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Revamped Philly bike race ready to roll — and hit the Wall

Sunday’s Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic is a rare bird in professional cycling — a race that has effectively returned from the dead. Technically speaking, this year’s big bike race in Philadelphia is a different race from the one that dominated U.S. cycling’s summer from 1985 until last year. It is the product of different management, funded by a new sponsor, and run on a different course, taking the place of the recently deceased Philadelphia International Championship. But for cycling fans who have long turned their eyes to the City of Brotherly Love on the first weekend of June, Sunday’s race will have a comfortingly familiar personality and a few intriguing twists.

For 28 years, Philadelphia’s big yearly bike race was organized by the Threshold Sports outfit of founders Jerry Casale and David Chauner. The race weathered several blows in recent years, including its separation from the USPRO title, a distinction that had added needed luster and prestige for sponsors and teams since the race’s beginning. The top tier teams fell away, and sponsorship became harder to come by. Casale passed away in March 2012 after a long illness. Chauner was set to continue until skyrocketing costs for course security, debt, and disagreements with the city led him to announce the race’s cancellation in January.

But by late January, a new team of organizers scooped up the race’s calendar spot and began to resuscitate Philadelphia’s yearly date with bike racing.

It will take time to see if the new organization, headed by G4 Productions and Robin Morton and backed by sponsor Parx Casino, can sustain the race, but one thing is sure: the new course will make for simpler math. The old race’s 156-mile total distance consisted of three mile-long parade laps in the start/finish area, 10 laps of a 14.4-mile loop between the finish line and Manayunk, and three, three-mile finishing laps between the smaller Lemon Hill and the line. The women’s Liberty Classic, held concurrently on the same course, did four laps of the long loop for 57.6 miles. The new format is far simpler: 10 laps of a 12-mile circuit for 120 miles total for the men, five laps and 60 miles for the women.

The revised course preserves the vital organs of the old route — the ascent of the Manayunk Wall, a half-mile grunt at the western end of the course that touches 17 percent at its midpoint, and the punchier Lemon Hill ascent at the eastern end of the course. Both are spectator favorites that provide much-needed springboards at either end of the course’s long transition along Kelly Drive, the scenic but largely flat parkway running beside the Schuykill River. But where the old course made a left off of Lemon Hill, sweeping down Ben Franklin Drive, around Philadelphia’s iconic Logan Square fountain and into a sprint to the line, the new course turns hard right, heading immediately back up Kelly Drive towards the Wall.

Lopping off the course’s old start/finish area cut 2.4 miles of pan-flat terrain from the old loop, but more importantly, it created an opportunity for a new finish line, a chance that organizers seized with both hands. This year, spectators will get the answer to one of U.S. cycling’s longest running hypothetical questions – what would happen if Philly finished at the top of the Wall? With the shorter course, the race’s center of gravity has been shifted entirely to the revitalized neighborhood, which will host both the start and finish of the men’s and women’s events.

As the domestic peloton strengthened and deepened over the last 30 years, Philadelphia had become more and more of a pure sprinters’ showdown. Its list of winners includes plenty of noted fast men, including current U.S. champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda), André Griepel (Lotto-Belisol), and Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), while the women’s Liberty Classic was dominated by German Petra Rossner for years. The introduction of the top-of-the-Wall finish seems more likely than any breakaway to break the sprinters’ stranglehold on Philly. But how?

Shorter and less punishing than, for instance, Flèche Wallonne’s Mur de Huy, the Wall finish should take the edge off the pure sprinters, but may not swing the balance far enough to favor a willowy climber. So who will fill the void? A strong rouleur could be in with a shot, as could a durable climber who plays his or her cards right. The removal of the Ben Franklin Parkway segment cuts the distance between the course’s two climbs, theoretically giving breakaways a better shot at success, but the introduction of a sprint point at the base of the Wall will give stronger sprinters’ teams some incentive to keep things together.

While Sunday’s race will give a first taste of how things could shake out on the new course format, it could take several editions to really show its style. While the early breaks will certainly try their chances, conservative racing could be the order of the day as both pelotons eye a Wall showdown and begin developing a new formula for success for what remains one of the biggest racing weekends in domestic cycling.

Tactics may change, but an early start remains a Philadelphia mainstay. The women’s race will roll out from Manayunk at a bleary-eyed 8:30 a.m. The men will start at high noon, but the extra sleep may seem like a poor tradeoff as temperatures climb to the predicted high of nearly 90 degrees.

Alarm clock settings and temperatures will vary between the two pelotons, but this year’s Philly Cycling Classic will see them on equal footing in one important area — the men and women will split the event’s $60,000 purse straight down the middle. What better way to mark a new start to an old tradition in Philadelphia?

Men’s teams for the 1st Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic
Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies (USA)
Novo Nordisk (USA)
Champion System (CHI)
UnitedHealthcare (USA)
5-Hour Energy-Kenda (USA)
Jamis-Hagens Berman (USA)
Hincapie Sportswear Development (USA)
SmartStop-Mountain Khakis (USA)
Bissell (USA)
Jelly Belly-Kenda (USA)
Garneau-Quebecor (CAN)
Equipe Ekoi-Devinci (CAN)
NetApp-Endura (GER)
Bissell ABG Giant (USA)
Amore & Vita (UKR)
Jet Fuel Norco Bicycles (CAN)
Predator Carbon Repair (USA)
BreakawayBikes.com-Vie13 (USA)
Firefighters Elite (USA)
Elbowz Racing-Boneshaker (USA)
IS Corp-Intelligentsia Coffee (USA)
Stage 17 (USA)
D3-Devo-Airgas (USA)
Bikereg.com-Cannondale (USA)

Women’s teams for the 1st Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic
Tibco-To the Top (USA)
Colavita-Fine Cooking (USA)
NOW-Novartis for MS (USA)
Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies (USA)
Specialized-lululemon (USA)
MVP Healthcare (USA)
GSD Gestion-Kallisto (CAN)
Louis Garneau-Fuji (USA)
Infinit Nutrition-Cyclepower (CAN)
Peanut Butter & Co.–Human Zoom (USA)
Fearless Femme-Pure Energy Cycling (USA)
Stevens Racing-Cyclery (CAN)
Exergy Twenty16 (USA)
FCS-Zngine Cycling (USA)
Vanderkitten (USA)
Mellow Mushroom (USA)
EPS-CSS Riptide (USA)
Farm Team Elite-Tri State (USA)
Annapolis Racing Team (USA)
Mixed Elite
Canadian National Team (CAN)

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