USA Cycling Professional Road Championships 2021 – Preview

Alex Howes wins the 2019 USA Cycling pro men's road race
Alex Howes wins the 2019 USA Cycling pro men's road race (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

The USA Cycling Professional Road Championships return to Knoxville, Tennessee after the 2020 interruption due to COVID-19 coronavirus, with six stars-and-stripes jerseys doled out for pro men and women in three disciplines. 

The rolling roads in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains will host the road race and individual time trial events for a fourth time, and it’s the third year downtown Knoxville will host the Pro Criterium competitions. While there are no significant obstacles with mountain elevation, it’s the repetitive pounding over punchy climbs combined with heat that create a different type of wall for riders.

The 2021 fields are the largest since the races have been held in Knoxville, with a total of 490 riders this year representing an 8 per cent increase. 

Racing begins in nearby Oak Ridge with the individual time trial on Thursday followed by Friday night criteriums in downtown Knoxville, 59 women and 130 men at the start lines. After a rest day on Saturday, 74 women will compete in the road race at 9 a.m. ET Sunday, followed at Noon by 152 men riding for glory, 

Spectators are encouraged to attend the championships and watch two days of racing with new USA Cycling media partner FloSports. Organisers encourage fans in attendance to wear masks when in close proximity to athletes, such as when against a barrier on the course.

Live broadcasts of the criterium and road race events will be provided by FloBikes with commentary by pro announcer and TV producer Brad Sohner and former pro rider Lauren Hall. The Pro Road Championships will be the first of five championship events FloBikes will broadcast. An annual membership to FloBikes as a pro subscriber is required, and USA Cycling member will receive a 20 per cent discount through July 29.

The courses

The time trial takes place on the same course that was used in 2019, an 11.4km course along the Melton Hill Reservoir in Oak Ridge. Most of the course is flat, with three technical U-turns and a couple of small hills on a loop around Chestnut Ridge Park before the fast return to the finish. The men will cover three laps of the loop for 34.2km, while the women will race two laps for 22.8km.

The criterium events return to downtown Knoxville from Gay Street, using the now-familiar six-corner circuit that was used before. After the first turn on West Hill Avenue, there’s a sharp little 7 per cent pitch that leads to a left turn at the base of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

After another 90-degree turn onto East Church Avenue, the race hits the quick turns and 9 per cent gradient of State Street. After one block on Clinch Avenue, the riders will hit Gay Street for the start/finish. The women race for 70 minutes starting at 6:00 p.m. The men will start at 7:25 p.m. for an 80-minute race.

The road race course is also unchanged from 2019, with riders again taking on a tricky 12.71-kilometre circuit. After  crossing the Tennessee River via the iconic Gay Street Bridge, riders will climb for almost a full kilometer along Sherrod Street, with gradients reaching 10 per cent.

The backside of the climb has a tight, twisting descent to the James White Parkway and the return trip back across the river. Past attacks have taken place in the final kilometres using sharp pitches on East Hill Avenue and Clinch Avenue. The women will race nine laps for 113.5km, starting at 9 a.m. (EDT) and the men race 15 laps for 190.7km beginning at 1:15 p.m. (EDT).

The men's contenders

The 2019 USA Cycling Pro Road Championships Time Trial podium (left to right): Neilson Powless, Ian Garrison and George Simpson

The 2019 podium for US Pro Time Trial championship, with Ian Garrison taking the stars-and-stripes jersey (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Back for action in Knoxville are all three men’s champions from 2019, while two titlists for the women return in the time trial and road race events.

In the pro men's road race, defending champion Alex Howes (EF Education-First) returns with teammates Will Barta and Lawson Craddock, who was named to Team USA to compete in the road race at the Tokyo Olympic Games, while Tejay van Garderen will most likely focus his efforts on the time trial.

The Team DSM duo of Chad Haga and Kevin Vermaerke will ride both the ITT and road race. Trek-Segafredo’s pairing will be Kiel Reijnen and Quinn Simmons, the latter making his debut at US Pro after being crowned the junior ITT champion for the US and at Worlds in 2019 at 18 years of age.

Three past champions will be back on the start line Sunday with new teams – 2010 winner Ben King, who rides for Rally Cycling, 2016 winner Greg Brown, now with Groove Subaru, and 2018 winner and Tennessee native Jonny Brown, with Ireland-based EvoPro Cycling.

