The city of Knoxville, Tennessee put on a stellar USA Cycling Pro Road Championships for the third year in a row and will continue as host for two more years. The Great Smoky Mountains foothills provide just the right amount of climbing and flat roads, while the heat and humidity tip the balances in favour of the most prepared athletes. The end result was six deserving champions and exciting, unpredictable racing that highlighted some amazing athletic performances. Cyclingnews came to eight conclusions from the event.
1. Stephen Bassett deserves a pro contract
Hometown rider Stephen Bassett was an unexpected presence on the final men's road race podium in second behind winner Alex Howes and showed that he has what it takes to go pedal stroke for pedal stroke against WorldTour riders like winner Alex Howes (EF Education First) and third-placed Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma). He had a pro contract with Silber in 2018 until the team folded, and was not selected to continue when Floyd's took over the organisation. Landis and Gord Fraser should be kicking themselves right now for letting this one slip.
Bassett won two stages and the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race, a stage at the Redlands Classic and the Winston Salem Criterium this year, clearly demonstrating that he had done his homework over the winter. Racing with the local elite First Internet Bank squad, Bassett had the advantage of a full feed zone support crew: "I think we had six in the feed zone for five riders. I took an ice sock every lap. 15 ice socks over four and a half hours makes a pretty massive difference," he told Cyclingnews.
The 24-year-old showed impressive determination hitting out early in the sprint - it really looked as if he'd won it but just ran out of gas ahead of the last turn and was overtaken by Howes. That level of grit certainly deserves a pro contract, but Bassett doesn't have anything solid in the works. Will his performance at nationals help?
2. Howes is better than ever
Alex Howes has always been a good one-day racer and it's surprising he hasn't won a national title before now: he was on the podium or just shy of it in 2013, 2014 and agonizingly won the sprint for second behind Greg Daniel in 2016 in Winston Salem. To finally step on top of the podium was an emotional moment, not just for Howes but for the whole crowd who bore witness to the sheer joy of the moment.
"I was in a pretty dark place this time last year," Howes said on his EF Education First team site. "I was struggling with an undiagnosed [hyper-]thyroid, fighting my body, thinking of hanging it up. I was depressed and scared, wasting away. To come back and win the jersey a year later? This is bliss. Pure satisfaction."
Winning a national title has always been his goal, he said. "To be close so many times, the pressure and disappointment grew exponentially with each loss. Waiting this long makes it all the sweeter."
Howes went about winning the hard way, attacking numerous times, being in the early breakaway, getting caught, attacking again to form the decisive winning break of three, getting dropped from it and having to claw his way back, then nearly missing catching Bassett in the final stretch.
"It was absolutely surreal crossing the line," Howes said. "I've dreamt of this for so long, and it was way better than I had ever imagined it could be ... I am so humbled and amazed at how many people seem genuinely happy I won."
3. Powless shows his class
While Howes had several strong teammates to help chase back moves and put him in the right position, Powless was flying solo and had to very carefully select which attack he would cover. He still had plenty of spark when it came to the decisive move from Howes on the last ascent of Sherrod Road. Powless put his time trialling skills to good use to keep the trio away and although he was lacking somewhat in the finale, the podium result confirmed his class and the recent result in the Critérium du Dauphiné (2nd best young rider) and earlier in the season at the Volta ao Algarve, where he was seventh overall.
"I was really trying to be good here as well, in training before the Dauphiné I was trying to prepare myself for this race as well, working on my five minute or less power," Powless told Cyclingnews. "Honestly, the Dauphiné didn't come out of nowhere, but it was a pleasant feeling. I was a lot better than I thought I was going to be there. I think I had the legs I expected to have here [in Knoxville]. I didn't feel exceptional but I was able to be there when I needed to be, and I was able to play some tactics in the end."
The 22-year-old is out of contract at the end of the year but is deserving of a new WorldTour ride. "We'll see. I'm trying to weigh some options right now. Jumbo's been an amazing team for me, but as of right now I don't have a contract. We'll see how it goes in the next couple of months."
