For the fifth consecutive year the USA Cycling Pro Championships return to Greenville, South Carolina where the American professional peloton will compete for a pair of stars-and-stripes jerseys in the time trial on Saturday, September 18 and the road race on Sunday, September 19. The championships are situated nearly three weeks later than usual on the calendar in order to accommodate the defunct Tour of Missouri and the two ProTour events in Canada, and for many riders this will be the conclusion of their season.
While several of the American peloton's top riders are overseas contesting the Vuelta a España, including Tyler Farrar, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Thomas Peterson of Garmin-Transitions plus HTC-Columbia's Tejay Van Garderen, virtually all of America's ProTour professionals not competing in Spain will line up alongside the country's UCI Professional Continental and UCI Continental teams to determine the holders of the coveted jerseys for the next 12 months.
The first jersey to be awarded this upcoming weekend will be for the time trial, a 20.7-mile (33.3km) event consisting of three 6.9-mile circuits at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. For the first time since Greenville began hosting the US professional time trial championship in 2006, someone other than David Zabriskie will be crowned national champion as the winner of four consecutive titles has been competing at the season's final Grand Tour in Spain.
Based on his lengthy palmares against the clock, Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) is the odds on favourite to succeed Zabriskie on the flat, technical circuit. Leipheimer, a podium finisher at both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, has won time trial stages at both the French and Spanish Grand Tours. Additionally, the 36-year-old Santa Rosa resident has won time trial stages at the Vuelta a Castilla y León, Dauphiné Libéré, Route du Sud, and the Tour of California (including three straight victories in the Solvang time trial stage). Leipheimer has also earned a bronze medal in the time trial at the 2008 Olympic Games and claimed the US time trial championship in 1999.
None of Leipheimer's time trial victories, however, occurred this season. The one American who has beaten Leipheimer in head-to-head competitions against the clock this year, and likely his biggest rival for the 2010 time trial championship, is the 20-year-old phenom Taylor Phinney (Trek-Livestrong). Phinney's talent against the clock is undeniable, having earned his second straight world pursuit championship in March, followed by prologue and time trial stage wins this season in various stage races such as the Tour de l'Avenir, Olympia's Tour and Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah (where he topped Leipheimer in both the prologue and stage three time trials). Phinney has also earned both gold and bronze medals at the Junior world championship in the time trial discipline.
Two factors may play against Phinney in Greenville, however. The US professional championship will be much longer than any time trial Phinney has raced in 2010 and is 1.5km longer than the upcoming U23 world championship time trial in Australia where he's one of the favourites to earn the rainbow jersey. Additionally, Phinney arrives in Greenville banged up from a heavy fall in the Tour de l'Avenir's second stage on September 7, suffered while he held the leader's jersey. That being said, Phinney has the heart of a champion and anyone who has earned two consecutive U23 Paris-Roubaix victories has the mettle, the motor and the mentality to persevere.
With Zabriskie not competing, and Tom Zirbel out of the sport after his drug suspension, Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies) is the highest returning finisher from 2010 with his bronze medal effort and is a contender for a second-straight podium appearance. Zwizanski has had several good performances against the clock this season and recently returned from a block of racing in Belgium, France and Norway which served as final preparation for the US professional championships.
Another podium contender is Peter Stetina, who's wrapping up his first season at ProTour level with Garmin-Transitions. The 23-year-old, the US U23 time trial champion in both 2008 and 2009, is fresh off of a hard weekend of racing in Canada where he rode in support of teammate Ryder Hesjedal at both the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal.
George Hincapie (BMC) hopes to continue wearing the stars-and-stripes for another year. Photo by Jonathan Devich.
On Sunday the pros tackle the 112-mile (180km) national championship road race on the same parcours as last year, with opening and closing circuits in downtown Greenville bookending four main loops featuring the challenging Paris Mountain. In addition to the punishing ascent of Paris Mountain, the heat of a 1 p.m. EST start will surely play a role in the race as highs are forecasted to be in the low 90s Fahrenheit on Sunday afternoon.
All eyes will be on hometown favourite George Hincapie (BMC Racing Team), a Greenville, South Carolina resident, to retain his stars-and-stripes jersey won in dramatic fashion last year. The 37-year-old seeks his fourth national championship on Sunday having already won two titles in Greenville (2009, 2006) plus a third in 1998 when the race was contested in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with an international peloton.
Hincapie's 2009 championship was his first race back after finishing that year's Tour de France with a fractured collarbone and once again Hincapie enters the national championship with a big question mark due to an injury. Hincapie injured his knee in a crash during stage two at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah exactly one month prior to Sunday's road race that forced him to take a 10-day recovery period and miss valuable training time. Hincapie was able to return to competition last weekend for the ProTour events in Canada, in which he suffered a crash in the finale of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and finished 48th at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal.
