Team SmartStop's Eric Marcotte parlayed his first opportunity to compete in USA Cycling's Professional Road Championships into a stars-and-stripes jersey Monday, transitioning from worker to team leader in the final kilometers of the road race and out-sprinting a select group for the win.
"It's kind of crazy," Marcotte, 34, said after the race in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "It doesn't even seem real because I certainly was an underdog and probably not even on the radar at all — of anybody. I'm sure a lot of people are like, 'Who is this guy?' But I've been doing my homework to stay healthy and well to be able to compete at this level. So it's unreal."
Marcotte infiltrated the early breakaway to set up his teammates later in the race, but he ended up winning the sprint from a group of 13 riders that came to the line after 165.5 km of racing. Marcotte beat teammate Travis McCabe and Garmin-Sharp's Alex Howes, who finished second and third, respectively. UnitedHeatlhcare's Chris Jones was fourth, followed by another SmartStop rider, Julian Kyer, in fifth.
"Our plan was to ride for Travis [McCabe] and Josh [Berry] and try to set them up," Marcotte told Cyclingnews. "And Julian [Kyer] was fourth in the TT, so we knew he was going well. The plan was for me to be a worker, but we ended up with three guys in the final selection."
Marcotte, a Michigan native who now lives in Arizona, came to professional cycling after a long amateur career. After several impressive results, including third place overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix last year, the former double master's national champion [road and criterium in 2011] moved to SmartStop from ELBOWZ Racing with McCabe for the 2013 Tour of Alberta.
He started this season with a win during stage 1 at the UCI 2.2 Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic, wearing yellow for four days on the way to placing teammate Rob Britton second overall.
Marcotte has been a solid rider for SmartStop throughout the season, specializing in getting into early breakaways to set up teammates like McCabe, the current National Race Calendar leader. But when Marcotte's younger teammate told him he was cramping on the second of three finishing laps, Marcotte took over the leadership role.
McCabe said when he approached Marcotte near the end of the race and asked his teammate how he was feeling, Marcotte just nodded.
"I knew that was it," McCabe said.
Marcotte was focused like a laser, saying later that he wasn't going to let the opportunity for the biggest win of his career just slip away.
"I think I told [SmartStop director Mike] Creed before that I may never get another chance to race this again," Marcotte said. "And that final couple of kilometers, I was never going to let it go any different."
Marcotte had been dropped from the remnants of the day's breakaway during the final climb up Lookout Mountain, but he was able to regain the leaders on the descent back into downtown Chattanooga. When McCabe came up to the lead group, which included Kyer, on the second of three closing circuits, the team had three riders in the finale and the plan was playing out perfectly.
McCabe joined Optum's Scott Zwizanski and 5-hour Energy's Jim Stemper up the road for a short breakaway attempt, but that group was soon hauled back by Howes and the other leaders. Although it was eventually ill-fated, McCabe's move did afford Marcotte an opportunity to conserve and recover while focusing on the approaching finish.
With Howes looking the freshest and strongest of the riders at the front of the race, the SmartStop duo powered its way into the final corner and came onto the finishing straight with a clear advantage over the Garmin rider.
"Eric came through that final corner fast," McCabe said. "I knew no one would take it faster than he could. He had a small gap after the corner, and it was all over. There was no way to come around him."
Marcotte said he knew he had the win with about 100 meters to go.
"I just had to give it everything to the line," he said. "I didn't look back or even want to post up until I was across the line."
The win is SmartStop's biggest to date, and Marcotte said he hopes it will provide the kind of exposure that can help take the program to the next level. He also said winning from a smaller team like SmartStop, which shifted its focus from criteriums to road races this year, can serve as morale booster for riders on other small domestic teams.
"It gives us hope," he said. "You say, 'I've raced against that guy, how did he finish that off?' Well, you can do it. You just have to believe in yourself in that moment and not look back."
Marcotte will get his first opportunity to wear his new national champion's jersey at the Philadelphia Cycling Classic on June 1. After that, the team will split up and send squads to Tour de Beauce and the NorthStar Grand Prix.