Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) is ready to defend his 2017 criterium title at the USA Cycling Pro Road Championships Friday night in Knoxville on a brand-new course, and in the first year that the federation has combined the discipline with the road race and time trial championships.
McCabe won his title last year in Louisville, Kentucky, when the criterium was a separate event with the now-defunct team time trial championship.
"I think it's cool that all three races are together," McCabe told Cyclingnews Friday in Knoxville. "It probably gives a little more validity to the crit than it has in the past. So that's really nice, and it increases the size of the field."
The 29-year-old from Arizona sprinted to last year's title ahead of former champion Eric Young (Rally Cycling), Ty Magner - who rides for Rally now but was with Holowesko-Citadel last year - and Rally's Brad Huff, also a former criterium champion.
Now all three riders who finished directly behind McCabe are on the same team, which is bringing a total of six riders to the race, according to the start list on the USA Cyclng website.
"I think this year Rally is going to come in with a vengeance," McCabe said. "I think they have 50 guys racing today, so the responsibility is on them. They have multiple guys who can win: Colin Joyce, Eric Young and Ty Magner. So those guys are where the pressure is.
"We're kind of coming into here, even as defending champion, I'll see how it goes. But we have me, Eric Macrotte and Tanner Putt, so we're kind of looking at it not so much as a numbers game, but more strategically than we did last year."
McCabe said UnitedHealthcare is looking to race more aggressively this year, rather than sitting in and waiting for the big bunch sprint as in 2017.
"We're going to roll the dice," he said.
The 2017 field in Louisville contained just 45 riders, 14 of whom failed to finish the race. There are currently 94 riders signed up for this year's men's criterium championships, a factor that McCabe said should alter the style of racing dramatically.
"I think the bigger field could lead to a bit of surprise," he said. "It's not as scripted as what it would be with a smaller field. Sometimes you have the guys where it's just the pro teams and everyone spins around for 90 minutes and races the last five. I think this time it's going to make it like we're actually racing a crit."
The course in Knoxville is six corners and relatively flat. McCabe said without a big hill to wear down riders over the 90-minute race he expects another big bunch kick finish.
"The more guys, usually the faster it is and the harder it is and the more uncertainty there is within the race, so it should be fun," he said. "I think it's going to be a fun race to watch tonight, for sure."
Aside from the Rally contingent, McCabe and his UnitedHealthcare teammates will have to watch out for Holowesko-Citadel, which features sprinters John Murphy and Miguel Byron, who was fifth last year. And with 94 riders in the field, there are sure to be more wildcards in the deck.
"The last four corners are pretty tight and the roads get narrow," McCabe said. "I think it will be a fight to the last three corners for the finish. A downhill sprint finish should be pretty exciting to watch. It'll be fast and an all-out race."