Magnus Sheffield is a bit of an enigma.
He’s one of America’s most exciting young road talents, yet has a comparative paucity of race days on his calendar.
He’s also the junior individual pursuit world record holder with a time of 3-06.447 and is pencilled in to be a defining figurehead in the American team pursuit squad at the 2024 Paris Olympics, yet has barely ever raced on the track.
“It’s funny you bring that up,” he tells Cycling Weekly, “because although I’ve not raced a lot, the bike doesn’t feel unfamiliar to me.
“And when I am racing, whether that’s road, track, cross or mountain bike, I don’t feel like I am at the back of a pack, but that I can be influential, part of the race.”
His lack of that much actual bike racing begins to make sense when you factor in that the 19-year-old only started cycling properly three years ago, when he realised that Alpine skiing - the sport he had dedicated his youth to and even went to full-time ski school for a few years - was not the path he wanted to go down.
It’s therefore strange, at least to the uninitiated, why Ineos Grenadiers, the richest and most successful modern-day cycling team, have recruited the American on a three-year deal beginning in 2022.
But then, it’s not, not when you hear him speak. “I don’t want to be a participant in a race; I want to be a racer. And that’s a big difference.”
You see, Sheffield not only boasts incredible talent that Ineos spotted a long time ago, first contacting him after the Yorkshire 2019 Worlds where he finished third in the junior road race, but he possesses confidence in his ability to deliver. He will be a future champion of the sport.
He talks about his belief in doing well in Belgian and cobbled Classics - “the cobbles feel natural to me,” he says. “I’m not sure why but it feels like it comes easier to me.” - but it’s only when analysing his strengths do we get an insight into how he intends on racing - and winning.
He explains: “I’ve got this ability from skiing of remembering different parcours and, specifically in cycling, where the potholes are.
"I have a good memory of the little nuances of each little piece of a course. When I can figure that out, it becomes like a muscle memory. I’m not a gamer, but you could say it’s like I’m playing a video game.”
Sheffield, then, is a studious rider, the type likely to go on recce rides to get one-up on his rivals. “I’d argue now that you don’t need to spend a load of days on a recce," he continues, "for the technology is good enough to look at photos, old videos.
“But there is something to be said for being there in person. If I spend two or three days on a course, that’s a huge advantage for me. You can have a feeling of where the attack will go, of if you need to be careful on this corner, or the best line, what surface is better and not.
“Cycling is definitely shifting towards the idea that you need to do more [homework]. Just in my little experience so far, I’ve realised that people aren’t 10 times better than me as a rider, but they just have more experience.
“I suppose it’s like taking a test. If you know the questions before, versus not knowing, there is a clear advantage there. You still have to be able to put down the watts, follow moves, think about the race, but knowing a course is a huge advantage.”
There’s a lot to unpack with the engaging, humorous Sheffield. Born in Minneapolis but having grown up in New York, the mountains are his happy place. “They’re freedom, honestly,” he says. “There is something within me that feels like the mountains are part of me.”
It’s why his European base will be Andorra, a switch from Girona where he spent 2021 riding with Rally Cycling. “Girona’s cool, it’s a great place, but you’ve got to ride 50km to get into the mountains. And in Andorra, if it’s a crummy day and all the roads are shut, I can get the skis out, explore, be in nature.”
His mum is Norwegian, emigrating to the States as a teenager, and thus Sheffield - “at the Yorkshire Worlds, everyone thought I was English because of the surname,” he laughs - has a European passport. But he’s American - there’s no doubting that.
“USA Cycling plan on bringing back the men's team pursuit squad for 2024 and I’ve committed to that," he says.
"It’s nice with Ineos because there’s Ethan [Hayter], [Filippo] Ganna, [Elia] Viviani is back, and they’re all doing track, so the team is willing to support me in that. They understand the importance of the Olympics.
“Most people start out with mass start races like the elimination, Madison, omnium, getting familiar with the track, but for me it’s the opposite: I’ve only really done the individual pursuit on the track which makes me unique in that sense.”
He and Quinn Simmons, heading into his third-year as a pro with Trek-Segafredo, were a devastating duo in the 2019 junior season, and 2020 was meant to be the year where Sheffield stepped up and took the limelight, only for Covid to relegate him to zero race days.
He joined Rally last January, and the Ineos contract was penned by mid-summer, but Sheffield admits “I definitely wanted more out of last season as a whole. Things happened and the season was cut short for me a bit.” He raced just 20 days, his best result being sixth in the national time trial.
Look at his results, and it may seem hard once again as to why Ineos have brought Sheffield onto their roster. But they have seen so much more than what the stats pages say. They’ve seen America’s next star.
And Sheffield, distinctive already within the peloton, views cycling in his own unique manner. “I see cycling in two ways,” he explains. “In this past year I’ve found this part of it where I enjoy time on my bike - it’s such a powerful tool.
"And then there’s the racing aspect: I would never show up to a race just to show up. I turn up for a purpose. I’m not there to waste my time or others’ time.
"That’s pushed me to be successful from the very beginning. I apply that to everything in life. I go into things with 100 percent.”
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