit that integrates juniors into its operations, met Dygert at a national competition when she was 15 and signed her to a pro contract last season.
Dygert also earned a scholarship to ride at Marian University, one of a small but growing number of U.S. collegiate club programs that do not fall under the NCAA umbrella, and thus allow athletes to compete as professionals. Her relationship with U.S. under-23 rider Logan Owen, with whom she shares a coach and a planned future (the two are engaged) further immersed her in the sport.
The effervescent White, also 18, from Delanson in upstate New York, is the only woman on the privately sponsored Hot Tubes junior program established in the early 1990s. She is coached remotely by two-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, and has signed with the Optum pro team for next year. She'll enroll in Union College in Schenectady, New York, this January.
White qualified for the 2014 junior world championships in Spain and said that experience was invaluable. "I owe it to last year that I knew what to expect this year,'' she said.
In the elite women's ranks, self-made cycling careers that started in college or even later are still the norm. Among the seven accomplished U.S. women slated to start Saturday's elite road race are Evelyn Stevens, who abandoned a job as a Wall Street investment banker to ride for a fraction of the paycheck; Lauren Stephens, a former teacher; Lauren Komanski, who has a veterinary degree; and Megan Guarnier, a neuroscience major.
USA Cycling hasn't invested in sending junior girls to Europe, partly because of limited resources and partly because there hasn't been as much demand. Aspiring young American men are more likely to pack a duffel bag and head overseas, because they have better odds of making a living as professionals later on.
Women have to hedge their bets, so they go to college, in turn feeding an unfair perception that they're not as committed as the boys. But it's an issue when junior boys get chances the girls don't, and USA Cycling's leadership knows it has to be addressed -- if only for the selfish reason that untapped talent may be being left on the table.
Ideas abound on how to keep the best female juniors moving forward after their junior eligibility expires at 18. (The UCI, cycling's international governing body, has a transitional under-23 age group competition in men's road racing but not for women, although that may be considered in the near future.) Ina-Yoko Teutenberg of Germany, a dominant rider of her generation who works with USA Cycling juniors at events like the world championship, thinks European racing experience is essential. She wondered aloud if college-aged riders should be encouraged to study abroad.
Evelyn Stevens, who came to the sport in her mid-20s, thinks taking a break between the junior and elite levels is not only viable but desirable in some cases. "Because I started late, I have this bias that you can be very successful later,'' she said.
Stevens thinks it is important to get girls started early -- bike-handling skills learned young on the road and the track are irreplaceable -- then fund a program to help them transition back into high-level racing after college.
USA Cycling officials can continue to pick the sturdy plants that sprout and bloom organically, or they can supplement that harvest by constructing a modest greenhouse. Mari Holden, the time trial world champion and Olympic silver medalist who directs Twenty16 on the road, has a psychology degree and said she would never advocate skipping college.
"There has to be a balance there somewhere,'' she said. "I don't have the perfect answer, but there's no reason [juniors] can't be in Europe in the summertime, or racing more here. I 100 percent believe that athletes will keep coming to us later, or from other sports. But that shouldn't stop us from trying to develop the young ones.''