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USA Cycling Pro championships - CN

USA, September 1-3, 2006

Americans (only) ready to roll in Greenville

By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor

2005 winner Chris Wherry (Health Net)
Photo ©: Jon Devich
Click for larger image

After years of talk about whether the USA should follow the rest of the world and have a national championships restricted just to US riders, the USA Cycling professional championships in Greenville, SC this weekend is an opportunity to see the strength in depth of the US peloton .

Riders like George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) and David Zabriskie (Team CSC) will join domestic-based American professionals like defending road champion Chris Wherry (Toyota-United), former road champion Mark McCormack (Colavita-Sutter Home) and 2005 runner-up Danny Pate (TIAA-CREF) to vie for the stars and stripes, which will go to the first racer across the line, period.

Many in the cycling world point to having a closed national championship race as a turning point -- illustrating that American cycling has finally arrived, and that the depth of professional Americans can sustain its own race. Previous to this, the championship was an open race, allowing professionals from any country to participate, with the first American winning the title. And this was fine years ago when the amount of true American professionals were much fewer.

However, the absence of foreigners in the race has some possible negative implications as well. First among these is that some European-based American professionals will not be able to participate. Multiple winner Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) and teammate Chris Horner are racing the Vuelta for their team. Prior to this, the team would have sent a handful of riders to support Rodriguez and Horner but is no longer able to.

Another criticism is that many domestic teams are made-up of non-Americans, here to race the crit-saturated North American schedule. This most affects the Navigators Insurance team, which will only be starting four riders in the road race, but other teams will lose some of their stronger riders who would have ridden in support of their American teammates.

A final possible drawback is that the ability level of American professionals, while higher than any ever on the top end, is still a wide dispersion. In other words, the attrition rate of the race could be high, as was the case in the former championship race this year in Philadelphia, where only thirty-one of the seventy-two riders that finished were American.

Yet, most involved -- from USA Cycling, to the riders and managers, and down to the fans that line the road -- seem excited the next American champion will not have to have an asterisk next to his name, and that the race will showcase what American cycling has become.

The road to victory

The change to the road race will be most evident quantitatively -- with race favourites like Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie virtually racing solo. Hincapie will be the only one of these three with help in the form of teammate and former Olympian Jason McCartney. The hope for these riders is that the five laps of the 121 mile (194.6km) parcours will be tough enough to separate the large teams from their riders, making it a virtual one-on-one race.

However, this has to be the strategy for teams like Toyota-United with their defence of the Wherry's jersey, as well as Health Net-Maxxis and TIAA-CREF. Jonathan Vaughters is certainly taking full advantage of the no-limits on teams, taking fifteen riders to protect Danny Pate. Look for all of these teams to attack the race early, trying to break the race open, or at least isolate other top riders.

In addition to Wherry, Toyota-United has good potential in Tony Cruz and Chris Baldwin. Baldwin recently won a stage of the Tour of Utah and has been climbing strong this year. Health Net-Maxxis has the second-largest team with ten riders, many of which are strong contenders. The veteran Scott Moninger will certainly enjoy the climbing of the course, with Tim Johnson and Kirk O'Bee also posing threats.

While starting one of the smallest contingents, Navigators Insurance has found a winning form this year -- and not just from their larger international contingent. American Sean Milne won the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic, winning both of the road stages, and winning the Bank of America Invitational.

Of course, anything could happen out of the remaining contingent of riders and teams from quite a large field.

Countdown to a champion

Unlike the road race, the time trial has always been Americans-only, held in conjunction with the elite amateurs nationals. This precluded many Euro-pros from making a whole trip just for this. Now pros such as Leipheimer, McCartney and Zabriskie will race the time trial nationals, with domestic pro and defending champion Chris Baldwin (Toyota-United) ready to challenge.

In an interview with Cyclingnews, Baldwin said, "I think it's exciting that some of the big guns might show up. I much prefer to lose with those guys there than win without. It would make a good result that much more credible. The higher level the competition the better, as far as I am concerned."

Toyota-United's Chris Wherry beat Baldwin in the Tour of Utah time trial a few weeks ago, but could be saving himself for the road race.

Like the road race, the largest representation will be from TIAA-CREF, with former U23 world champion Danny Pate leading the team. Will Frischkorn and Mike Creed also have potential to ride a good time trial.

Appropriately, the first rider off will be the product of Discovery Channel's public relations spectacle, A.J. Smith. Smith, a former professional with the AEG-Toshiba-JetNetwork team, won an honorary spot on the Discovery team last month.