Seven-time US professional time trial champion Dave Zabriskie's unintended absence from this year's race has opened a wide berth of possibility for the rest of the US domestic peloton as 34 hopefuls take the line Saturday in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Zabriskie, who fractured his clavicle while warming up for the stage 6 time trial at the Amgen Tour of California, won't be in Tennessee to defend his title. And neither will the only other rider to win a stars-and-stripes skinsuit since 2005; BMC announced earlier this week that 2011 champion Taylor Phinney will also be sitting out this weekend.
Although the US time trial jersey has gone almost exclusively to WorldTour riders over the past decade - specifically Zabriskie - only RadioShack-Leopard's Matthew Busche and BMC's Brent Bookwalter will represent cycling's first division this year.
Busche finished third behind Zabriskie and Tom Zirbel on a different course in 2011, and he recently finished 15th in California's race against the clock, the second-best US rider behind winner Tejay van Garderen. BMC's Bookwalter, who finished third in the time trial championship last year and opened this season with a stage win at the Tour of Qatar, finished 38th in the recent California test.
The lack of some familiar WorldTour faces leaves the 2013 field wide open; combine that with a brand-new 30km out-and-back course that could favor larger, powerful specialists, and the domestic teams are ready to pounce on the opportunity.
With a roster that features two of the seven riders who have run second during Zabriskie's nearly unbroken string of time trial championships, the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies team is well positioned to ride away with a stars-and-stripes jersey Saturday.
Optum's Zirbel has twice finished second to Zabriskie in the national race against the clock, in 2008 and 2011. His teammate Scott Zwizanski was runner-up to Zabriskie in 2009. Throw into the mix a red-hot Chad Haga, and the Minnesota-based UCI Continental team could be ready to cook up something special.
"The course suits all three guys, and all three of them are fired up for it," Optum performance director Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews Friday evening. "They all do well on flat, power-oriented courses. So we're pretty optimistic about tomorrow. All three guys are healthy and riding well. I know they're all going to be razzing each other going into the race with a little intra-team competition, so it should be interesting to see them go head to head."
Haga, a 24-year-old Texan who won the opening time trial this year at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, recently finished 10th overall at the Tour of California. He and Zwizanski were among the top-five US finishers during that race's stage 6 time trial. Zirbel, who suffered mightily during California's 112-degree stage 2 finish before abandoning the next day, won the time trial stage of the Tour of the Gila earlier this year in New Mexico. The Gila course also favoured bigger riders like the six-foot-five-inch (1.96m) Zirbel, who can maintain maximum power over its undulating windswept roads.
Omer Kem, whose five-rider Bissell Pro Cycling time trial roster features the last rider other than Phinney or Zabriskie to win a US time trial title - 2005 champion Chris Baldwin - said the flatter, straighter course may be less selective than the previous route in Greenville, South Carolina. Even so, he hopes his roster of Baldwin, Jason McCartney, Julian Kyer, Mac Brennan, Phil Gaimon and California mountains classification winner Carter Jones can bring home a red-white-and-blue reward.
"I think it will favor probably a little bit bigger guy, just because you need the higher threshold power like a Zirbel or a Jason McCartney or even a Phil Gaimon - somebody who puts out the power and really punches a hole, especially if it's windy," said the Bissell team director. "It's got less turns. People used to refer to Greenville as a time trial crit because it had so many corners that it was rare when you had extended time being on the pedals. This course will require more time of flat-out pedaling."
Bontrager's Lawson Craddock, third among US riders in the California time trial and eighth overall in that race, should also be in the running for the stars-and-stripes jersey Saturday. 5-hour Energy/Kenda's Nate English could slip in a good ride. His teammate Jim Stemper, who fought a tough battle for the KOM jersey in California, is also on good form. Jamis-Hagens Berman's Ben Jacques-Maynes is always a rider to watch.
The US professional women start at 11 a.m. The first of the US professional men go off at 2 p.m. All times EDT.
[USADA vacated Tom Zirbel's 2009 time trial silver medal after he tested positive for DHEA. Zirbel denied taking the substance knowingly but accepted a two-year suspension, which was later reduced to 18 months. He returned to racing in 2011].