Bigger, better US Pro Championships head back to Knoxville - Preview

USA Cycling has been on a mission over the past several years to raise the stature of the US Professional Road Championships, mixing up venues, eligibility standards and what disciplines would be on offer.

The US federation combined the men's and women's championships in 2013 as a first step in the right direction, and this year's move to add the criterium championships to the weekend appears to be another. Previously held as either a standalone event or combined with the amateur national championships or the now-defunct team time trial championships, the criterium championships are now part of three days of racing that form the USA Cycling Professional Road, ITT and Criterium National Championships.

The racing starts Thursday in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with the individual time trials, continues Friday evening with the criterium championships in downtown Knoxville, and concludes Sunday with the road races that share the same downtown start/finish as the Friday night criteriums.

The courses

Thursday's time trials will take place on a 11.4km course along the Melton Hill Reservoir in Oak Ridge about 35 minutes west of Knoxville. The relatively straightforward course includes just a couple of turns and two 180-degree turn arounds. The men will cover three laps of the loop for 34.2km, while the women will compete over two laps for 22.8km.

The criterium championships will be decided Friday night on a six-corner course in downtown Knoxville. The course starts on Gay Street, the turns left onto Hill Avenue after two blocks. The route travels toward the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame before another left onto Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Drive and then another left onto Church Avenue. A right onto State Street and then quick lefts on Clinch Avenue and again onto Gay Street take riders back to the start/finish. The women will race for 75 minutes starting at 6:15 p.m. The men will start at 7:45 for their 90-minute race.

Sunday's road races reprise much of the 2017 route but with a new start/finish downtown coinciding with the finish for Friday night's criteriums. The 12.9km route features the ascent of Sherrod Street, a slightly less than 1km ascent that reaches pitches of 10 per cent. A sharp left turn just over a block from the finish could add a technical aspect to the finish if a large group comes to the line together. The women will race nine laps for 115.8km, starting at 9 a.m. The men's race starts at 1:15 and will feature 15 laps for 193.1km.

Time trial favourites

All of the 2017 champions will return this year to defend their titles, and so automatically slot into the top spots on the favourites list. Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue Sport) and Amber Neben (PX4 Sports) are back for the road race. Neben will also contest the time trial with a chance to defend last year's double win in the road race and ITT disciplines. Joey Rosskopf (BMC Racing) is back to defend his 2017 men's time trial title as well. In the criterium, both Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) and Erica Allar (Rally Cycling) will toe the start lines in their respective title defences.

Rosskopf's teammate Brent Bookwalter, runner-up last year, is always in with a shot at the national TT. They'll both have to contend with Chad Haga, the Team Sunweb rider who will be competing at US pro for the first time since 2013. Haga is a top-notch time triallist, most recently finishing seventh in the Giro d'Italia's 34.2km stage 16 race against the clock.

Other riders from last year's top 10 include Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo), Warbasse, Kyle Murphy (Rally Cycling), Alexey Vermeulen (Interpro Stradalli) and Chris Blevins (Hagens Berman Axeon). Two riders not in last year's top 10 who are capable of putting in a to result are Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman and Brandon McNulty, runner up in the 2017 U23 time trial world championships.

With the recent news that Chloe Dygert will sit out national while she recovers from a concussion suffered at the Amgen Women's Tour of California, Neben is now the hands-down favourite to repeat the women's time trial title.

Neben, the 2016 time trial world champion, secured her spot at this year's worlds with a win at the Pan American Championships last month. She most recently won the Chrono de Gatineau in Canada last week. Neben's top competition could come from Lauren Stephens (Cylance Pro Cycling), second last year and second to Neben at the Pan Am Championships.

Other riders from last year's top 10 include Leah Thomas (Twenty20-Sho Air), Julie Emmerman, Tayler Wiles (Trek-Drops), Allie Dragoo (Twenty20-Sho Air), Whitney Allison (Hagens Berman-Supermint) and Beth Ann Orton (Point S Nokian).