4. Winder is one tough cookie
Ruth Winder put in a truly impressive ride, spending some 40km on the attack and then in a gripping finale when she could probably feel the push of air from Coryn Rivera who was barreling down behind her, Winder held on to take her first pro national title. It was a confirmation of her class that built upon a stellar 2017 season with UnitedHealthcare, and a strong season last year with Sunweb in which she won two Giro Rosa stages.
To stay away solo just a handful of seconds ahead of a motivated group of 15 or so riders showed that Winder has an exceptional level of mental toughness.
"It's not over til it's over, just keep on going, that's all I was thinking. Just trying to motivate myself to go as hard as I could. Go as hard as I could in the straightaways and I knew that I had a couple of corners to recover in. So just go as hard as I could, breathe in the corners. And then coming across the finish line, I thought everyone was going to pass me in the last 100 meters just coming down there because I was dying so bad. I had nothing. I sat down, and I was like 'get up, sprint, sprint, sprint.’ Nobody passed me and I can't believe that I won," Winder said.
5. Keep the Hagens Berman-Supermint band together
If any one team lit up the national championships, it was the Hagens Berman-Supermint squad. They were non-stop in their attacking, throwing rider after rider up the road in the criterium, then putting Lily Williams on the podium, and again in the road race, where Stara Teddergreen formed the main two-up breakaway with Beth-Ann Orton. Teddergreen turned herself inside out, then Williams took over when eventual winner Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo) attacked and bridged across. Williams fought hard to stay with Winder but finally had to let go on the last climb. She was still the team's top finisher in 13th.
If any team deserves to keep a sponsor, it's Hagens Berman-Supermint, but by all reports, the law firm will be pulling out at the end of the season. These women race with such heart and so cohesively as a unit, it would be a shame to break up the band.
6. Evergreen Neben
Amber Neben might be 44, but she showed that she can still handle the kind of training load that it takes to claim a national time trial title, beating Chloe Dygert (Sho-Air/Twenty20), who is half her age, by 36 seconds over 22.8km. It's Neben's fourth national title in the time trial, and she's not giving up there - her goal is to make the Olympic team for Tokyo and finally get a medal.
Neben said she never takes winning at Nationals for granted. "I got second like eight times before I won. This race is really hard to win.
"I enjoy the process more than anything. I think the victories are so quickly forgotten, but it's the process that lasts. I'm really focused on the next big step, which is Worlds. The big vision is 2020 to try to make the Olympic team for a third time and bring home a medal."
There may be those who think Neben should step aside and allow some younger riders to get Olympic experience, but she's shown again and again that she has the poise and the process to compete on the world's stage.
7. Garrison a rider for the future
Ian Garrison clocked a surprise victory in the men's time trial, beating Powless by 20 seconds over 34.2km just one week after taking home the U23 title in Hagerstown, Maryland. The double titles are confirmation of the promise Garrison already showed in his first pro year with Hagens Berman Axeon in 2017 with a stage win in the Tour de Beauce and a second place in Gent-Wevelgem U23, and in his junior year with a bronze medal at the World Championships time trial in Doha.
Garrison prepared specifically for the time trial and it showed. "The preparation goes back a long ways, so even in the offseason just thinking of working on my time trial and spending time on the time trial bike. And then in the past month, it’s just been dialling in the training, longer hours, thinking how this was going to be a long effort."
The accomplishment hadn't quite set in immediately after the race, but a rider winning a US Pro time trial championship at such a young age hasn't happened since Taylor Phinney in 2010. Garrison is certainly a rider to keep an eye on for the future.
8. Emma White is a star in the making
There was one rider who featured on all three podiums, and that's Rally UHC's Emma White, winner of the women's criterium, third in the time trial and road race, and the U23 champion in the criterium and road race. The results are just another step in a steady progression for White, 21, who will lead the next generation of talent to the world's stage. The only thing that could improve her promise is a focus on a single discipline.
White has already amassed a rich palmares, with the 2014 junior national title, U23 titles in cyclo-cross and road, points classification victories in the Tour of California and Tour of the Gila, and now her first pro national championship. Last winter, she joined USA Cycling's women's team pursuit programme in hopes of making the Olympic team. But White's qualities seem better suited for a go at the Classics, one-day races and major points competitions.