Since the inaugural edition in 2006, the Greenville Hospital System USA Cycling Professional Championship has unfolded differently every year, with the winner emerging from a different move every time; from a long solo attack from a break, to a late attack from a select group in the finishing circuits, to an a blistering attack on the climb up Paris Mountain.
“I think the tactics and the strategy at this race are always really strange.” Alex Candelario (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth) said yesterday. “It’s always kind of hard to read it because it’s not a normal situation, you don’t have the normal 8-man squad for every single team.”
Candelario, who said with a laugh that he had lost count of how many US Pro races he had done, has been part of every edition in Greenville, SC. He also participated in a couple of the US Pro when it was held in Philadelphia prior to that.
Last year, Candelario took second out of the select chase group behind Ben King (Radioshack) who solo’ed away from the early break to take the Stars & Stripes jersey.
The interesting tactics come from the make-up of the race, the number play between the domestic and European squads. Typically the Continental teams look to the ProTour teams to chase back the early break, even if they do not have a rider in the move. But is it the best strategy for a domestic team?
“Even though the ProTour teams have been lacking in numbers, they still had quite a bit of horsepower so you’re still in a situation where guys are trying to just make it over the hill basically. It isn’t the best way actually to be honest.” Cando replied.
He added, “When it comes down to it, Levi and Horner aren’t here, but they’re pretty much going to drop everybody going over the hill themselves and so if you’re a domestic team you’re pretty guaranteed that situation happening and you definitely don’t want to put yourself in that situation.”
But it’s not easy. “I think that the domestic teams need to step up, ride and kind of control the race, take it into control, but it’s also hard, it’s a really hard race. Most teams don’t have eight guys that can go the distance at this race so that also plays a major factor.”
The 115-mile (185.1 km) road race is really divided into 3 sections, starting off with the 3 loops around the 4.18-mile short circuit followed by the heavy hitter of the 4 times around the 20.8-mile loop which includes the climb up Paris Mountain and for those still in the game, it finishes with 3 laps around the same short circuit.
For Candelario, the climb up Paris can be pretty decisive. “Definitely, if you fall apart on it, you can lose a lot of time. But if you get dropped, you can still suffer through it and tag back down towards the bottom if the group doesn’t really start rolling. It’s definitely a major factor.”
Paris Mountain is certainly different than the Mayanunk Wall in the Philly race. “The wall is not that big a factor, it just makes the race a little harder. That’s definitely a sense where it doesn’t make any sense, HTC brings Cavendish or someone like that to the race, it doesn’t make any sense for us not to go up the road and race.”
A look back. In 2010, a 4-man break which quickly because a trio escaped on the first of the three opening circuits. The field was simply not interested to chase and the gap grew quickly to 7 minutes as the trio started the first of the 4 long loops and all the way to 17 minutes by the start of the second loop.
See how the race developed with Race Shape which shows how a gap changes between the break and the peloton during a race. You can see how quickly the gap developed from the yellow line of King to the peloton. The chase started in earnest on the third big loop but it was too late.
The move included King, Scott Zwizanski then riding for KBS and Daniel Holloway then riding for BISSELL.
“Last year, we obviously had Scott Zwizanski in the break so we were happy with that and I don’t think that a lot of people really knew that Ben was going to ride for Radioshack so then you had BMC and Garmin, neither one really wanted to chase and by the time they decided to chase, it was too late.” Candelario commented.
The third time up Paris Mountain, King simply dropped his breakmates and went off solo with over a minute to the duo at the top of the climb, and over 10 minutes to the field. The chase had started behind but it was too late. The select chase group of 12 riders which included Candelario and one teammate was were really fighting for second place. A fight that Cando won.
“It’s never great to get second but I was fairly happy just because it was out of control in terms of bringing Ben back. I had one teammate, Neil Shirley, and he did everything he could to help chase. I was pretty happy with it, the best we could do given the circumstances.” he stated about his second-place finish.
“To be honest, last year was the first time that I had ever made it over the hill intact. I got dropped near the top but I got back on, within the first K[ilometer] of the descent, it was the first I’d ever done that. For me, that was a pretty big achievement.”
Top form and a dream. Candelario was showing great fitness at the just completed Amgen Tour of California. He was climbing quite well and took fifth in the bunch sprint on stage 5. He attributes his current great form to racing cyclocross last season.
“I did a pretty good cyclocross schedule. I didn’t race a lot of cross but I raced a fair amount. That’s the first time I’ve done in ten years,” the 36-year old chuckled, “and so, it kind of helped me keep some good fitness through the winter. I was able to build on that. I think that was the biggest difference.”
The team’s international racing schedule and harder races also helped. “The last two seasons Jonas has taken us over to Europe, we’ve done a lot harder races and that just helps so much. When you just race in the US, week in and week out, the races aren’t hard enough or long enough and so when you start enough hard races, you get to a race like Tour of California, because those ProTour guys, that’s all they do, race 200+ km a day and it’s a really hard all the time. I think that makes a big difference.”
As for the 2011 edition, Candelario thinks that the heat is going to play a major role in today’s race. The forecast is for sun and highs of 93F (34C).
As an opener, his team raced a couple of the 15-mile laps at the South Carolina State Road Race on Sunday before pulling out. “We raced in the heat today, it takes a lot out of you and so I think it could be a situation where the break with the right combination might stay away.”
Without Tour of California winner Chris Horner and his Radioshack teammate Levi Leipheimer and with the small ProTeams numbers, Candelario is predicting that there’s a good chance the early break stays away. The ProTour teams are fielding small squads; BMC with 4 riders, Radioshack, 3, HTC-Highroad, 3, and Garmin-Cervelo only has 1 rider on the start list.
“I don’t see a whole lot of horsepower in the field being able to pull it back together, a big chase and being able to control things the way it stayed together in the last couple of years. There’s not going to be a selective move at the end because, I think the early break can stay away unless some teams aren’t happy with the break. There are maybe two or three teams that can take over the race and make sure that it comes down a small field sprint.”
His perfect scenario would be something similar to last year, without the 17-minute gap. “It’s always really hard for me to make it over that hill, I’m not a pure climber, I just have to suffer through it and hopefully get over on the other side. Have enough teammates to ride it back and have somewhat of a small field would be an ideal situation.”
But Candelario was quick to point out that his team has several options, with Jason Donald, Mike Creed and Andy Bajadali who finished second in Greenville in 2009. “We have a number of cards to play and that’s one of the benefits of having an all-American team where we get to field the full American team at Tour of California, and that prepares everyone for this race and Philly.”
After having a taste of the podium last year, Candelario would love to go one step higher. “I figure I can’t get that criterium jersey so I might have go for the road one.” he laughed.
Getting the Stars and Stripes would be a dream come through for Candelario and a full circle to his road career.
“It would be huge. Something I’ve always dreamed of.” he concluded. “That’s where I began my road racing career. I actually won the Collegiate National Championships here in Greenville in 1999 and that’s what kind of started me road racing. It’s always been one of those things I’ve dreamed about.”