While Hincapie is the sentimental favourite for victory in front of the partisan Greenville crowd, a victory by a teammate would be just as sweet. "It is very important to win another title," Hincapie said prior to the Canadian events. "But at the same time it would be nice to see one of my teammates win as well and keep the jersey inside the team. That would be the ideal situation."
The BMC Racing Team fields a team of five riders and if Hincapie is unable to defend his title, his teammates Jeff Louder and Brent Bookwalter, third and fourth respectively in 2009, have the ability to step up and keep the jersey on the Pro Continental squad. Bookwalter in particular has had quite a breakthrough season having finished both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France on his first attempt at both, highlighted by nearly winning the Giro's prologue in his first ever Grand Tour appearance.
Hincapie's team faces strong challenges from several teams, most prominently the ProTour RadioShack team, which fields a five-man roster containing Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Matt Busche, Jason McCartney and Bjorn Selander. Horner's 2010 season has been his best ever with a 10th place overall finish at the Tour de France, victory at Vuelta al Pais Vasco, plus top 10 finishes at Critérium International, Critérium du Dauphiné, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, Liège - Bastogne - Liège and the Amgen Tour of California. Horner last rode the US professional road championships in 2005 where he earned a bronze medal at the final national championship contested in Philadelphia. Injuries and schedule conflicts have kept Horner away until this season and the 38-year-old's strength and keen tactical sense make him a formidable contender for the jersey.
Leipheimer has had success in Greenville, too, having earned the US professional championship in 2007 while Matt Busche, completing his first year at the ProTour level, returns to Greenville one year after making the winning break and notching an impressive fifth place finish while on the Kelly Benefit Strategies squad.
Busche's 2009 Kelly Benefit Strategies teammate, Andrew Bajadali, also made the winning eight-man break and came up just short of a national title, finishing second to Hincapie in the sprint to the line. Unfortunately for Bajadali, injuries have forced the Coloradan to sit out this year's edition of the event. The Continental squad will start eight riders, one of the larger contingents in Greenville, and will once again seek to infiltrate the winning break, likely to form on the ascent of Paris Mountain. Expect Daniel Bowman and Neil Shirley, ninth and 11th place finishers respectively in 2009, to put their experience in Greenville to work on Sunday.
Three other top-10 finishers from last year's race return to seek their fortune, including Team Type 1 teammates Chris Jones and Shawn Milne, seventh and 10th respectively in 2009. Jones spent several hours off the front in 2009 and had enough strength to continue with the winning move when, alone in the lead, he was swept up by Hincapie and six others at the crest of Paris Mountain on the peloton's final ascent.
As in 2009 when he finished in eighth place, Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) enters Sunday's road race without teammates and will have to once again ride a smart race to contend for a national championship.
Another pro without teammates for the road race is Craig Lewis (HTC-Columbia), who, like friend and former teammate George Hincapie, also resides in Greenville, South Carolina. In 2009 Lewis was Hincapie's only teammate in the championship race and despite competing while afflicted with the lingering effects of swine flu, Lewis set a fierce tempo the three final times up Paris Mountain in support of Hincapie's winning ride. The 25-year-old knows the parcours by heart and has the horsepower derived from completing his first Grand Tour this year, the Giro d'Italia.
The third ProTour team represented in the US pro championship is Garmin-Transitions, which fields a six-man squad comprised of Steven Cozza, Timothy Duggan, Caleb Fairly, Danny Pate, Peter Stetina and Andrew Talansky. Pate is an experienced professional with four US pro championship podium appearances in his palmares, most recently a third place finish in 2006. Andrew Talansky is on quite a run of form lately, as the 21-year-old just finished second overall at the Tour de l'Avenir and the ascent of Paris Mountain will provide ample opportunity to showcase his climbing prowess. Caleb Fairly has performed well in tough one-day races this season, most notably his solo victory in the Tour of the Battenkill in April.
Others to watch include Benjamin Jacques-Maynes of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team, who will have eight teammates for support, Kiel Reijnen (Jelly Belly Presented By Kenda), winner of this season's Tour of Thailand and a third place finisher at the Tour of Qinghai Lake, Phillip Gaimon (KENDA Pro Cycling presented by GEARGRINDER), second overall at the 2009 Tour de Taiwan and Lucas Euser (SpiderTech presented by Planet Energy), making his return to competition this season after he was seriously injured in 2009 after being hit by a car while on a training ride in Spain.