Mancebo chasing third-straight Cascade Cycling Classic victory

The granddaddy of all US professional stage races will wake from its annual slumber July 16-21 when the Bend Memorial Clinic Cascade Cycling Classic mounts up for its 34th run. The six-day race in this Central Oregon cycling hotbed is the longest-running stage race in the US and fills the penultimate spot on USA Cycling's National Race Calendar for both the men and the women.

As a lead up to the August onslaught at the tours of Elk Grove and Utah, followed by the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and September's inaugural Tour of Alberta, the Cascade Cycling Classic serves as a prime starting block for domestic men hoping to do well in those UCI races, while the women are making their final cases for inclusion on USA Cycling's world championship squad. Both men's and women's Cascade fields are stacked with top-notch talent.

Paco back for run at 3rd consecutive Cascade win

The men's field includes seven of eight US-based UCI Continental teams, one Swiss Continental team and most of USA Cycling's domestic elite amateur programs. The 5-hour Energy/Kenda team of two-time defending champion and current NRC leader Francisco 'Paco' Mancebo will be on hand to try and put the Spanish veteran on the podium's top step for the third consecutive year.

Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies will also be eager to throw Chad Haga, who won Cascade's prologue last year but crashed out of the race the next day, back into the mix. Haga has had a breakout season this year, claiming his first NRC overall win at the Joe Martin Stage Race and riding to a top-10 finish at the Amgen Tour of California in May. The 24-year-old Texan would like to erase memories of last year's season-ending crash by taking home the yellow jersey this year.

Haga will have the backing of an experienced squad that includes 2013 Nature Valley Grand Prix overall winner Mike Friedman, 2013 national time trial champion Tom Zirbel, 2012 Tour of California KOM winner Sebastian Salas and new Bend resident Alex Candelario.

The Bontrager Development Team, which lifted Nathan Brown to the overall win at Tour de Beauce earlier this year, will also be at Cascade. The team recently dominated USA Cycling's U23 road nationals, with Tanner Putt taking the road race ahead of Brown, who won the next day's time trial. Brown is not on Bontrager's preliminary start list for Cascade, but two-time U23 criterium champion Ty Magner will be in town with Hincapie Sportswear, and so will the Swiss-registered BMC Development Team, which found success in the US earlier this year at Silver City's Tour of the Gila.

Bissell Pro Cycling will field an eight-rider squad that includes 2013 Tour of California KOM winner Carter Jones and 2012 Redlands Bicycle Classic overall winner Phil Gaimon, who recently signed with Garmin Sharp for next season and will be eager to show off the form that earned his first WorldTour contract.

Other Continental teams that will be mixing it up in the men's field include Smart Stop-Mountain Khakis, which will use Cascade to prepare for the first-ever Tour of Alberta in September, and the Jelly Belly-Kenda team of four-time and current national road race champion Freddie Rodriguez. The Jamis-Hagens Berman team of Janier Acevedo and J.J. Haedo, who is currently third overall in the individual NRC standings, recently wrapped racing at the BC SuperWeek in Canada and will be the only US Continental team absent from Cascade.

Abbott's first US race since Giro Rosa victory

Defending champion Alison Powers will be back in Bend with her NOW & Novartis for MS team to defend her 2012 yellow jersey. Powers took over the race lead last year when Kristin Armstrong (Exergy-Twenty12) abandoned after stage 3 to focus on her upcoming Olympic bid.

Powers started this season with a dominant show of force at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, taking three stages and the overall win. She has also won the Tour of the Gila's time trial and several National Criterium Calendar races. She'll be backed by an eight-rider squad that includes 2011 national road race champion Robin Farina and 2012 Cascade stage winner Lex Albrecht.

Powers and her team will have to overcome a deep and talented field if she wants to take home yellow again. Mara Abbott, the 2010 Cascade overall winner who returned to racing this year with Exergy-Twenty16 and recently won the Giro Rosa in Italy, will bring her considerable climbing abilities to the race. Abbott took two stages on her way to the overall win at Giro earlier this month while riding with the US national team, and she won the overall at the Tour of the Gila in May. She'll have 2012 Cascade stage winner Kristin McGrath as part of a seven-rider squad that will support her efforts to claim another Cascade title.

The Bend race will also mark US professional road race champion Jade Wilcoxson's first start since she fractured a radial bone above her left wrist in a crash during the final day of the Nature Valley Grand Prix last month. Wilcoxson, a Southern Oregon resident who considers Bend a second home, missed a chance to race the Giro Rosa with the national team but is focused on the rest of the season and a possible shot at the world championships in September.

She'll have the support of an eight-rider Optum team that has found its share of success at Cascade in the past, winning the overall race in 2011 with Janel Holcomb – who was riding for Optum director Rachel Heal's Colavita-Forno d’Asolo squad at the time – and taking two stages in 2012.

