CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (VN) — As the elite men take the start at Monday’s Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road Championship in Chattanooga, they might be wise to keep a watchful eye on UnitedHealthcare’s Kiel Reijnen.
The 26-year-old from Bainbridge Island, Wash., placed third at the race in 2010 and 2012. This year he’s back with nine teammates and his gaze set squarely upon the national champion’s jersey.
“I think I’ve come here as well-prepared to win as I can. That’s definitely the goal,” Reijnen told VeloNews.
After seven years in Greenville, S.C., the three-day event marks a new beginning in Chattanooga this holiday weekend, with a combined men’s and women’s format.
Unlike many of his top competitors, who have arrived in Chattanooga fresh from racing the Amgen Tour of California, Reijnen took a pass on the stage race to focus his training exclusively upon Monday’s nationals, describing the race to VeloNews as “the first real highlight” on his 2013 calendar.
Reijnen, a talented climber who won the King of the Mountains crown at last year’s Philadelphia TD Bank Classic and a stage at this month’s Tour of the Gila, says the new course’s ascent of Lookout Mountain (1,150 feet elevation gain) will be key. The men will complete the selective, three-mile climb four times.
“It’s a longer climb, a more significant climb than Greenville’s [Paris Mountain],” said Reijnen. “I think we did the climb five times last year, so it’s one less lap, but the climb, instead of being eight-nine minutes is 12-13 minutes, or maybe even longer.
Reijnen says the climb’s demands are likely to distance the race’s sprinters early on.
“For me to win this race, ideally, there would be a small group going to the line where I’m sprinting out of that group. That doesn’t mean we can’t go on the attack, but the more the final 30 kilometers can bunch up the elite climbers the better for me. I don’t think we’re going to come [into the finish] with a group of more than 15 riders.”
Asked whether the presence of nine UHC teammates is likely to bode in his favor, Reijnen expressed cautious optimism, saying the backup is welcome “but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
“Look at last year,” he said. “Timmy Duggan had only one other teammate and no support staff and still managed to pull off a win. So having a larger squad doesn’t ensure us a win. But it does give us a lot more cards to play.”
Given the mixture of teams large and small plus solo riders, Reijnen recognizes that nationals is a beast unto itself.
“This is a race that’s different tactically from pretty much any other race of the year,” he said. “There can be negative racing and opportunists sometimes have a better shot. But with 10 guys we definitely want to take the bull by the horns and not wait for it to happen — we want to make it happen.”
Reijnen, who transferred to UnitedHealthcare in 2013 from Team Type 1-Sanofi, credits his new team as a key to victory on Monday. The UCI Pro Continental Team has seen success both on the road and with its well-oiled criterium squad.
“This team really emphasizes communication and taking care of details,” Reijnen said.
Teamwork lessons learned in pursuing UHC’s mastery of the criterium are helping the squad on the road, too, he added.
“They have those crits down to a science. I’m not one of the guys who’s usually racing those, but it’s just great to watch,” he said. “They’ve emphasized teamwork from the get-go and I think we’re seeing it pay off now in races.
“It’s amazing how they control something that has so many variables. We’re trying to take a lot of what they’ve learned from that success and apply it to the road.”
And what would a national champion’s jersey in Chattanooga mean for the two-time podium finisher?
“I think that Timmy Duggan really summed it up well at the [pre-race] press conference when he said that [winning the national championship] is ‘career defining.’ I think that’s true. To pull on the stars and stripes every day for a year would be really special.”
“It’s definitely something that I want to achieve before I’m done racing.”