US Pro: Americans line up for chance at stars-and-stripes jersey

Chattanooga will host its third US Professional Time Trial and Road Race Championships this weekend. The steep climb up Lookout Mountain will trim the fields but weather forecasted to be in the high 80s may claim as many victims. Team depth and finishing speed have been the deciding factor in recent years.

The time trial course will again be two circuits of a 15.2 km course located near Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant. The course incorporates several short power climbs over wide-open roads.

Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) won on this course in 2013 and was second in 2014 to BMC's Taylor Phinney. Zirbel is fresh off a sixth-place finish at the Amgen Tour of California time trial. Zirbel had been targeting the Big Bear Lake time trial as a key goal, but that course was scrapped when forecasts for snow at Big Bear prompted organisers to move the course and shorten it significantly. The shortened 10.6km stage in Santa Clarita left him competing against sprinters and prologue specialists. Zirbel’s performance in California, and the absence of last year's winner make Zirbel a clear favourite.

“I’m feeling really good on the TT bike. This has been great training this week,” Zirbel said on the last day of the Tour of California. “I’m looking forward to it for sure.”

The women’s time trial looks more open and will pit a half a dozen strong favourites against each other. Evelyn Stevens (Boels-Dolmans) tops the list of favourites after beating former world champions Kristin Armstrong (Twenty 16-ShoAir) and Amber Neben (Visit Dallas Cycling-Noise4Good) at the Tour of California Invitational time trial. Both Armstrong and Neben are heading to Chattanooga hoping that the longer course will play to their benefit.

Also in the mix are Carmen Small (Twenty 16-ShoAir) and darkhorse Lauren Stephens (TIBCO.) Small won on this course in 2013 and is coming off a big win at the Panamerican Championships in Leon, Mexico on May 7th. Stephens put in several strong time trials this year, including wins at Tour de San Luis, Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Gila. Stephens has put a lot of emphasis on nationals, hoping it will be her ticket to a spot on the worlds team for Richmond.

“Since I don’t do a lot of racing [in Europe], to make the worlds team it is pretty difficult,” Stephens said. “To win nationals time trial would be a way I could make it. So time trial is something you can really focus your training on.”

The defining feature of the road race course is once again Lookout Mountain, a challenging 4.4 km climb over 335 metres of elevation gain. The peloton will once again ride over the “The wall,” a one-block section in North Chattanooga with grades of over 20 percent. The men’s race will run 179.3km and the women’s will run 111.5km.

The Chattanooga course has delivered several unexpected winners the past two years. Domestic teams have ruled in Tennessee, with Freddy Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) winning in 2013 and Eric Marcotte (Team SmartStop) taking the title in 2014.

European-based riders have found little luck on the Chattanooga road race course. Former national champion Matt Busche (Trek Factory Racing) has finished in the top 10 two years in a row. Busche is again returning without any team support and will need to play his cards right to regain the jersey.

“I’ll be totally alone so it’s really hard to say how it will play out,” Busche said. “Garmin will have a team there, UnitedHealthcare, I think Horner is coming and would like to get the jersey back, and he’ll have some team there. It’s a championship race and it’s never normal."

Cannondale-Garmin will field a team of four riders that includes Andrew Talansky and Joe Dombrowski, who is looking strong after finishing fourth on Mt. Baldy and fourth in the GC at the Tour of California. Chris Horner and his young Airgas-Safeway team will be looking to make an impact. Horner's squad needs a big ride like nationals to get invited to the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge later in the summer.

Fresh off the Tour of California, several domestic teams will be showing up in force. Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, UnitedHealthcare and Team Smartstop will all have full rosters. After winning the US Pro Criterium championship in April, many will be watching 2014 champion Marcotte to repeat. SmartStop will continue to use their aggressive multi-pronged approach to keep the jersey.

In the women’s road race, domestic teams appear to have a decided advantage. Despite lacking numbers, Stevens is heading into nationals brimming with confidence.

“I’m pumped,” she said after winning the Tour of California time trial. “I didn’t even think I was riding that well. I’ve been putting a lot of hard work in so it's nice when it comes out.”

Stevens will arrive in Chattanooga with teammate Megan Guarnier, whose spring campaign – third at Flèche Wallonne and first at Strade Bianche – makes her and Stevens a dangerous pair.

Several domestic teams, including Optum, Twenty 16-ShoAir and UnitedHealthcare, are fielding full rosters. UnitedHealthcare Director Rachel Heal was at the helm of both teams that won in 2013 and 2014. Heal’s 2015 squad will have several cards to play, with a mix of climbers like Katie Hall and sprinters like Coryn Rivera.

Racing begins with the women's time trial championship on Saturday, May 23, at 11 a.m. (EDT) and the men's race at 2 p.m.  The women's 111.5km road race starts Monday, May 25, at 9 a.m. The men start their 179.3km road race at 1:30 p.m. Stay tuned for more details about Monday's livestream here on Cyclingews.

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