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USA Cycling Pro championships - CN

USA, August 30-31, 2008

US pros battle for titles down in Dixie

By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor

Last years winner Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) is not returning
Photo ©: Jonathan Devich
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For the third, and possibly final year (of a three year contract,) most of the top professionals of US cycling will race in Greenville, South Carolina for the honour of wearing the stars and stripes for an entire year as the US national champion of the time trial or road race. The word most is used here because a few key players will not be on the start line, most notably defending road race champion Levi Leipheimer. He and his Astana team are busy is Spain contesting the Vuelta a España, so there will definitely be a new national road race champion.

But not necessarily for the time trial as defending champion Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Chipotle) will try to preserve his injury-laden season with another year in the jersey. A twelfth place at the Olympics was a good sign that his rehabilitation is progressing, but there will be 48 other starters looking to capitalize on his condition. Thirteen of those will be his own team-mates including Christian Vande Velde, who pulled off a top five overall at the Tour de France and finished fourth in its final ITT. Another Garmin-Chipotle rider, Danny Pate, finished 14th.

On the domestic front for the time trial, Tom Zirbel (Bissell) has shown good talent in the discipline, with a high finish in the Tour of California and recently winning the Tour of Utah time trial. His team-mate Ben Jacques-Maynes is notably absent from the preliminary start list, as are any starters from the BMC and Toyota-United teams. Other contenders include Phil Zajizek (Health Net-Maxxis) and Reid Mumford (Kelly Benefits Strategies-Medifast).

Team Columbia's George Hincapie, also known as Greenville's favourite son when it comes to cycling, finished tenth in the final Tour time trial. And he could be focusing on the time trial since he has already won a road title here in 2006. Another interesting point is that Hincapie is also the only one of two ProTour riders on the start list for both the road race and time trial, with his team-mate Craig Lewis as the other. This means that the criticism of the two previous editions, that the European-based pros on various ProTour teams colluded to take the jersey, will not be possible this year.

Bajadali and his KBS team
Photo ©: Kurt Jambretz
(Click for larger image)

What could make a difference, at least in the road race, is the numbers game. With 14 starters, almost two full squads at most stage races; Garmin-Chipotle outnumbers all of the other teams. The second biggest squad is BMC with 12, followed by Health Net-Maxxis with 11.

But it only takes one to win, and with the way the road race has panned out in previous years, Paris Mountain will likely neutralize a lot of the large team advantage. One of the riders looking to do this will be Andy Bajadali (Kelly Benefits), who was the top domestic contender last year, losing out in the final kilometre to the battle between Hincapie and eventual winner Leipheimer. He will have some help in numbers though, with eight team-mates to support him. The top domestic finisher last year was Neil Shirley (Jittery Joe's), who finished third, is back as well.

Looking to recent successes, Jeff Louder (BMC) showed good form recently winning the Tour of Utah by one second over Blake Caldwell (Garmin-Chipotle), which featured some of the toughest climbing of the year. Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) recently won China's Tour of Qinghai Lake.

In another strategy, former national champion Chris Wherry (Toyota-United), who finished fifth here in 2006, does not appear to be wasting any energy with the time trial to focus on the road race. The fourth place finisher that year, Burke Swindlehurst (Bissell), is also in good form.

Besides the changes in the type of racing, there will also be some changes as to where they are racing. The road race changes are mostly cosmetic, with the start/finish area moving a few blocks over. But the main loop still goes over Paris Mountain four times and the finish loop still winds through downtown.

The biggest changes come with the time trial course, which will not be run amongst the Stepford Wives of two gated communities, but will be much more fan friendly with three laps of a 6.9 mile course on the campus of Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research. However the course profile is much less rolling and includes a lot of turning, which could affect the outcome compared to the previous two years.

Cyclingnews will have live coverage of both the time trial (Saturday) and road race (Sunday).