US peloton boards Chattanooga championship choo-choo

After a long tenure in Greenville, South Carolina the 2013 US Professional Road Race and Time Trial Championships are moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga, which hosted stages of the Tour de Georgia in 2006 and 2007, will also be the inaugural site of the first Professional Women's National Championships. The road race course that climbs historic Lookout Mountain will remind riders of the hilly and hot South Carolina course they have grown used to, but the time trial track is less technical, opening the door for a variety of riders to take home the stars and stripes.

Time Trial

The first race of the championship weekend will be the first Professional Women's Time Trial Championships. The new spot for the Elite Women's championship has raised the prestige of the event and promises to increase media exposure for the growing population of American professional riders. The time trial course, to be held near the plant of race sponsor Volkswagen, is wide-open compared to previous years, meaning riders will not have much to think about other than going hard.

Amber Neben's injury at the Tour of California Invitational TT means that the inaugural professional women's TT is likely to be a two-up battle between Alison Powers and Evelyn Stevens. In California, Powers (NOW-Novartis for MS) and Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) out-classed the rest of the women's field as they went head to head over the challenging course before Steven's outpaced Powers on the final climb.

Neben's absence also opens up the opportunity for several dark horses to get onto the podium. Jade Wilcoxson and Janel Holcomb (Optum Pro Cycling), Alison Tetrick and Kristen McGrath (Exergy-Twenty16) have circled the podium in recent years and demonstrated strong time trialing over the last several months.

David Zabriskie, who will also be sitting out the championships due to an injury suffered at the Tour of California, has dominated the Men's US Professional Time Trial event the last nine years with seven wins since 2004. Zabriskie's absence leaves the door open for frequent runner-up Tom Zirbel (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) who has shown promising form at early season races including the Tour of the Gila and the Redlands Stage Race.

Last year's third place finisher Brent Bookwalter (BMC), whose wife attended university in Chattanooga, is eager to perform in a race that is close to home roads. Other contenders include Matthew Busche (RadioSchack Leopard) whose past podium appearances at nationals, and a recent top 20 performance at the Amgen Tour of California, tip him as a strong contender.

Many eyes will be on Lawson Craddock (Bontrager Cycling Team) who won the best young rider classification and trailed Busche by only 13 seconds in the Tour of California time trial. Several domestic riders showed their mettle in that race, including Nate English (5-hour Energy-Kenda), Chad Haga (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies), and Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis-Hagens Berman).

The women's National Time Trial Championships starts Saturday, May 25th at 11am EDT and the men are scheduled to follow at 2pm.

Road Race

The championship road race starts with an urban circuit through downtown Chattanooga before sending riders on a lap that includes a three-mile climb up Lookout Mountain. The site of a historic civil war battle, Lookout Mountain is expected to be a decisive feature in the race, and has drawn many comparisons to Paris Mountain.

The men's race will ride four circuits of the extended course up Lookout Mountain while the women will only race up it twice. After descending Lookout Mountain a final time the riders will head back into Chattanooga and the race will finish on three circuits of the downtown loop. "The Lookout Mountain climb is quite challenging," defending champion Megan Guarnier told Cyclingnews. "The small circuits are technical with a bit of changing elevations, which should also add some difficulty."

The men's peloton, many of whom have just completed the Tour of California, will be looking to dethrone Timmy Duggan (Saxo-Tinkoff), who is returning to the race without teammates, and still suffering from injuries from a crash in that race. Another European-based rider returning with limited teammates is Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp). Farrar showed his confidence and form have returned with a sprint win over Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at the Tour of California. Several other European-based riders including 2011 National Champion Matthew Busche (RadioShack Leopard), Brent Bookwalter (BMC), and Ted King (Cannondale) are also riding the race without teammates against one of the strongest domestic pelotons in a decade.

Several domestic squads will be looking to take home the championship after successful early spring campaigns. Phil Gaimon's Bissell squad dominated the early season US race calendar, and Gaimon is bringing a large team that includes last year's runner up Frank Pipp. Chad Haga (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Lawson Craddock (Bontrager Cycling Team), Nate English (5-hour Energy-Kenda), and Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) are all coming into the championship weekend with strong performances at the Tour of California under their belts, and fully-manned teams.

With only 89 riders signed up to race this year's championship, compared to 2011 in 2012, the contraction in the American peloton will have the upside of making it one of the most hotly contested championship races in years.

Like Timmy Duggan, Megan Gaurnier (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) comes into the 2013 National Championships without any teammates. Guarnier rode a strong spring campaign that culminated in 2nd place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and multiple victories for Rabobank team leader Marianne Vos.

Guarnier's main challenge will come from two Olympians, Shelley Olds (TIBCO/To the Top) and Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon.) Stevens, whose recovery from a rough crash in the spring appears to be complete, is a powerful all-rounder who will be able to take advantage of the climb up Lookout Mountain climb. Shelley Olds, a world-renowned sprinter and tactician, narrowly missed an Olympic medal last summer and will be favorite should the race come down to field sprint.

While they will not be riding solo like Guarnier, Olds and Stevens are both supported by small squads of 4-5 riders, providing an opportunity for the European-based riders to form alliances against the larger teams fielded by Exergy Twenty16, NOW and Novartis for MS, and Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. Expect Alison Powers (NOW), Jade Wilcoxson and Lauren Hall (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies), and Mara Abbott (Exergy-Twenty16) to try and use their strength numbers.

A field of 76 women riders is scheduled to contest the inaugural 102 km professional women's road race championships starting at 9am EDT Monday, May 27. The 165km men's road race starts at 1:15pm following the completion of the women's event.

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