By Mark Zalewski

Bahati rode a smart race in 2008 and he's the fav' for '09.
Bahati rode a smart race in 2008 and he’s the fav’ for ’09.

Photo: Kurt Jambretz – file photo

Other than the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, few countries award a national championship jersey for criterium racing. The UCI does not even recognize it as an event and, therefore, does not recognize the national championship, but at least it kindly looks the other way, because criteriums are the most popular form of racing in these countries.

In the U.S., criteriums dominate the racing calendar over road racing, culminating in the middle of August for the past 17 years in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove for the U.S. national criteirum championships.

The village of Downers Grove has become synonymous with the career goals of American domestic professionals. Win here and it will make your contract for the next season. And given the current state of the economy, having that jersey on your back might be the only way to ink a deal for 2010. Just ask current champion Rahsaan Bahati.

Bahati was put on Rock Racing’s amateur squad for the first half of the season when budget-cuts shrunk the pro team. But he was “moved-up” to the professional squad for the second half of the season so that he could defend his pro title.

The other unique aspect of this race is that it is still run as an “open” championship, at least for the pro men, meaning that the first rider across the line may not be the U.S. professional champion. Eight times over the past 17 years a foreign rider has won the race, with the first U.S. citizen over the line claiming the jersey ? the last to do so was Hilton Clarke beating Brad Huff in 2006. This can create a “race within a race” and a tough situation for teams that have faster foreign riders, forcing them to decide between a major race win or the national title. A prime example of this would be the Colavita-Sutter Home team with sprinter Argentinean Sebastian Haedo taking out some major wins this season.

But the man to beat on Sunday will be Bahati, who first won here in 2000 as an 18-year-old in the elite amateur race. His Rock Racing team will be built around him defending his jersey and features some powerful guns in Freddie Rodriguez, Ivan Dominguez and former best young rider at the Tour de France Oscar Sevilla.

Other than Bahati, Jelly Belly’s Brad Huff is the most recent winner in the race, and like Bahati has won this race as both a professional and an elite amateur. Huff is racing well at the right time, having taken a win last month at the Chicago Criterium. The OUCH-Maxxis team is another team with dueling priorities, having fast foreign riders in recent Elk Grove overall winner Karl Menzies and Canadian sprinter Andrew Pinfold.

Another team that always tries to score big here will be Kelly Benefit Strategies, whose director is the 2004 champion Jonas Carney. The team routinely sets up the most organized lead-out train in the U.S., but has not always been able to deliver. And again the team has both foreign and domestic potential winners, with Canadian David Veilleux recently winning in Charlotte and Alex Candelario wanting the jersey to cap his career. Kelly won here in 2007 with Canadian Martin Gilbert winning the race ahead of American Kirk O’Bee.

Speaking of O’Bee, Bissell will be without his services after he was fired for an apparent, but as-of-yet undisclosed, doping violation. But Frank Pipp and Graham Howard are two midwest boys who have grown up racing crits, and could play a spoiler. Team Type 1’s Ken Hanson is another American capable of winning the jersey, having finished second in the recent Tour of Elk Grove criterium. He is another example of this race making a career, having won the elite amateur title here last year.

A former winner that will be trying for it again is BMC’s Tony Cruz, who won the race in 1999 and netting him a contract with the juggernaut Saturn team.

But there are other jerseys on the line Sunday, with the professional and amateur women racing for stars-and-stripes, along with the elite amateur men.

Miller the favorite in the women’s race

In the women’s race it is all about the Americans as the field is limited to U.S. citizens ? therefore benefiting teams with large U.S. contingents. Team TIBCO’s Brooke Miller is the odds-on favorite to defend her title from 2009. She has a stacked team to help her with the recently crowned road race champion Meredith Miller ready to keep the jersey in the family.

But queen of the crits Tina Pic (Colavita-Sutter Home) will have something to say on Sunday, having won this title five times. Her team is also strong with Nichole “Nicky” Wangsgard recently winning the overall title at Superweek and Shontell Gauthier taking the sprint competition.

Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Verducci Breakaway) is the other former national champion in the women’s race, finishing second last year while Team Type 1’s Jen McRae rounded out the 2008 podium with third.

There will be a new amateur men’s champion as Ken Hanson signed a pro contract after his win here last year. His former team California Giant Berry Farms is the biggest contingent with eight starters. The major reshuffling of teams from last year has put a variety of names in the mix, including former pros Chad Hartley (Geargrinder), Kirk Albers (Texas Roadhouse), Corey Steinbrecher (Waste Management) and Frank Travieso (Champion Porsche).

Some other interesting names on the start list include long-time team director Ed Beamon, American legend Thurlow Rogers (Amgen-Giant), former amateur winner Jim Baldesare (Kenda) and the ever-present Steve Tilford (Tradewind Energy-Trek Stores.)

The racing starts Saturday with half-distance pro-ams in the evening and then the championships during the day on Sunday.