Many of the domestic teams are bringing big rosters to Knoxville, which will help during the long hall of the road race. ProTeam Rally Cycling will bring a stacked squad for all three disciplines, from two-time ITT champion (2017, 2018) Joey Rosskopf back in the race against the clock to 2010 road winner King. They'll also have Gavin Mannion, Robin Carpenter and 2019 runner-up Stephen Bassett, the hometown favorite, in the road race.

A few of the top Americans on WorldTour teams – Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar), Brandon McNulty and Joe Dombrowski (UAE Team Emirates), Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) and past champion Larry Warbasse (AG2R Citroën) - will not compete this year.

The most noticeable rider not to get his passport stamped on home soil is Powless, who took a bronze (2019) and a silver (2017) in the road race and reversed the medals - silver (2019), bronze (2017) - in the time trial. In the case of Jorgenson, he dealt with illness and fatigue at his first Giro d’Italia then returned to the US to complete 99 miles of the 200-mile Unbound Gravel, and has been given time off at home in Idaho to rest.

The men’s defending champion in the time trial is Ian Garrison (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and he’ll have to out-power fellow WorldTour riders Van Garderen and Team BikeExchange’s Brent Bookwalter. Van Garderen, who won bronze at the 2018 ITT Worlds, has not competed in the US Pro Championships since 2012, when he took the silver in the ITT. Bookwalter, who will also compete in the road race, has finished on the ITT podium four times (2012, 2013, 2017, 2018), and no worse than fourth in his other two appearances (2011, 2016).

The criterium will start with 131 riders, led by two-time crit king Travis McCabe, who returns with Best Buddies Cycling. Among his four teammates is another back-for-more statesman, Eric Marcotte, who won the 2015 Pro Crit title, and Michael Hernandez, the 2019 U23 criterium champion. With a bullseye on a second title (2011) is Eric Young (Elevate-Webiplex Pro Cycling), who will have five teammates supporting him to improve on his runner-up finish the past three consecutive events.

2018 Pro Crit champ Ty Magner returns with the most dominant team on the US criterium circuit this year, L39ION of Los Angeles. The team swept the men’s podium at the Tulsa Arts Crit during Tulsa Tough weekend, and Cory Williams won the omnium title. However, missing from the Knoxville roster is team co-founder and 2018 US Amateur crit champ Justin Williams. Joining Cory Williams and Magner will be Tyler Williams.

The women's contenders

Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo)

Road race champion Ruth Winder competing in stars-and-stripes jersey (Image credit: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

On the women's side, the majority of riders represent US-based programmes and not the WorldTour, but there is no shortage of talent. Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo), who will be part of the five-rider road squad representing the US at the Tokyo Olympic Games, will be tough to unseat as she comes back from Europe with a win in Brabaantse Pijl, second at Naavarra Women’s Elite Classics, and seventh overall at Ceratizit Festival Elsy Jacobs. She’ll have standout Taylor Wiles as a teammate this year, who could also contest for the win.

Like the last outing in Knoxville, Winder will have to hold off Coryn Rivera (Team DSM), who was has had four runner-up finishes (2015-2017, 2019) and won the crown in 2018.

Other top contenders include Leah Thomas (Movistar), Alexis Ryan (Canyon-SRAM), Shayna Powless (TWENTY 24 Pro Cycling), and Emma White (Rally Cycling). White has finished third in this event on the past two editions. She won the crit title in 2019, but will focus on just the road race ahead of her first trip to the Olympic Games to compete on the track.

The enduring Amber Neben, now 45, is looking for her fifth national time trial title. She was just named to Team USA to ride the ITT at her second Olympic Games (2012), and is a wild card in the road race, an event she won in 2017. She’ll face competition from Winder, Wiles and Thomas.

Like the men’s field in the criterium, look for L39ION of Los Angeles teammates Skylar Schneider and Kendall Ryan to make noise like they did this past weekend at Tulsa Tough.

Ryan took the title in 2015 and was the bronze medalist in 2019, while Schneider, who had focused on road races for many years in Europe, makes her inaugural appearance in the crit for a national title. DNA Pro Cycling brings a six-rider squad, including Maggie Coles-Lyster who was second to Schneider at two of the three crit events in Tulsa.

With White absent on the six-rider team for Rally Cycling, the orange colours will be represented by 2018 crit winner Leigh Ann Ganzar. And like Neben in the ITT, don’t count out six-time crit champ Tina Pic, who returns at age 55 with Colavita-HelloFresh Pro Women’s Cycling.

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Jackie Tyson
North American Production editor

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp for several minor league teams. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road and gravel rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).

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