The US professional road race championship is buckling up for a wild ride when the inaugural women's event takes off Monday morning in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Equal prize money with the men and a heightened profile should help light up the Memorial Day battle for the stars-and-stripes jersey.
"For the women, we don't have a big tour, there aren't a lot of big races," said NOW and Novartis for MS team director and general manager Kurt Stockton. "So the national championships are definitely a bigger goal for a lot of the teams – I think it's the case even more so than the men, and the numbers in the time trial reflect that."
The first women's US professional road race held in conjunction with the men will be fought over a 101.5km course comprised of three opening laps on an urban 8.2km circuit that will be followed by two trips around a longer 26.1km circuit featuring the 3.2km Lookout Mountain climb that ascends 230m each lap. The race ends with three more laps of the smaller urban circuit in Chattanooga.
Stockton said the course is more difficult than the initial version announced earlier this year, but one less lap of the large loop means the overall route will be much less selective.
"It was going to be challenging, and with these changes it's definitely more," Stockton said. "But then they cut a lap out, so you've got a 63-mile race with five miles of climbing and 58 miles of everything else."
The NOW director said he believes the circuits that will be used for the start and the finish could be as decisive as the two trips up Lookout Mountain.
"It's a tough finishing circuit because it's not really flat anywhere and there are a lot of turns – kind of criterium style with open turns and different pavement. All sorts of stuff," Stockton said. "So that will play in as a factor equally as much as the climb if you can take advantage of it."
The 77-rider field boasts two previous champions, Mara Abbott (Exergy-Twenty16) and Robin Farina (NOW), while all of the riders from last year's podium – winner Megan Guarnier (Rabobank-Liv), Lauren Hall (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Saturday time trial winner Carmen Small (Specialized-Lululemon) – could easily find themselves back on the dais this year.
Guarnier is without teammates for the race, and her former teammate and last year's runner-up, Hall, clearly has her own ambitions this year. Hall moved from TIBCO to Optum in the offseason and will have a strong team behind her. She'll be joined on the start line by 2012 NRC champion Janel Holcomb, Jade Wilcoxson, Brianna Walle, Amber Gafney and Grace Alexander.
Small will be part of the four-rider Specialized team that also includes Evelyn Stevens, Ally Stacher and Tayler Wiles. Small has been on the podium twice in three years and is obviously riding well this season. Despite being down to just four riders, her Specialized team has multiple cards to play. Stevens is a favorite to win any race she enters, for example.
Amber Neben, who has been on the podium four times over the past 11 years but never on the top step, will unfortunately miss this year's race after breaking her hip in a crash during the Tour of California women's time trial.
The rest of the field is littered with riders who have come close to the stars-and-stripes jersey without actually getting to put it on. With a new high-profile event and with multiple former contenders out due to retirement or injury, each of the competitors is hoping this will be her year.
The NOW team of former winner Farina is stacked for the race with an eight-rider roster that also includes Alison Powers, who has seen a resurgence in her career as of late. The two NOW riders will be joined by Kathryn Donovan, Devon Gorry, Maura Kinsella, Lauren Komanski, Elizabeth Newell and Alexis Ryan, but Stockton said the advantage in numbers will come into play only if his riders are patient.
"I don't have eight riders who can go over that climb in the lead group," Stockton said of his roster. "And I don't think any team has a whole team that is going to be able to go when Mara Abbott hits the pace hard on that climb. But it's just a matter of not panicking and realizing there's still a lot of racing to go. I try to teach my riders to do that the best they can. Our strength is going to be in numbers, anyone who has numbers has that strength, because it gives you more options toward the end."
Exergy-Tweny16's Andrea Dvorak took silver in 2011 and now has former champion Abbott on her team's seven-rider roster. Kristin McGrath, who finished runner-up to Small on Saturday by just one second, has been a beast so far this season. Kaitlin Antonneau, Jacqueline Crowell, Lauren Tamayo and Alison Tetrick will also be on hand to support Exergy's effort.
TIBCO's Shelly Olds was second in 2010, while her teammate Amanda Miller took the bronze in 2011. They'll be joined by Samantha Schneider on the team's roster for Monday. Although he said the new route doesn't favor the chances for a "pure sprinter," Stockton picked Olds as one of the favorites on the Chattanooga course.
"I could see if things played out well it would be a good race for her," Stockton said. "But a pure sprinter? No, I think it's going to be just a little bit too challenging. That climb is definitely going to take something out of everyone's legs, it's a matter of just of how much."
But Stockton also doesn't believe the course will allow a climbing specialist to win with a solo breakaway on Lookout Mountain.
"Just because it's so far to the finish after that last climb," he said. "The climb goes straight into a descent, bombs down, and then you've got all those flats roads with the turns and the slowing down and re-accelerating."
There will also be several races within the race that will play into the final outcome.
"You've got the pro title and you've got the QOM title as well, so there's a separate prize there, and you've got the most-aggressive prize," Stockton said. "So there are some other things to go for if you don't have a chance for that. As the race progresses people's goals might change a little bit."
The women's race starts at 9 a.m. The men are scheduled to start their 165km race at 1:15 p.m. All times EDT.