On the eve of the Greenville Hospital System USA Cycling Professional Championships, five ProTeam riders – BMC’s Taylor Phinney, George Hincapie and Brent Bookwalter, Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) and Ben King (Radioshack) – met the media to answer questions. Joining them on the dais was Handcyclist Matt Updike, a six-time U.S. National Champion and currently ranked #1 in the world.
Only 8 months ago, the 2010 championships held in September, was ruled by the Trek-Livestrong team when then teammates Phinney won the time trial and King took the road race in a gutsy solo attack from the early break.
“Last year was a very special weekend.” Phinney said. “I was able to win the time trial on Saturday and my ex-teammate, who was my teammate last year, Ben King won the road race the next day on Sunday, so it was quite honestly one of the best weekends of my entire life. We thoroughly enjoyed that.”
King had a banner year in 2010, winning the U23 National Road Title, the U23 National Crit Title in addition to US Pro. “I was focusing on the U23 road race out in Bend, Oregon. After having won that I was pretty happy and I came here off some hard stage racing in Europe. I signed a pro contract with Radio Shack and Taylor Phinney was able to win the time trial the day before and we had something to celebrate already; and the next day to go solo to the finish line was a little bit overwhelming to be honest.”
Impact of California. 2011 will be the first year that US Pro is raced in May, the middle of the national road season and one week after the Amgen Tour of California.
After 7 days of hard racing in California, the key is recovery.
3-time US National Road Champion Hincapie said that he was feeling good. “I recovered really well from the Tour of California. Usually, I come into this race either coming off of a pretty serious injury or not having raced for a month but I think the fact that I raced a week ago in a hard eight-day stage race and I recovered well is a good indicator that I’m in good shape.”
He continued with a laugh, “But as Davis [Phinney] reminded me, with the exception of [Handcyclist] Matt [Updike] I am about 15 years older than anyone up here so it’s never an easy task, but I feel like I’m ready. I feel like my teammates up here are ready as well.”
With recovery comes fitness. Some have called it the deepest field, but Hincapie prefers to call it the fittest field ever. “I haven’t even looked at the start list, I tend to focus on myself and my team. But I will say most of the peloton has also completed the Amgen Tour of California, so it will be the fittest field we’ve had, for sure. That was a tough race and everybody recovers differently but I’m sure the rest of the peloton has a lot of tough racing in their legs, so I think you’ll see some really exciting, hard racing.”
Both Phinney and King, who raced in California, know that defending their respective title will be difficult.
“Even though Levi is not here for the time trial tomorrow, there are guys like Tejay, guys like Zabriskie , who weren’t there last year, who are going to make me have to step up my game a little bit more.” Phinney said about the time trial on Saturday.
King spent a lot of time at the front of the field working for his teammate, overall winner Chris Horner last week. “Thanks to the dominance of Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer at that event, where they placed first and second, I wound up doing an awful lot of work during the race.” he stated. “Hopefully I’ll respond well to it. My coach said the winner tomorrow and also on Monday will be the one who responds the best to the acute load from that race, so hopefully maybe that’s me.”
van Garderen is hoping that the form shown and gained at California where he finished 5th overall and won the Best Young Rider classification will “roll through over the weekend.”
The 22-year old will be racing in both the time trial and road race. “With Zabriskie and Taylor here and Tom Zirbel and Brent Bookwalter, it’s going to be a tough one to win.” he said about the time trial. “Normally my time trial strengths have come more in the middle of stage races rather than a one-off thing but I’m going to give it my all and see how it goes and hope for the best.”
Tactics. The move to May has also brought calendar conflicts for the ProTour teams. Radioshack’s Horner and Levi Leipheimer are skipping the championships due to a sponsor event conflict with Nissan and the upcoming Tour de Suisse. Both King and van Garderen will have only 2 teammates in the road race. The lone rider for Garmin-Cervelo this weekend is David Zabriskie.
The BMC team will have the biggest ProTeam squad with only 4 riders who all raced in California. “We’ve had plenty of success, I think, between the four of us on this course with Taylor winning the time trial, George winning the road race, Jeff Louder and myself have both been top five in the road race so I think we’re confident and looking forward to it.” Bookwalter said.
In previous years, the domestic teams often looked to the ProTeams to do the chasing and reeling in of the early break. The game of chicken worked in the break’s favor last year. By the time the three riders off the front were starting the climb up Paris Mountain for the first time, they had over 7 minutes to the field. The gap was up to 17 minutes by the start of the second big loop. In the move were King, Daniel Holloway then with BISSELL and Scott Zwizanski then with Kelly Benefit Strategies. With all three riders changing teams in 2011, that meant that 5 teams were not interested in chasing, with King going to Radioshack, Holloway to KBS and Zwizasnki to UnitedHealthcare. All eyes were on BMC to assume the chase who did put their riders on the front but it was too late to catch King who attacked solo the third time up the mountain.
For Hincapie, all the ProTour teams will be looking to simply make it hard and a race of attrition. “We all have similar interest in the sense that we want the race to be as hard as possible and the strongest guy to win, so hopefully the race will play out like that. If it does, the early on tactics shouldn’t play such a big role in the race, all the big teams want to race hard and make it a survival of the fittest. It will definitely benefit all the [ProTour] teams here for sure.”
van Garderen added with a laugh. “Let’s make a deal now. I’ll put one guy on the front, you put one guy. We’ll let Ben King drill it up first.”
While the ProTour teams are coming in with reduced numbers, the Continental squads are fielding big squads, many coming straight from California. By the end of the Memorial Day Weekend, we’ll know if the move to May has changed the racing.