The 2017 USA Cycling Pro Road Tour will get underway this week at the Joe Martin Stage Race, marking the the first time in the UCI 2.2 race's four-decade history that it will lift the flag on the national calendar.
The four-day event in Fayetteville, Arkansas, starts Thursday with 149 men and 84 women currently registered in the pro races. Top men's teams on the start list include UnitedHealthcare, Rally Cycling, Holowesko-Citadel, Silber Pro Cycling, Aevolo, Elevate-KHS and Cylance. The Rally and UHC women's teams will also compete in Joe Martin, where they'll face fellow UCI squads Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank, Hagens Berman-Supermint and Visit Dallas-DNA, among others.
Changes to this year's national calendar shifted the schedule so teams could avoid criss-crossing the country in the opening weeks. Traditional calendar opener Redlands Bicycle Classic was moved to early May just ahead of the Tour of California, while the Tour of the Gila is scheduled for April 19-23, leaving Joe Martin to move forward several weeks and assume the lead-off role.
Rally's Erica Allar said she believes the race will reap the benefits of the schedule change.
"It's the first opportunity for teams to go after UCI points, which helps," she said. "Everyone's anxious to get things going, and I'm sure everyone's bringing their 'A Game.' It will be tough racing for sure."
Last year's Pro Road Tour individual winner, Ty Magner, said he's ready "to get the show on the road" at Joe Martin as well.
"Joe Martin is always an exciting race," said Magner, who moved from UnitedHealthcare back to Holowesko-Citadel this year. "For the most part the road stages are destined to be sprints, though the weather could mix things up this time of year. [Holowesko-Citadel is] headed there with a group capable of winning stages as well as the overall."
Four stages to crown the winner
The race starts Thursday with the 4.8km individual time trial at Devil's Den State Park. The short, switchback-laden course takes riders uphill on a route that quickly climbs 221 metres at an average grade of five per cent. Although the slopes are steep, the short nature of the stage will limit time gaps among the contenders. The stage will set the pecking order for the following days, however, where teams will be anxious to test the time trial winners' teams' ability to defend.
UnitedHealthcare's Greg Henderson said the US Pro Continental team is going in with a two-pronged approach.
"We've got a couple of real rock spiders who can nail the uphill TT," he said. "If we can win [at Devil's Den] with Janier Acevedo or Alex Cataford, then we'll protect them. If we can win the uphill time trial and spend the week defending, then I'll be leading out the sprints for 'Lil JJ' (Lucas Sebastian Haedo) and 'The White Rhino' (Tanner Putt)."
The stage 2 road race features 176.8km for the men and 99.6km for the women on lumpy terrain with a fast run to the finish. Stage 3 starts in Fayetteville before heading out to a circuit south of town and then back again for the finish. The women will race 107km after a short neutral, and the men will take on 181.4km. Both days will favour strong all-around riders with a fast finish unless breakaways find a way to stay clear.
The race ends Sunday, April 2, with the criterium in downtown Fayetteville on a technical course that features eight turns over just two kilometres.
Time bonuses of 10, eight and six seconds to the top three on each stage – except in the opening time trial – will likely factor into the overall result.
"I quite like the Joe Martin course, despite the uphill time trial," said Allar, one of the top US sprinters. "I enjoy this race because it's not just a climber's course or a GC rider's race. Riders who are strong, well-rounded, and can race a hard, technical crit have the chance to do really well."
Neither of the 2016 winners will be on hand this year, leaving a wide-open race to capture the Joe Martin win and the early Pro Road Tour lead. In 2016, sprinter Coryn Rivera, riding at the time for UnitedHealthcare, took the lead from teammate Linda Villumsen with a stage 2 win then held it through the final day. Men's winner Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) took the overall without winning a stage, using consistency and time bonuses to ride into yellow during the final stage.
"Winning Joe Martin gave me a pretty big push for the overall standing in the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour, which nearly lasted the entire season," said Powless, who finished second to Magner in the 2016 Pro Road Tour individual standings.
Axeon Hagens Berman won't have Powless to defend his 2016 title this year, however, as he's currently racing with the USA Cycling development program in Europe, but his trade team will feature US under-23 champion Geoffrey Curran, Jonny Brown, Rui Oliveira, Chad Young and recent San Dimas stage winner Michael Rice.
Rally Cycling will bring a strong roster that includes 2016 Redlands winner Matteo Dal-Cin, Evan Huffman, Rob Britton, Adam de Vos, Colin Joyce, Sepp Kuss, Danny Pate and Eric Young. UnitedHealthcare's Henderson, Haedo, Putt, Acevedo, Cataford, Gavin Mannon, Daniel Eaton and Jonny Clarke are currently scheduled to start. Holowesko-Citadel will feature Magner, Tour of Alberta overall winner Robin Carpenter, Oscar Clark, Joe Lewis, Miguel Bryon, Ruben Campanioni, John Murphy and TJ Eisenhart.
Of the upper-echelon US Continental teams, only Jelly Belly-Maxxis is missing from the start list currently posted by the race.
In the women's race, 2016 champ Rivera is currently competing in Europe with her new team, Sunweb, but UnitedHealthcare will bring another strong roster with Tayler Wiles, Katie Hall, Lauren Hall, Janelle Cole, Lauretta Hanson, Diana Penuela, Kate Sherwin and Ruth Winder.
Tibco will bring 2015 overall winner Lauren Stephens, who won the final stage last year and was third overall behind UHC's Rivera and Villumsen. Stephens will have help from teammates Nicolle Bruderer, Kate Buss, Ingrid Drexel, Heather Fischer, Madeleine Park, Kendall Ryan and Brianna Walle, while Rally Cycling will bring Allar, Amy Brenner, Sara Bergen, Caitlin LaRoche Katherine Maine and Emma White.