Riders push forward amongst an anxious peloton, manoeuvring into position along the uphill drag on Main Sreet Manayunk, arguably the most decisive section of the race circuit. The first few riders take the right-hander onto Levering Street. They dive through the shadowy, chicane-like cobbled Cresson Street, and pass underneath the train trestle hovering above. The corners are tight, and the peloton slows to get through them safely, but history (mixed with instinct) has proven the first riders into the left-hander back on Levering Street will have the clearest shot at the victory. The frontrunners emerge from under the tracks above, into the sunlight, and they hit The Wall. The road pitches up, and then again. There's loud music and ear-piercing screams from hoards of the liveliest fans in American bike racing, beating on the roadside fencing. Red plastic cups, littered and rolling down the 17 per cent incline. There’s the smell of warm beer and BBQ. Halfway up, a watering hose sprays cold across the road, over the riders, cutting the humidity ever so slightly. The organisers, media, photographers and fans wait in suspense at the top -- Who will win the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic?
This year’s Philadelphia International Cycling Classic will host the ninth leg of the Women’s WorldTour on June 5 in Pennsylvania. It began as the Liberty Classic in 1994 and has had a long-standing history with top-level women’s bike racing. A former World Cup from 1998-2001, organisers downgraded it to a UCI 1.1 event until 2015, when they showed their intent to elevate their women’s race back up to a World Cup. G4 Productions, again, put stock into the race by placing it on the inaugural Women’s WorldTour this year.
For three consecutive seasons, the race has utilised the Manayunk Wall as the start-finish location. The women follow a 19.7km circuit that includes climbs over Lemon Hill, Strawberry Mansion and flat sections along Kelly Drive. They will compete for six laps totalling 118.7km.
A two-decade-long history primarily shows the top sprinters in the world winning the one-day race in Philly. Names like Petra Rossner, Ina Teuntenberg, Regina Schleicher and Giorgia Bronzini dominated the bunch kick along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Those days are gone. With the finish being relocated to the top of The Wall, a climb that has always been the focus of the circuit, the sprint winners have been replaced by punchy climbers like Evelyn Stevens (winner in 2013 and 2014) and Lizzie Armitstead (winner in 2015).
This year’s race will start without world champion and defending champion Armitstead but her team, Boels-Dolmans, will field two capable champions in Stevens and Women’s WorldTour leader Megan Guarnier.
So far during the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, the leader’s jersey has swapped hands three times between Boels-Dolmans teammates Armitstead, Chantal Blaak and the current leader Guarnier.
Armitstead has won three rounds: Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Cittiglio, and the Tour of Flanders. Blaak won at Ronde van Drenthe and Gent-Wevelgem, Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) won La Flèche Wallonne, Chloe Hosking (Wiggle High5) won the Tour of Chongming Island and Guarnier is fresh off an overall victory at the Women’s Tour of California.
Guarnier is now leading the series with 504 points ahead of Johansson with 398 points and Armitstead with 368.
Guarnier also won her third national road title in Winston-Salem on Saturday and noted the strength of her Boels-Dolmans team in a recent interview with Cyclingnews.
“Race organisers moved the Philly finish line to Manayunk three years ago, and since then, only my teammates have won the race,” Guarnier said. “Evie won the first two years, and Lizzie won last year. While Lizzie won’t be back to defend her title, we have three riders that are suited to the finish.”
Stevens has won the race twice on Manayunk Wall, and she will be back to try her hand at winning it for the third time. Her second place at La Fleche Wallonne indicates that she is in good form for a circuit as challenging as the one in Philly.
Other WorldTour contenders van der Breggen and Johansson will not be participating in the race. Rabo-Liv recently competed at the Tour of California with Marianne Vos, but they will not field a team in Philadelphia.
Despite their absence, the field will be as strong as ever with a mixture of international and domestic talents combined in a total of 19 teams.
Wiggle High5 has an almost-sure champion in Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian was second to Armitstead last year and will no doubt want to take the victory this time around. She will have support from two-time Giro Rosa winner Mara Abbott.
Canyon-SRAM will field another potential winner in Alena Amialiusik, who was third last year, but her team is full of talent with Lisa Brennauer, Tiffany Cromwell and Hannah Barnes, and any one of them could win the race.
UnitedHealthcare will field Coryn Rivera, who in recent years has proven to be much more than just a sprinter. She was twice second to Guarnier at the US road championships, and last year she was fifth on Manayunk Wall.
Lauren Stephens, Brianne Walle and Lauren Komanski will add strength to the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank. Twenty16-Ridebiker will field Kirstin Armstrong, who was recently second overall at the Tour of California, along with Alison Jackson, Allie Dragoo and Leah Thomas.
Cylance will be missing their punchy sprinter Shelley Olds, who finished in the top 10 last year, but they have a capable team with Rossella Ratto, who recently won the UCI race in Winston-Salem.
Rally Cycling has a series of contenders in Jessica Prinner, Heather Fischer and Emma While, who is a double silver medallist in the 2015 junior road and time trial world championships. BePink will showcase North Americans Amber Neben and Lex Albrecht; Hagens Berman-Supermint will field Scotti Lechuga; Colavita-Bianchi has Lauretta Hanson and Katie Donovan; Visit Dallas will field Amanda Miller.
From the international teams, cyclo-cross star Sophie De Boer will race for Parkhotel Valkenburg, former world champion Marta Bastianelli for Ale Cipollini. Other teams on the start line are Weber Shimano Ladies, BTC City Ljubljana Astana Women, Colombia and Mexico national teams.
On Cyclingnews, you can watch live streaming of both the men's UCI 1.1 event beginning at 8 a.m. and the Women's WorldTour event at 12:30 p.m. EST.