With a potential history-making double win on the line for BMC Racing's Taylor Phinney, Monday's road race at the USA Cycling Professional Road Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is shaping up to be wild ride from start to finish.
The 23-year-old prodigy from Boulder, Colorado, has said that he's shooting for a double win on Memorial Day after having scooped up Saturday's time trial by nearly a minute over 2013 champ Tom Zirbel (Optum Pro Cycling).
Phinney might try and duplicate his stage win last week at the Tour of California, when he got a gap on the final descent and then time trialed to the finish in Santa Barbara while the sprinters' teams unsuccessfully tried to chase him down.
A similar move could be hard to pull off on Chattanooga, where Phinney will be a marked man in the 87-rider peloton. Only BMC's Peter Stetina will be on hand to help Phinney. Brent Bookwalter, runner-up last year, is competing at the Giro d'Italia, and Larry Warbasse is recovering from a crash during the last stage at the Tour of California. BMC's Tejay van Garderen is in Europe continuing his preparation for the Tour de France.
Stetina, meanwhile, rode a consistent race in California's GC battle and finished sixth overall, the top result by any of the riders competing in Chattanooga.
"I am cautiously optimistic," Stetina said on the team's website. "I don't know the route very well, but I know there are some pretty steep hills. I can go uphill really well and Taylor is pretty lean right now and packs a killer sprint. So I think we have a solid team to take home the stars and stripes."
The BMC duo will have to contend with Garmin-Sharp's six-rider squad. The argyle armada will lack Tyler Farrar and Andrew Talansky, but the team will have Nathan Brown, Tom Danielson, Caleb Fairly, Phil Gaimon, Alex Howes and 2010 US pro champion Ben King.
Trek Factory Racing's Matthew Busche, who won the race in 2011, will be on the roads of Chattanooga again this year, as will Cannondale's Ted King. Of the 23 US riders on WorldTour teams, only 11 will be racing for the stars-and-stripes jerseys this weekend. US riders from Giant-Shimano, Team Sky, Lampre-Merida and Astana will not be at the race.
The UnitedHealthcare UCI Pro Continental team of Kiel Reijnen, third last year, will have seven riders in the road race. Chris Jones was a star for the team in California, infiltrating the major breakaways on a trio of stages, and he should be fit after a week of rest. The course could also suit John Murphy, who featured in the all-day breakaway at Paris-Roubaix this year.
Three Continental teams are sending overflow squads of nine riders or more, among them Optum, 5-hour Energy-Kenda and Hincapie Sportswear. Jelly Belly-Maxxis will have an eight-rider squad that features defending champion Fred Rodriguez. Jamis-Hagens Berman and Team SmartStop have nearly full squads in the race, while the Bissell Development Team will field just two riders: Tanner Putt and Greg Daniel.
Favorites from the Continental ranks include National Race Calendar leader Travis McCabe (Team SmartStop), who has shown an ability this season to climb well and sprint even better. Redlands Bicycle Classic overall winner Joey Rosskopf (Hincapie Sportswear) is a good all-rounder with a fast finish when needed. He won the NRC opener with a long solo move onto the final day's closing circuits.
A bunch sprint could bring any number of winners, including Rodriguez or his teammate Jacob Rathe, Hincapie's Ty Magner, 5-hour Energy's Jake Keough or Optum's Eric Young. But the fast finishers and the fleet ascenders could have a difficult day on a course that is not really suited to pure sprinters or pure climbers.
Monday's race will take place on an almost identical course as last year's inaugural run - with just one significant change. Organizers have added a short, steep climb in North Chattanooga that riders will have to power over seven times.
The 165.5 km route begins with four laps of an 8.2 km starting circuit before a relatively flat run to Lookout Mountain. The 4.5 km climb on Ochs Highway ascends nearly 350 meters, and the riders will face it on each of their four trips around the 26.5 km "long" circuits. The new wall is a one-block section of road with grades of up to 20 percent. The men will tackle it on each of the long circuits as well as on three shorter 8.6 km finishing circuits.
During last year's finale, Busche went over the top of Lookout Mountain alone on the final long lap, but he was soon absorbed by a lead group that swelled to more than 20 riders. Gaimon jumped away for an ill-fated solo move on the finishing circuits, but the others worked to bring him back. Rodriguez was the big beneficiary of that work when he out-kicked Bookwalter and Reijnen from a final group of 13.