Manayunk Wall at the fore of inaugural Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic

Early this year the venerable Philadelphia International Championship announced its cancellation, bring to a conclusion a historic 28-year run as the US's premier one-day road racing event. From its inception in 1985, won by Eric Heiden, through 2005 the men's event did double duty as the US professional road race championship, last won on the streets of Philadelphia by Chris Wherry. While the US men's road championship moved to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2006, the Philly race continued, as well as the women's Liberty Classic which ran concurrently with the men's race beginning in 1994, through to the 2012 edition last June.

Rare among US races in that it takes place in the heart of a major American city, various sectors of the course became firmly engrained within domestic pro cycling vernacular, such as Kelly Drive, Schuylkill River, Strawberry Mansion and Lemon Hill. The course's signature feature above all, however, would become synonymous with the event: the Manayunk Wall at the western end of the race's circuit, a climb approximately 800 metres in length with a leg-stinging gradient that hits 17 percent in the steepest section.

But the streak of big-time one-day racing continues unbroken in Philadelphia, however, as Robin Morton and g4 productions stepped to the plate as new race management and with the backing of Parx Casino the inaugural Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic will take place this Sunday, June 2, on familiar roads, at a familiar time of the year and with UCI races for both the men's and women's pelotons.

The bulk of the previous course has been kept for the new 12-mile parcours, featuring the usual out-and-back along the Schuylkill River on Kelly Drive with the Manayunk Wall anchoring the western end of the route as well as the usual detours off of Kelly Drive through Strawberry Mansion and Lemon Hill as the peloton heads away from Manayunk back towards downtown Philadelphia. The seismic difference, however, is that the start/finish line has shifted from the wide-open Benjamin Parkway, no longer part of the course, to the Manayunk Wall. Where the peloton used to turn left after finishing its descent off of Lemon Hill to negotiate what was once the eastern endgame of a 14.4-mile main loop past the Philadelphia Art Museum and an out-and-back on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, now the peloton will turn right onto Kelly Drive to head back to Manayunk. The women's peloton will complete five laps of the 12-mile circuit for a 60-mile (96.5km) event, while the men will double that for 10 laps and a 120-mile (193.1km) race.

Both of the races are UCI 1.2-ranked, and for the women's peloton this is the solitary UCI event for them being held in the United States all season. The race's $61,000 total purse is split down the middle with equal $30,500 pay-outs for the men and women. Each race pays 25-deep with the winner taking away $5,000 and in addition there's a $5,000 winner-take-all prize for the KOM/QOM winner, a $2,500 winner-take-all prize for the sprint classification winner as well as a $500 award to the best young rider. Points are on offer for the first three riders across the Manayunk Wall and Lemon Hill each lap to determine the climbing classification, while the sprint classification will be determined from points earned by the first three riders to cross the sprint line each lap located on Main Street in Manayunk, just prior to the beginning of the Manayunk Wall ascent.

Unlike previous years in Philadelphia with concurrent races, the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic will provide both the men's and women's pelotons sole domain on the race route. The women start at 8:30am EDT while the men follow at 12 noon.

The contenders

Throughout the years of the Philadelphia International Championship, as the peloton grew deeper in strength and fitness, what originally was a race decided by breakaways became the realm of the sprinters. Nine of the final 10 men's races ended in a field sprint while the women's Liberty Classic, too, saw more than its fair share of bunch gallop finales. For 2013, however, the race winner is expected to be cut from a different cloth with its new Mur de Huy-esque conclusion. While a pure sprinter would not be expected to emerge victorious, the jury's out on whether Sunday's winners on the Manayunk Wall will tilt more towards the realm of featherweight climbers or from the all-around, powerful rouleur set.

A 116-woman strong peloton will kick off the racing on Sunday, featuring five UCI teams (Team TIBCO, Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, Specialized-lululemon and Exergy-TWENTY16 from the US as well as Canada's GSD Gestion-Kallisto) plus 16 elite amateur squads.

Newly crowned US professional road champions Jade Wilcoxson (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) will compete for the first time in her stars-and-stripes jersey in a peloton which contains the top 13 finishers and 18 of the top 20 from last Monday's inaugural US women's pro road race. Optum had a very strong showing last Monday with Lauren Hall taking silver and with the addition of Canada's Joelle Numainville, the squad should once again make its presence known.

Team TIBCO features a pair of 2012 Olympians (the USA's Shelley Olds and New Zealand's Jo Kiesanowski, both podium finishers previously in Philadelphia at the Liberty Classic) and the team is eager to race on the new course with its five ascents of the Manayunk Wall.

