Two-time and current US champion Eric Young will not defend his title at the upcoming USA Cycling Professional Criterium championships this Saturday in High Point, North Carolina, opting instead to compete with his Optum Pro Cycling team at the Tour of Alberta, which concludes Sunday in Edmonton.
"We've always been big supporters of the US pro crit," said Optum director Jonas Carney, who is a two-time winner of the race. "We've always sent a full team, and we always go in there to try and win that race. We would have liked to go back, but there really isn't a worse conflict that we could have.
"This is the only UCI race on television where we get to race against the big teams in an event of this size in North America that really suits the sprinters," Carney said. "Ultimately we have to have Scott Zwizanski and Alex Candelario and Brad Huff and Eric Young here if we want to win a stage or a field sprint, which is one of our major goals in all the big races. So unfortunately that means we don't send anybody to US pro crit, which is a race that we normally target. So that's a shame. It's just a shame that they scheduled it that way."
Young is the most high-profile rider out of a handful of US professional squads that will have no representation at the championship race. As of Thursday, only 15 UCI-registered pros had signed up for the race. The remainder of the 43 registered riders are amateurs from domestic elite teams.
The conflict with the UCI 2.1 race in Canada was clear early in the schedule-making process, prompting the US governing body to change the rules and allow amateurs into the professional championship event.
UnitedHealthcare has six riders registered for the race, including 2012 champion Ken Hanson. Fellow Pro Continental squad Novo Nordisk will send just one rider. Champion System-Stans No Tubes has four riders registered for the race, while both Hincapie Sportswear and Astellas Pro Cycling each have two riders signed up.
"We've got Alder Marks and Miguel Byron who are going to be down there," said Hincapie director Thomas Craven. "Miguel has been steadily improving all year. He's only 19-years-old, so he's a super, super talent. He's been getting like fourth to the UHC guys. With a little luck on his side – maybe those guys start looking at each other – and he can slip in there. You know, UHC had 19 guys there last year and they lost, so I figure if we have two there we'll have pretty good odds."
Optum took the top-two places last year with Young and Hanson, who moved to UnitedHealthcare during the offseason. Last year's 42-rider field was restricted to UCI-registered pros. UnitedHealthcare had 10 riders in the race, while Optum had eight. UHC's Jake Keough finished third.
This year's scheduling conflict was unpopular with most of the directors at the Tour of Alberta, as was the decision to allow amateurs in a professional championship. But most all of the directors that Cyclingnews spoke with understood USA Cycling's decision to allow amateurs in the race.
"I think they had to do that," Carney said. "Otherwise there would be 20 guys on the start line this year. I think when you see the start list in Saturday, you'll see that there will only be 20 or 30 professionals to begin with. So in order to make the race an actual bike race they had to allow amateur teams in.
"I agree with it under this circumstance," Carney continued. "But I don't agree with letting amateur teams in a pro championship. They should just pick a better day and figure out a way to get all the pro teams to show up and then don't let amateurs in the race."
Craven, who lives near the course, was especially disappointed to miss the race this year.
"We told them that at the beginning of the year: why would you put national championship on during the biggest race of the year that probably all the domestic tams will be able to race?" Craven said. "Because we never know about California, Utah or Colorado. But with this one it's a little bit easier to get into. I think that the promoters and USA Cycling should work together a little bit more."
For other teams like Jelly Belly-Maxxis and Team SmartStop, criterium racing is no longer a focus now that they have targeted the big North American UCI 2.HC and 2.1 events organized by Medalist Sports.
"The thing is the demise of crit racing scene," said SmartStop director Michael Creed. "For good or bad, Medalist is the 800-pound gorilla. You've seen the crit specialist or sprint specialist role on American division-three teams kind of die out more and more every year. Everybody wants a team that can compete in those Medalist races, and those dedicated crit spots are harder to come by.
"I'd rather have it that way," Creed said. "I'd rather have great Medalist races than criteriums. It's just the nature of the landscape. Not only are we low on that position, but those guys are also here. It's infinitely bigger than a criterium national championship."
Jelly Belly general manager Danny Van Haute backed up Creed's opinion.
"We put the team together this year for these races, you know Amgen [Tour of California], US Pro Challenge, Utah and Tour of Alberta," Van Haute said. "We didn't really hire anybody for crit nationals. You know we lost Brad Huff, so there was no use spending any money to go there."
The scheduling conflict should be relieved next year, when the pro criterium championships will take place in April. But even this move doesn't sit all that well with some of the directors.
"To be honest, I don't like it in April," Carney said. "I just think that historically the US pro crit has been later in the season, like in late July or August. And I really think that's a great place for it. That's really when everybody's had a lot of crit racing in their legs and it's the heart of the summer. It's going to be strange having it in April. I don't really like it, but anything is better than throwing it on top of Alberta. So we'll take it."
Van Haute didn't have a a problem with the April date, although he said the spring championships will short change this year's winner.
"It's fine," Van Haute said. "But I think it's too bad for the guy who's going to win it this year, because he won't be in the jersey for a whole year, but it's fine. I think USA Cycling is trying to put the schedule together nicely for teams so we don't have to go back and forth [across the country].
"That's been a problem in the past couple years with races on the East Coast and then we have to go back for Gila and then back again. Now they understand where we're coming from, so they're trying to put everything in a row. We appreciate that."