SAN DIEGO (VN) — Scan Lawson Craddock’s 2012 results and one thing pops out: consistency.
The 21-year-old Bontrager development team rider regularly placed top 10 in races from the Tour of Utah to the Amgen Tour of California to the Tour of the Gila. Along with a second at the under-23 elite road nationals time trial, the Texan’s 11th at the U23 Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) showed his talent runs deep enough to go mano a mano with Europe’s best.
Craddock, a seven-time national champion who grew up in Houston and now lives in Austin, told VeloNews that his first big goals for 2013 are in Belgium.
“Obviously, Flanders is one of the classics of all time, so I’d like to perform well there along with Liège,” he said of the U23 Tour of Flanders that takes place on April 6 and the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 13.
Though he just turned 21, Craddock is already a veteran of multiple European cycling campaigns.
“My first time in Europe was when I was 16,” Craddock said.
In 2013 Craddock is working with a new coach, Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s vice president of athletics. As a member of both the U.S. national team and Bontrager Craddock also gets guidance from national team director Mike Sayers and Bontrager director Axel Merckx, for whom he has ridden for three years.
With Miller and Merckx’s input, Craddock said he has tweaked his preparation for spring racing by doing more base training and ramping up the intensity of his workouts.
“I’ve been training pretty hard back in Austin,” he said of his winter fitness development.
In 2012, Craddock prefaced the Tour of Flanders by racing the 10-day Tour of Normandy. This year he said his run in to Flanders “will be a bit more mellow.” He plans to do the three-day Troféu Cidade da Guarda in Portugal the last week in March and then head up to wintry Belgium for three more days of racing at the Triptyque des Monts and Chateaux.
“I think I will be able to fine-tune my training a little bit more and really hit those races with some good form,” he said.
Sayers both raced with and directed the BMC WorldTour squad, and Craddock said he appreciates having access to his and Merckx’s collective wisdom.
“They are a wealth of information; you just ask them a question and that’s all you need to do — come in with an open mind and be ready to learn,” he said.
Craddock also said he appreciates that unlike WorldTour team directors, who are paid to keep their charges in the team fold, Merckx and Sayers’ success is measured by their ability to push riders up and out.
“Those guys are here to help us. Of course, they would love to see us move up to the ProTour or whatever the next level is for us. Besides personal satisfaction, they really don’t get anything from us moving up. They are here solely for one goal, and that’s to take us to the next level,” Craddock said.
Merckx told VeloNews that this year he is especially enthusiastic about working with riders like Craddock and his guides, Miller and Sayers.
“I am really looking forward, more than any other year, to work with them together at really what our common goal is — make those guys professional cyclists and make it to the ProTour.”
Unlike nations like Merckx’s native Belgium, the United States does not use taxpayer funds to identify and nurture young cycling talent. Craddock feels this financial reality puts the United States at something of a disadvantage.
“Especially in countries like Australia and Great Britain, kids are tested when they are in middle school and they are brought out and they are basically just farm animals; they just work and work. That’s why they are so good; they’ve had kids that are just the best of the best,” he said.
However, judging from the young U.S. talent making an impression around the world — riders like Andrew Talansky, Joe Dombrowski, Taylor Phinney, and Tejay van Garderen — Craddock feels his country is doing well in spite of its structural disadvantages.
“I think that U.S. cycling is definitely on its way up,” Craddock said. “There are more development teams than there have ever been and there are more big races than there’s ever been with California and Colorado and Utah.”
Craddock said having European-caliber races like California, where Craddock placed seventh in the mountainous stage 2 to Santa Cruz and ninth in an equally hilly stage 1 in Santa Rosa, inspires young riders to push themselves harder on home soil than they previously could.
On last year’s first California stage, Craddock finished between Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Stijn Vandenbergh and Rabobank’s Luis León Sanchez. Vandenbergh placed second at last month’s Omloop Het Niewsblad. Sanchez has won four Tour de France stages as well as Paris-Nice, the Tour Down Under, and two editions of the Clásica San Sebastián.
Racing — and placing — cheek to jowl with riders of this caliber was a joy, Craddock said.
“It was awesome, it’s such a fun race. It’s like you are racing against the top level of the sport,” he said.
Cradock was also impressed by how tightly the WorldTour teams patrolled the event.
“It’s so controlled. The teams have it completely dialed,” he said.
Comparing California to the 2012 U23 Paris-Roubaix, which he raced a week later, Craddock laughed, shook his head and said Roubaix “was chaos.”
“It was a war zone out there!” he said. “It was a little strange jumping from the two extremes. It told me everything I want to know.”
The WorldTour, he added, “is where I want to end up.”
Andrew Hawkes, who runs USA Cycling’s European program from Belgium, told VeloNews that for a rider like Craddock, who has been racing abroad for a quarter of his life, being able to handle high-torque Euro racing with humor and flexibility is essential.
In Hawkes’ six years of working for USA Cycling, a key factor he sees distinguishing riders who succeed in Europe is that “they travel well.”
“Some of them want to be there, some of them don’t. It comes down to they want to be in Europe,” he said. “If they are going to be on a World Tour team then they’ve got to be willing to live in Europe from long periods of time.”
Miller said riders like Craddock, who saw early success as junior riders and were then raised in the embrace of USA Cycling’s European program, can develop a certain complacency about making it to the pros. It was a sense of “we are going to turn pro, we just don’t know when or with who,” he said, paraphrasing their attitude of inevitability.
Concerned, in early 2012 Miller had a stern talk with the U23 riders, including Craddock and teammates like Gavin Mannion, telling them that if they intend to make it on a WorldTour team, they had better step up their diligence.
Miller said he “simply put it that nobody was going to give them anything. If they wanted it, then they were going to have to make it happen.”
“I definitely was not the most popular guy for a few weeks, but I think that message resonated with them, and there was a clear change in behavior from the group as a whole,” he added.
The warning seemed to stick. Craddock has been training like a professional, and Miller said fans “should expect big things out of him in the next few months.”
Compared to the days when a 17-year old Greg LeMond showed up in Poland with nothing more than the name of an Eddy Borysewicz acquaintance scrawled on a piece of paper and then endured years under indifferent coaches and thin-roofed, unfurnished flats, Craddock said USA Cycling’s development program has dramatically smoothed the path to the bigs.
“It’s exponentially easier,” Craddock said. “The opportunities that we have now are opportunities that definitely weren’t available to that first generation of American cyclists. It’s night and day.”