"We have been saying for years that the race would change so much if we just added one more lap up the climb, and now we have it," said Olds. "Philly is one of my favorite races on the calendar every year. It is a beautiful race in a beautiful city."

If there's anyone in the women's peloton who knows how to win on a course with a punchy sting in the finale it's Specialized-lululemon's Evelyn Stevens, who prevailed at the 2012 edition of La Flèche Wallonne Féminine with its finish on the Mur de Huy. Stevens was unable to defend her title in Belgium this year as she was still recovering from the effects of a high-speed crash, but bounced back to win a stage and place second overall at the Gracia-Orlova stage race in the Czech Republic and more recently win the Amgen Tour of California Women's Time Trial, with a finish on a steep pitch not unlike the Manayunk Wall.

Any race that features an uphill finish should play to the talents of Mara Abbott (Exergy TWENTY16), the only American to win Italy's Giro Donne stage race plus an overall winner this year of New Mexico's Tour of the Gila where she triumphed on two stages finishing on climbs.

USA Cycling National Racing Calendar (NRC) leader Alison Powers, the bronze medalist at Monday's US pro road race, will tow the line with a strong NOW and Novartis for MS team while other contenders on Sunday include Claudia Häusler (TIBCO), Janel Holcomb (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Kristin McGrath (Exergy TWENTY16).

The men's Philly Cycling Classic peloton will contain 194 riders from 14 professional teams (four UCI Pro Continental and 10 UCI Continental) plus 11 elite amateur squads. Seven of the professional teams (Pro Conti teams UnitedHealthcare, Champion System, NetApp-Endua plus Continental teams Bissell, Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, Jamis-Hagnes Berman and 5-hour Energy p/b Kenda) saw recent action at the Amgen Tour of California and it's likely that the race protagonists and winner will emerge from those rosters.

UnitedHealthcare will field a strong team with multiple contenders amongst its ranks, including Philip Deignan, Jonathan Clarke, Lucas Euser and Kiel Reijnen. Deignan finished third in California on the brutal second stage with its uphill finish in Greater Palm Springs under searing heat en route to a 9th place overall result. Deignan also won overall at the Tour of the Gila in early May based on solid climbing throughout. Clarke and Euser are both strong when the roads tilt upwards while Reijnen comes into Philadelphia with a bronze medal from last Monday's US professional road race.

China's Champion System Pro Cycling Team features a pair of national champions - Matthew Brammeier (Ireland) and Ryan Roth (Canada) - plus strong all arounders Chad Beyer and Bobbie Traksel from its Tour of California roster.

Jamis-Hagens Berman had a phenomenal Amgen Tour of California courtesy of Janier Acevedo winning the second stage and holding the leader's jersey through stage 5 en route to an overall third place finish. The 27-year-old Colombian will feel right at home on the Manayunk Wall and will have strong teammates in Luis Amaran, Tyler Wren and Ben Jacques-Maynes.

Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies has riders such as Jesse Anthony and Chad Haga who can be expected to thrive on the uphill finish plus a deep roster of talent eager to go out on the attack and put pressure on their rivals.

5-hour Energy p/b Kenda has a race favourite in Spain's Francisco Mancebo plus a strong supporting replete with five teammates from their Tour of California roster.

The ever-aggressive Bissell squad has a roster full of strong men featuring a couple of veteran pros with Grand Tour experience, Jason McCartney and Pat McCarty, plus young New Zealand star Patrick Bevin.

The men's peloton, too, will see the race debut of the new US professional champion with the seemingly ageless Fred Rodriguez (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda) showing off the fourth start-and-stripes jersey of his career. The 39-year-old Rodriguez is quite familiar with the route in Philadelphia as he won his three previous titles at the Philadelphia International Classic, including out-and-out victory overall in the 2001 edition. Rodriguez had some trouble with the key climb in Monday's pro championship, but had enough time to get back in contention. A Manayunk Wall finale, however, may be too much for the veteran but teammate Alex Hagman might be someone to look for, as the Colorado climber has a KOM title from the 2011 Philadelphia race in his palmares.

Other riders to look for from the pro ranks include Javier Megias Leal (Team Novo Nordisk), Russell Downing (NetApp-Endura), Joe Lewis and Joey Rosskopf (Hincapie Sportswear Development Team), Volodymyr Starchyk (Amore & Vita) and Bruno Langlois (Equipe Garneau - Québecor).

With the reduction of the US domestic pro peloton from 12 to eight Continental teams, several former professionals find themselves once again in Philadelphia on elite amateur squads. Keep an eye on riders such as Kirk Carlsen and Cesar Grajales (Predator Carbon Repair), Andres Diaz (Elbowz Racing) and Matt Cooke (CRCA).

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