You'd be hard-pressed to find a professional cyclist happier that big-time one-day racing continued in Philadelphia with the inaugural Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic on Sunday than Robin Carpenter, a second year pro racing for the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team. Not only is Carpenter a Philadelphia native, but the 20-year-old has lived his entire life in the Manayunk neighborhood, with his family's home one block away from the event's new finish line atop the Manayunk Wall.
Carpenter's teammates, too, enjoyed a home course advantage this past weekend as all eight of the Hincapie Devo team's Philly Cycling Classic roster were lodged at the Carpenter homestead, just a scant few pedal strokes from the sign-on stage and start/finish line where Carpenter would line up to contest his hometown race for the first time.
The previous iteration of the Philadelphia race, the Philadelphia International Championship, ran from 1985 through 2012 and its signature climb in Manayunk - the short, steep ascent beginning on Levering Street and continuing on Lyceum Avenue - became the race's marquee fixture. Carpenter's family was among the cast of thousands who celebrated the race's trip through Manayunk and the annual passing of the professional peloton resonated with Robin.
"Every year we had this party and everybody comes in - all kinds of family friends," Carpenter told Cyclingnews. "We'd all filter down when the riders come, then filter back - have some great food with friends - then filter on down again. For a while I actually ran a lemonade stand right at the top of the Wall when I was probably 10 years old or so.
"You could definitely say the Philly race was my introduction to bike racing - especially world-class bike racing - and to know that people actually do this for a living and do this as professionals."
Carpenter's first bike race would actually be on the Manayunk Wall - as a 12 year old he took part in an amateur time trial held Friday night the weekend of the pro race - but his competitive cycling career didn't begin in earnest until his later teen years, culminating with a 4th place finish at US road nationals and a 5th place result in Canada's Tour de l'Abitibi during his final year in the junior ranks.
Carpenter remained in the Philadelphia area for his undergraduate studies and has been a full-time student at Swarthmore College. Carpenter, a rising senior, has managed to balance a rigorous academic schedule with a professional cycling career, now in its second season.
"It's funny thinking back on it, because if I had know I was going to be able to turn pro at 19 or 20 years old I don't think I would have gone there because it really is a high-calibre academic school. I think I might have gone to one of the other major cycling schools if I had known, but back when I was applying to school I had no idea I was going to be a bike racer and I wanted to go to the best school that I could.
"Classes and work comes first, that always gets done and then you try to fit training in after that. It means my training is really condensed and intensive because I don't go on five hour rides every day, even though I wish I could. It just has to be very, very focused."
Jumping into pro racing's deep end
Carpenter made his pro debut in 2012 with Garmin's devo squad, the Chipotle-First Solar Development Team, but with the team based in France for the season Carpenter's hometown event was not on the team's schedule. And while his teammates started competing at the beginning of the year, Carpenter didn't join them until he'd wrapped up his sophomore year of studies in May.
"I came over [to Europe] right in the beginning of May and did my first European stage race - Olympia's Tour - which is a pretty big race to just hop into. I got dropped the first stage in massive crosswinds - it was madness, racing in Holland is crazy - but I got better and finished the race, a week-long stage race, and every race after that - U23 Paris-Roubaix, a lot of other stage races like Giro della Valle d'Aosta and Tour de Guadeloupe. And by the end at the Tour de Guadeloupe I was on the podium on one of the stages. I finished every race that summer. It was one of those surprises where you think you're not going to be doing well, just a lot of learning experiences, and then all of a sudden you hit the podium."
Unfortunately for Carpenter the Chipotle-First Solar Development Team folded in the latter portion of 2012, leaving him scrambling to find another professional team in a tough market where approximately 80 US domestic pros would find themselves out of a job by the end of the year.
"I searched around and was probably this close to going back being a domestic elite rider - which is fine, you can still go good races - and once again at the 11th hour the call came in," said Carpenter. "[Hincapie Sportswear Development Team director] Thomas [Craven] said, 'Hey, we'd like to talk to you'. I had the conversation and managed to sign the contract some time in November and it's been a godsend. The support on this team is ridiculous."
'A bit of magic'
Carpenter was once again a professional cyclist and he relished the opportunity of making his Philadelphia debut, but in January the race he'd known his entire life was cancelled.
"When it got cancelled early in the year I was pretty disappointed because this would have been the first year that it would have been on the schedule. When I saw it was coming back because of the Congressman and under new management I was just blown away. Someone pulled off a bit of magic."
But academics came first and as was the case in 2012 Carpenter wasn't able to compete with his new team until he wrapped up his junior year at Swarthmore in May. And the transition time from student to professional cyclist was astoundingly brief.
"I took three finals in one day and got on the plane at 6pm, flew over [to Europe], and then raced not the next day but the following day. We did the five-day Flèche du Sud, two days off, [a Belgian] kermesse, two days off, and then this two-day race in France. It was the fastest blitz of a trip to Europe that I've ever heard of and we killed it."
At Luxembourg's Flèche du Sud (May 8-12) the Hincapie Development Team's Joey Rosskopf placed third on general classification, Oscar Clark won the final stage and the squad took the team title. Their concluding event was the two-day Paris-Arras Tour (May 18-19) in France where Rosskopf won the first stage and general classification while the squad again won the team classification.
The Belgian kermesse, the 171km Puivelde Kermis on May 15, was Carpenter's day to shine. After making a larger break replete with cyclo-cross stars such as Sven Nys and Niels Albert, Carpenter found himself in a further selection with just two breakaway companions, Maxime Vantomme (Crelan-Euphony) and Michael Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus). Carpenter then proceeded to attack 4km from the finish to win solo by five seconds.
"It was pretty magical, definitely the biggest win I've ever had," said Carpenter.
Eighteen days later, Carpenter was searching for more magic, this time in his hometown on a race course he knows by heart.
"I used to ride my bike to school in Center City, it was about seven miles each way, and the ride in was the "Fall from the Wall" - that exact route down into Kelly Drive, exactly how the riders go all the way in, and I did that from 7th grade to 12th grade, every year, every day. Coming back home it was always 'which hill do I ride up?'. Generally I'd go up the same way I went down, but when I went out training on my road bike it was either Green Lane straight up or the Wall, countless times. I know this thing (the Wall) like the back of my hand. I've probably ridden it more time than anybody else."
When speaking to Cyclingnews the night before the Philly Cycling Classic, Carpenter's assessment of Sunday's race finale would prove prescient.
"It's not a pure sprint, obviously, and it's definitely not suited to a pure climber. It's just who can get in good position and who can produce the power to motor away from everyone else once they're in the top 10 wheels. And I think we've got a good team to do that. I'm pretty optimistic for a top-five finish on one of our parts."
While the results say otherwise (due to a bike change and finishing without a transponder), Carpenter would indeed go the distance on Sunday, finishing about a minute off the pace. And true to his prediction, Carpenter's teammate Joey Rosskopf not only cracked the top-five but finished on the podium for third place in the US's premier one-day event, while another teammate, Joe Lewis, notched a solid 10th place result as well.
And Carpenter's turn to grace the podium may come next year, particularly since he'll finish his undergraduate studies in December, a semester early, freeing up precious off-season and early-season training time previously reserved for academics.
"I'd probably walk with the class in June, which is funny because the way the dates line up it might be the same day as Philly next year."