The TIBCO-To the Top team of 2013 Giro Rosa runner-up Claudia Häusler and Nature Valley Grand Prix overall winner Shelley Olds will field an eight-rider squad, which also includes NVGP stage winner Lauren Stephens.

The only major US women's team absent from Cascade this year will be the Specialized-lululemon squad of 2009 overall winner Evelyn Stevens. General manager Kristy Scrymgeour said the majority of her team is still in Europe after competing at the Giro Rosa and will be in Germany July 15-21 for the seven-day Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen, a UCI 2.HC event.

Vanderkitten will send a full eight-rider team that includes 19-year-old Ruth Winder, who is fresh off her Giro Rosa ride with the US national team. Colavita Fine Cooking is registered with an eight-rider squad led by Lindsay Bayer and Jamie Brookwalter. Kenda-RACC, Metromint, DNA-Plan7 and SCAA-Starbucks are also stacking the field with full teams.

Prologue and five stages will decide overall

Tuesday evening's 4.5km Tetherow Prologue Time Trial course circles around a golf course on the southwest edge of Bend and features 55 meters of climbing. Chad Haga (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) took his first NRC yellow jersey during last year's opening prologue with a time of 5:03. Kristin Armstrong (Exergy-Twenty12) won the women's stage at 5:24.

The 119km stage 1 McKenzie Pass Road Race features 2,004 meters of climbing over two ascents. The first climb of the day takes riders up and over McKenzie Pass, a narrow winding road with switchbacks so tight that motorhomes and trailers are prohibited. The road is closed each winter because of snow pack and only re-opened to traffic less than a month ago. Riders will climb 1,120 meters over 35km to the otherworldly lava field at the top of the pass. A fast descent leads into proudly western town of Sisters before riders start the final 17km climb to Three Creeks Snow Park, racing up another 516 meters of elevation gain before it's all over.

General Classification contenders face another individual test during the stage 2 Crooked River Time Trial on a course that debuted last year. The slightly lumpy 25.7km out-and-back route features 183 meters of elevation gain as riders cruise along the Crooked River Highway south of Prineville. Crosswinds in the river valley can be a factor here. Armstrong covered the course in 34:40.58 last year, while men's winner Romero Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home) set a mark of 31:19.91.

The stage 3 Cascade Lakes Road Race is a classic course that starts and finishes in the parking lot of the Mt. Bachelor Ski Area west of Bend. The route circles around the mountain and its glacier-fed alpine lakes for 148km and 1,321 meters of total elevation gain. The stage ends with a gradual 32km climb that ascends 563 meters to the finish. The women cover a shorter version of the route for 112km.

Saturday's penultimate-stage criterium takes place on a familiar rectangular downtown course that has wreaked havoc on fields in the past. Five-block-long straightaways are connected on each end by a single block, and the road that connects corners three and four can be especially treacherous as the course transitions from two lanes to a single narrow one and then back again. The nature of the course can cause fields to repeatedly string out and bunch up, making touched wheels and crashes almost inevitable. The women will race first for 50 minutes, followed by the men's 75-minute event.

Cascade concludes Sunday with the traditional Awbrey Butte Circuit Race. The lumpy course, which has been used in multiple national championship events, travels into the rolling, partially forested farmlands northwest of Bend before heading back toward town and the relatively short-but-daunting wall of Archie Briggs, which climbs 74 meters in a little over a kilometer. The route climbs slightly further through the Awbrey Butte neighborhood before heading back down toward town and the beginning of another loop. The men cover five laps for 133.5 km, while the women circle the route four times for 107.8km. Both races start and finish at a local high school slightly off the circuit.

Each stage other than the prologue and the stage 2 time trial offer time bonuses of 10, six and four seconds to the first three across the line.

National Race Calendar battles renewed

Cascade will pick up the NRC battle where June's Nature Valley Grand Prix left off. Defending NRC individual men's champion Mancebo has a commanding 254 point lead so far this year over runner-up Haga. Jamis' Haedo is in third, another 84 points down. Optum's Tom Zirbel is tied for fourth in the individual standings with Hincapie Sportswear's Joey Rosskopf. Both are 346 points behind Mancebo.

In the women's standings, Tibco's Häusler took the lead from Powers at the Nature Valley Grand Prix and currently leads the NOW rider by a scant 72 points. Häusler's teammate, Olds, is another 42 points back in third. Optum's Joelle Numainville is fourth, 174 points behind, while Abbott holds the fifth spot, 332 points down.

In the team standings, Optum leads the men's rankings over 5-Hour Energy and Jamis, while Tibco is at the top of the women's rankings ahead of Optum and NOW.

The men and women each have one remaining NRC event after Cascade, with the Tour of Elk Grove for the women taking place August 2-4, and the one-day Bucks County Classic for the men running on September 7.

Cascade is also the final race of the 10th annual three-race Women's Prestige Series, currently led by Specialized-lululemon's Tayler Wiles.

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