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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
It’s always an interesting mix at the startline of the elite men’s road race held annually at the U.S. national road championships. For every aspiring, young Cat. 1 who’s hoping to parlay a podium performance into a pro contract, you’ll find a guy like Chris Walker. The 42-year-old was a pro with Nutra-Fig back in the mid 1990s, but today he’s sporting the kit of California-based amateur team Labor Power.
The squad’s name is a reference to the law practice of primary sponsor Roger Worthington, whose client base is people who’ve been injured in the workplace. But Walker stamped his own meaning on the team moniker in Redlands, California, on Wednesday, powering off the front of a three-man breakaway to take the elite men’s national championship road race title (the field is limited to non pros with a Cat. 1 liscense).
“I knew I didn’t have any chance in a sprint, so I had to make something happen,” explained Walker, who made his winning move with just 2km to go in the 156.7km race. “I took off on the right side and got a gap. It was pretty basic stuff.”
Walker’s two breakaway companions, William Innes (Lombardi Sports) and Evan Elken (Broadmark Capital), hesitated just a moment too long, and couldn’t bring him back. All three were credited with a finishing mark of 4:21:10.
“The whole last lap it was surge, stop, surge, stop,” recalled Innes, who would settle for second in the 10-lap race on the Panorama Point course that’s also used in the early-season Redlands Bicycle Classic. “Walker put in the final surge, and we looked at each other for just a minute. When we finally went we couldn’t close the gap.”
Like Walker, the 32-year-old Innes has done a stint in the pros, racing with LeMond Fitness in 2003. But that deal evaporated last year, sending him back to the amateur ranks and his bike shop mechanic job in Redwood City, California.
Elken, the youngest of the trio at 27, is the only rider who hasn’t cracked the pro ranks. He delivers pizzas in Portland, Oregon, to keep the electricity on.
“When Walker went I was caught in the middle,” said Elken of the race’s waning moments. “If I pulled then [Innes] probably wins, and if I wait Walker wins. He deserved it, though. It was a gutsy move and he made it pay off.”
Behind the top trio was a shattered race that had begun with 125 starters, but would see only 32 riders finish on the lead lap. Only three of those 32 would finish within five minutes of Walker.
“Usually these races are a little longer,” said Elken. “But this was plenty far. I mean I’m sitting here talking and I don’t think 10 guys have come in yet.”
Following a flat, 4.75-mile start loop, the move that would eventually break the race into numerous splinter groups began to take shape on the first long lap (9.3 miles each with 1100 feet of climbing). First off the front were John Osguthorpe (Odgen One), Steve Tilford and Sean Cahill (U.S. Armed Forces). Cahill would soon drop back under the pressure of the pace, while Chris Peck (Fiordifrutta), John Hunt (Village Pedaler) and Elken would bridge up. Now six, the leaders would grow their advantage to 1:15 with eight laps to go.
Behind them a chase of three formed, with Walker, Curt Davis (Fiordifrutta) and Michael Hutchinson (Spine). Walker would soon break away by himself and by the race’s halfway point, he’d joined the leaders. Davis would make the jump a lap later.
Things continued to change rapidly, as the sharp climbs (including one that topped out near 20 percent) on the backside of the course began to take their toll. By the time the lap card read four to go, Walker, Davis and Elken were the only three riders left in the lead group, with Innes now fourth at 0:17 and Tilford leading a group of 11 at 0:27. The peleton was 1:39 down and fading fast.
Davis was the next to fall off the lead, while Innes moved up, forming what would be the final selection. Early leader Tilford dropped out during the eighth lap.
From there the three frontrunners would slowly build their advantage. It was 1:08 with two to go, and up to 2:21 when the bell sounded for the final lap. No one tried to get away during the last set of climbs, and it wasn’t until the 4km to go sign that Elken took the first swing. His move gained no more than 10 meters, though, and the threesome was soon back together.
“We were out there for so long,” admitted Elken. “I don’t think any of us had a whole lot left.”
Walker and Elken would each try once more during the downhill section between the 3 and 2km to go signs. But both moves lacked any punch, and it was three together with 2km to go.
Finally Walker gave it one last shot along the right side of 5th Street, during the long, flat run to the finish. This was his third time at the elite nationals race and it proved to be a charm. The move stuck, giving the Goleta, California resident the stars-and-stripes-jersey.
“Coming in I figured I had a good shot at the top 10,” he said after taking the win. “But this is more that I expected. I’ve got to pinch myself.”
Racing at the Pool Gel USCF National Road Championships continues Thursday with the time trial in nearby Moreno Valley. The junior men kick things off at 9 a.m., with the elite women going off at 9:35 and the men finishing the day starting at noon.
Besides the national titles on the line for the men and women, the winner of the women’s TT will earn one of three spots on the U.S. Olympic road team. Check back later in the day for a full report, results and photos.
— Racing in Redlands opened with a junior men’s race that served as a qualifier for the 2004 world championships. That spot went to Marietta, Georgia resident Zach Taylor (Hot Tubes), who soloed off the front on the last of four laps on the same course the elite men used, winning by 1:15 over a chase group of 11.
“I was getting dropped on the climb,” explained Taylor, who is the defending national junior time trail champion. “But I thought that if I could get over the climb solo, I could hold it to the finish.”
Luke Penning (Bike Gallery) won the sprint for second ahead of Michael Sheppar (Major Motion).
— Coming off his stars-and-stripes jersey win at the USPRO Championship in Philadelphia two weeks ago, there was some doubt as to whether Fred Rodriguez would show up in Redlands. At the time he called his effort at Wachovia week his “last puff of energy” after racing the three-week Giro d’Italia before that. But with Saturday’s Olympic team selection road race his only shot at going to Athens in August, Rodriguez will be in Southern California when the gun goes off.
The Acqua & Sapone pro will be facing off with the likes of Chris Horner (Webcor) and John Lieswyn (Health Net-Maxxis) for the right to join Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie and Bobby Julich, who have all already qualified for the five-rider team.
— Saturday’s road race course uses parts of the Panorama Point and Sunset Loop, as well as a new section that’s never been used in Redlands before. This new portion winds its way around the Redlands Country Club on the narrow and twisty Sierra Vista Drive. Each 11.3-mile loop has 1247 feet of climbing. The men will do 10 laps plus a start loop, while the women will do six plus a starter.
POOL GEL USCF NATIONAL ROAD CHAMPIONSHIPS;
REDLANDS, CA. JUNE 16-19;
ELITE MEN’S ROAD RACE;
1. Chris Walker, Labor Power, 157.6km in 4:21:10; 2. William Innes, Lombardi Sports; 3. Evan Elken, Broadmark Capital, all s.t.; 4. Jon Hamblen, Fiordifrutta, at 3:46; 5. John Hunt, Village Pedaler, s.t.; 6. Mike Dietrich, Fiordifrutta, at 4:54; 7. John Osguthorpe, Odgen One, at 5:29; 8. Ian Dille, Snow Valley; 9. Bryan Smith, Endeavour Cycling; 10. Tim Carolan, Landis/Trek-VW, all s.t.
1. Zach Taylor, Hot Tubes, 67.6km in 1:56:51; 2. Luke Penning, Bike Gallery, at 1:15; 3. Michael Sheppar, Major Motion; 4. Zach Bolian, Hot Tubes; 5. Alex Boyd, Major Motion; 6. Chris Stockburger, Rio Grande; 7. Chad Beyer, Domenics; 8. Peter Stetina, TIAA-Cref; 9. Colter Cederlo, Echelon; 10. Adam Switter, Lombardi, all s.t.