RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The U.S. women were among the favorites heading into the road cycling world championships, the depth and talent of their team almost unrivaled as they attempted to defend their home turf.
Then they came up empty in the time trial.
The sting of missing out on the podium this week could be assuaged Saturday, when the seven-rider team starts in the women's road race. No American has claimed gold in an elite road race since Lance Armstrong in 1993, and no woman since Beth Heiden in 1980.
''If the American women don't medal in the time trial or road race at the elite level, I'd be shocked,'' said Todd Gogulski, the captain of the U.S. team when the world championships were last held at home in 1986, and now a cycling analyst for Universal Sports.
Road races are inherently unpredictable, though, particularly with rain forecast Saturday and Sunday, when the men's elite road race wraps up the world championships.
The course itself is 10 miles long, with the women doing eight laps of it. But it is hardly an easy circuit. Along with a couple of fast straightaways, riders have to navigate a brutal climb up cobblestones on Libby Hill, then two more climbs up 23rd Street and Governor Street, before a long run-in to the finish on Broad Street, where thousands of fans are expected.
It amounts to a hybrid of European courses that might be found in the Netherlands or Belgium, and the kind of fast criterium courses that are the hallmark of American cycling.
''The important parts of the race will be the last five kilometers, where there's a couple of real kickers,'' said American sprinter Coryn Rivera, who raced the course last year during the college nationals. ''It'll come down to attrition and condition, and good luck, obviously.''
Some of the sport's biggest names are missing this year, including three-time gold medalist and reigning Olympic champion Marianne Vos, who called it a season early because of injuries.
The entire podium from last year is back, though, led by Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. The French star is not only the defending road champion but also holds the current cyclocross and mountain bike world titles, the first rider in history to complete that triple crown.
''I'm very motivated to keep this championship,'' she said. ''I've worked very hard for it.''
Ferrand-Prevot said her major rivals - besides the American team - are Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands, who won silver in the time trial, and British sprinter Lizzie Armitstead.
Germany's Lisa Brennauer, Sweden's Emma Johansson and Italy's Giorgia Bronzini should also be in the mix. All of them have been on the podium at the world championships.
As for the Americans, they had to deal with a last-minute roster change.
An independent arbiter ruled Tuesday that Lauren Komanski should have been awarded one of the team's discretionary selections rather than Allie Dragoo. That meant Komanski was added to the roster with roughly three days to prepare for the start of the road race.
''It was a shake-up, but we're all professionals and we all were selected to be here,'' Megan Guarnier said. ''It's a big task and I think we're all focused on bringing home a medal.''
The reason the U.S. is a top medal contender is the composition of the team rather than any one rider. Guarnier has had the best season of her career, while Evie Stevens, Lauren Stephens and Tayler Wiles provide versatility. Rivera and Shelley Olds expect to be there for a sprint finish.
''I think we have a really balanced team,'' Stevens said. ''We have options.''
Jim Miller, the USA Cycling vice president and the man in charge of the national team, anticipates his team being ''instigators'' in the race, helping to dictate the tempo throughout the afternoon.
''We have a really, really good skill set within the team to race any sort of tactic,'' he said, ''so I think we'll find ourselves in a decent situation to challenge for the podium.''