Criterium favourites

McCabe's has notched just one win since he took the criterium title last year - stage 5 at the Tour of Utah - and so the Arizona rider will be hungry for the win and the opportunity to wear the stars-and-stripes jersey for another year. He is linked back up with former SmartStop teammate and former US crit champion Eric Marcotte at UnitedHealthcare, remaking the powerful duo that finished first and second in the 2014 road race. They'll have to fend off challenges for recent champions Brad Huff and Eric Young of Rally Cycling, who also have a new teammate in top sprinter Ty Magner. Holowesko-Citdael will have John Murphy and Miguel Bryon vying for the win, while Elevate-KHS sprinter Cory Williams is coming off a win at the Armed Forces Crystal Cup.

Allar has a strong team to back her up in the women's race, but after a crash at the Tulsa Tough left her with four broken ribs, her title defense is in doubt. Teammate Emma White's star has been rising in the bunch kicks and would be a quality plan B for the team.

No matter which rider Rally rides for, they'll have to deal with two riders who have shown good form as of late. Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb), who won the criterium title in 2014, took a recent stage win and overall victory at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, which bodes well for her fitness she'll bring to Knoxville. Sam Schneider (ISCorp Pro Cycling) doesn't have a lot of European experience, but she knows how to win American criteriums. Schneider has 10 wins already this year, including the Harlem Skyscraper Classic on Sunday, and she is currently leading Cyclingnews' Bell Lap criterium series, whereby this championships race is the next round.

Kendall Ryan (Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank), won a stage at the Amgen Women's Tour of California and has shown good form so far this year. Hagens Berman-Supermint has a large team in the race that could lift Lily Williams to a top result. Tina Pic (Colavita) has five criterium titles to her name, but at 52 years old she would be an upset winner. Other riders from last year's top 10 include Irena Ossola and Hannah Shell (Papa John's).

Road race favourites

Warbasse won last year's race from a three-rider grouped that escaped on the penultimate climb up Sherrod Road. He joined Neilson Powelss (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Alexey Vermeulen (Interpro Stradalli) in the move that over the following lap and a half built a lead that allowed them a three-up sprint for the title.

In the women's race, Neben jumped away from the pack on the sixth of eight trips up Sherrod Road, bridged to the lone breakaway rider an then went solo to the line to win by 11 seconds over the field, which an obviously frustrated Rivera led across the line.

It's clear that the Knoxville course is difficult enough for opportunists to take advantage, making it a hard race to handicap. But, in the women's race at least, one rider stands out among the rest. Rivera has come close to taking this title multiple times, twice finishing second to Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) and once to Neben last year. Despite having just one teammate in Ruth Winder, she's tough to best against.

Guarnier won the title ahead of Rivera in 2015 and 2016 but missed last year's race due to injury. She'd also like to win back the stars-and-stripes jersey she ceded last year, and her win at Tour de Yorkshire in May proves her return to form is nearly complete. She'll have Skylar Schneider on the ground for a teammate.

Other women to watch include Twenty20-Sho Air's Allie Dragoo, UnitedHealthcare's Katie Hall and Leah Thomas, Stephens from Cylance, Rally's White, Wiles from Trek-Drops, Kendall Ryan, Alexis Ryan from Canyon-SRAM and Williams from Hagens Berman-Supermint.

The men's race doesn't have a single rider who's come as close as often as Rivera, but Bookwalter, Alex Howes (EF Education First-Drapac) and Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo) have regularly featured in the finales at the US Pro road race without ever having won the jersey. All three are capable of winning from a variety of ways, a big plus on a course that has favoured the opportunists in the past. Howes has two teammates in Nathan Brown and Logan Owen, while Bookwalter has Rosskopf, and Reijnen has none.

Powless, last year's runner up, will be without teammates, as will Interpro Stradalli's Vermeulen, third last year on this course. Other riders from last year's top 10 include Rally's Robin Carpenter, Colin Joyce and Eric Young.

The wildcard in this year's deck could again be Haga, whose only appearance at nationals in 2013 - while he was riding for what is now Rally - ended with a 31st place in the road race. The Texan is coming off a stellar Giro d'Italia, however, and could be in the throws of some fine post-Grand Tour form. Other riders in Knoxville who also raced the Giro include EF Education First-Drapac's Brown and Dimension Data's Ben King, who won the US Pro title in 2010.

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