New feature, July 12, 2006
Teams angry over last minute change to USPRO Criterium champs
Downers Grove event goes US-only with five weeks to go
By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
Team directors have reacted angrily to the news that the USPRO criterium championships in Downers Grove, Ill. on August 20 will be a closed championship -- meaning that only U.S. citizens on professional teams will be allowed to race for the stars and stripes jersey. The move follows the earlier restriction of the USA Cycling Professional Championships, Greenville SC, September 1 and 3 to U.S. professionals only.
"The fastest guys are not Americans, so it really devalues the race."
- Navigators manager Ed Beamon is not just disappointed for his team
"I think it's crap that they are doing it [making the change] this late, and you can quote me on that!" said Health Net-Maxxis director Jeff Corbet. "I already have hotel reservations and flights for this." None of the directors that spoke to Cyclingnews had heard of the change, with the race little more than a month away. "I've been the director for three of the last four winners, so you would think that might mean at least a phone call," said Corbet.
Race director Nick Sepke of Chicago Special Events Management told Cyclingnews that USA Cycling had requested the change following the decision to hold a closed championship race on the road. "USA Cycling approached me, because they are doing it for all of the national championships," he said. "The USPRO criterium championships will be for U.S. citizens only. It will be run by USA Cycling and not the UCI."
"It is the same thinking as everything else we are doing with the road race this year," said USA Cycling's Chief of Staff Sean Petty. "Since the race wasn't a stand-alone UCI event, they took it off the UCI calendar, which is a good thing. Everything is now in sync."
Not according to the team directors it isn't. "That is... crazy!" was the self-edited version of Navigators Insurance team director Ed Beamon's reaction. "It's pretty late to be spreading that kind of news. I'm making arrangements already. We had a USPRO board meeting the other day and it never came up."
The teams feel that the decision to close the criterium championship is not equivalent to closing the road and tiome trial championships, because the two formats have very different cultures. Many international riders who excel in criterium racing come to North America specifically for it. Therefore, the fastest racers on the continent will no longer be racing in this event, and their absence will be felt.
"The fastest guys in [American criterium racing] are not Americans, so it really devalues the race," said Beamon. "One of the caveats of the event is that you have the best teams in America competing in a UCI race, and the bonuses for winning the event outright were great. That jersey doesn't carry as much weight anywhere else. And as a standalone event I don't think they will get the same response. What has kept that event alive and given its significance is that you have the best teams going there because it was a prestigious event to win."
Jeff Corbet agrees with Beamon. "I'm all for a US only road championship, but the crit championships isn't an internationally recognized race. You can win that race but you can't wear that jersey in Europe or anywhere else."
Another implication of this change is that the top domestic teams, which had always counted on using their fast international riders to either win the race outright, or help a U.S. teammate win the jersey, will now have to scramble to change their game plan. "A lot of teams are hurt by it," Corbet said. "You are taking the four best sprinters in America out of it. It will change the dynamic of the race, with so many teams that have non-American speed."
The team hurt the most by the change would have to be Navigators Insurance, with only five U.S. riders total on the roster. "Pretty profound changes for us," said Beamon. "We have a solid guy with Sean Milne that the team would be comfortable racing for. But I have five Americans and two of them aren't really crit riders. So it puts me in a totally different team."
Jeff Corbet says he would be less upset over the change if more notice had been given. "For example, with the new road race, a lot of us designed our roster to have an American go for the jersey with only Americans supporting him. I would have done the same for the crit if I had known. I have a lot of respect for promoters who communicate with the teams in the off season. A lot of them call me and get feedback on changes they are thinking about doing."
Organiser Sepke said that teams can enter an unlimited amount of riders into the race, possibly meaning that U.S. riders racing for European teams will still be able to compete even without a team. "That is something we are trying to verify with USA Cycling now. We are not sure if it will still be a team event only or open to individual professionals."
As with previous editions of the two-day event, the evening before will end with a half-distance pro-am race, which will remain open to any nationality professional or category 1-2 rider. And with the change to the Sunday event, it could turn into an international display, with U.S. elite and professionals saving themselves for the Sunday elite and professional championships.
"Last year we had a 175 rider field limit [for the pro-am] but had to expand it to 200 riders," said Sepke. "So that race alone has always been a huge event."
But Jeff Corbet says the flip-side to that is many of those international riders were there because of the race on Sunday. "The prize money for the pro-am is so weak and for no NRC points, it's not even worth it to fly a guy in for just that race."
With this huge change the tactics and contenders to win the race change considerably. "It's anybody's guess," said Corbet. "Certainly Kirk O'Bee has to be a top contender now, since he has won there before."
The other top domestic team that would seem to be most hurt by this change is Toyota-United, with arguably the top two winning sprinters of this season in Argentinean Juan Jose Haedo and Cuban Ivan Dominguez. But director Harm Jansen, an international racer who won this race in 2001, is still confident. "I'm surprised, but we have a lot of American sprinters. We have Tony and it doesn't even have to happen in a sprint. So I think we will have a good shot. Wherry is not afraid of crits and he is someone who can win it solo."