Now in its 27th year, Philadelphia's iconic TD Bank International Championship has stood firm thus far with two maxims: no repeat winners and no rain. If forecasts are to be believed, Mother Nature may deliver yet another gorgeous day of weather for race day - Sunday, June 5.
Up until Thursday of this week the race was certain to deliver a new winner as no former champions graced the start list, but a certain rider with a Giro d'Italia stage win his palmares plus a 2nd place at Milan-San Remo and 3 US championships, all claimed in Philadelphia including outright victory in 2001, has decided to return to the pro ranks with a US Continental team just in time for Sunday's race. More on that in a moment.
Same as it ever was
America's most prestigious one-day race has kept the same familiar course since its inception in 1985 when speed skater turned professional cyclist Eric Heiden sprinted to victory. Beginning on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the professional men begin with three parade laps around Logan Circle before tackling a 23.2km circuit, to be completed 10 times, that heads north on Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River toward the famed Manayunk district.
In Manayunk awaits the race's signature feature, a steep, 800-metre hill known as "The Wall", lined with rowdy, boisterous fans from bottom-to-top providing a corridor of noise. The peloton then descends off of Manayunk Street and back onto Kelly Drive, with detours for the climbs of Strawberry Mansion and Lemon Hill, before rounding back onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
After the men complete the tenth large circuit their race concludes with three short, five-kilometre laps around Lemon Hill and Logan Circle before the finish, altogether totaling 250 kilometres.
From 1985 through through 2005 the race served double duty as the most prestigious one-day race in the country as well as the US pro professional championship. The stars-and-stripes jersey has been awarded in Greenville, South Carolina instead from 2006 through the present, but the streets of Philadelphia continue to attract a world-class peloton each year.
Twenty-one teams will vie for victory on Sunday, headlined by two ProTour squads: HTC-Highroad and Liquigas-Cannondale. 2010 champion Matt Goss will not be on hand to defend his title for HTC-Highroad, but the US-based team has ample horsepower and finishing speed to deliver it's third straight victory in Philadelphia, particularly with young gun Australian Leigh Howard.
"Leigh [Howard] has been in the U.S. since the Tour of California and he's quite focused for a win," said HTC-Highroad sports director Allan Peiper. "He was with [Matt] Goss last year when he won, and now Leigh has a good chance.
"Alex [Rasmussen] and Patrick [Gretsch] will be riding for us and though they're just off the Giro, Alex was second in last stage's TT and Gretsch was eighth, so I think they'll have the depth it takes to go the distance and help Leigh in the final."
"Matt Brammeier has been riding quite well, and Caleb Fairly did an excellent job at nationals in Greenville," added Peiper, "So we've only got five riders but five strong ones who are after the win."
Liquigas-Cannondale, too, starts on Sunday without a full compliment of eight riders, but 2010 runner-up Peter Sagan will be ably assisted by brother Juraj Sagan, Italians Simone Ponzi and Valerio Agnoli, fresh off the Giro d'Italia, and a pair of Americans Timothy Duggan and Ted King, who this past Sunday earned the bronze medal at the US professional road championships in Greenville, South Carolina.
The 21-year-old Peter Sagan has learned his lesson from last year, where he arrived tired in Philadelphia having travelled to Europe and back in the interim between the Amgen Tour of California and the TD Bank International Championship, and has remained in the US to prepare. Sagan has five victories under his belt so far in 2011, including a stage at the Amgen Tour of California, and the young Slovakian should once again figure prominently on Sunday in his second Philadelphia appearance.
Four Professional Continental teams, including US-based UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling and Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis, plus Canada's Team Spidertech Powered By C10 as well as Spain's Geox-TMC all have riders capable of winning America's biggest one-day race.
UnitedHealthcare, in its first season as a Pro Continental squad, has a sprinter-heavy roster with noted fast men as Robert Förster, Boy Van Poppel, Hilton Clarke and Jake Keough. Förster, with stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana in his palmares, has already won stages at the Tour de Langkawi and Vuelta a Asturias this year and has just won an NRC criterium, the Base Camp International p/b Verizon Wireless, for his first victory in the US.
Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis has one big win this season, an overall GC victory at the Tour of Turkey, and the squad they'll field in Philadelphia is quite capable of delivering another big win. Slovenians Jure Kocjan and Aldo Ino Ilesic have scored top three finishes in Europe this year in stages of Settimana Coppi e Bartali and Etoile de Bessèges while Spain's Javier Megias finished in the top-ten at Philadelphia last year.
Team Spidertech Powered By C10 is another squad in its first year as a Pro Continental team and arrives in Philadelphia after a strong showing at the Amgen Tour of California. Pat McCarty won the mountains classification in California and may go on the attack to claim the KOM title on Sunday. The Canadian squad also has a contingent of riders capable of delivering a sprint victory, with Kevin Lacombe figuring prominently in several Amgen Tour of California field sprint finishes.
The 14 Continental teams comprise the bulk of the peloton, with many of the squads arriving in top form from the Amgen Tour of California and last weekend's US professional road championships.
Alex Candelario (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth) is certainly a sprinter to watch with several top-ten finishes in Philadelphia in years past. Jamis-Sutter Home's Borrajo brothers, Alejandro and Anibal, pack a strong finishing punch with Alejandro just missing out on the podium in 2010 with a fourth place finish. Others to watch in a field sprint finish include Bissell's Frank Pipp and Kyle Wamsley, Ken Hanson (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda) plus Luca Damiani and Shawn Milne (Kenda/5-hour Energy Pro Cycling presented by Geargrinder).
A couple of amply experienced professional cycling veterans may prove to still have a few tricks up their sleeves for Sunday's race. 41-year-old Estonian Jann Kirsipuu, riding for Champion System, is best-known for multiple Tour de France stage wins and a six-day stint in the yellow jersey during the 1999 Tour. Kirsipuu is a multi-time national road and time trial champion with more than 130 wins to his credit and he has the experience and toughness to make a mark in Philadelphia.
Fred Rodriguez, a three-time US pro road champion and 2001 winner in Philadelphia, has returned to the pro ranks with Team Exergy just in time for Philadelphia. The 37-year-old Californian is the only rider competing to have won in Philadelphia before and we'll find out Sunday if he can go the distance once again.
While there's an ample purse up for grabs at the finish line on Sunday, there's also a King of the Mountains classification for those better suited for climbing. Points are available for the first three riders over the Manayunk Wall and Lemon Hill every lap, with double points on Lemon Hill for each of the three finishing circuits.
2010 KOM winner Cesar Grajales returns this year on the Realcyclist.com Cycling Team where he and teammate Francisco Mancebo should provide a strong defense.