By USA Cycling
After taking a year off from competitive cycling, Sarah Hammer made a triumphant return to the sport with an impressive victory in the women’s 3km individual pursuit as the USA Cycling Elite National Track Championships got underway in suburban Los Angeles. Hammer clocked the second-fastest time ever recorded at the ADT Event Center velodrome, a remarkable feat considering the venue was the site of both the elite world championships and a world cup event since opening its doors a year ago.
The 21-year-old Hammer clocked a time of 3 minutes, 41.177 seconds to sweep both the elite and U23 national titles with a convincing head-to-head victory over 2004 Olympic points race bronze medallist Erin Mirabella.
Hammer was the top seed after posting an even faster time – a 3:41.084 – in the qualifying round while Mirabella earned the right to challenge Hammer in the gold medal round with a solid 3:44.150 of her own.
For comparison, Hammer’s time would have placed her second at the elite world championships held at the ADT Event Center last March. It also would have won her three of the four events on the UCI World Cup circuit last year.
A 12-time U.S. junior national champion, Hammer was third in the pursuit at the elite nationals in 2003 before dropping out of the sport the following year. Her passion for cycling returned, and after a year away she was motivated to not just come back, but to return as the legitimate force she was on the path to become.
“I’ve been doing this since I was nine-years-old and I deserved a good break,” remembers Hammer of her decision to quit cycling. “I lost my motivation, I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore and I didn’t have that fire.”
In 2005, Hammer came back onto the radar screen with some strong performances and quietly became one of the pre-race favorites. “I had a crummy job and realized that if I could do this for a living, then why not,” recalled Hammer of her decision to venture back. “I’ve dedicated 100% of my life to this. I’m doing everything right now, my diet, my sleep, my rest. I didn’t pay attention to those when I was a junior and I’m focusing everything I have now towards 2008.”
The times put up by both Hammer and Mirabella were fast enough for entry into USA Cycling’s 2005-06 Talent Pool, a collection of riders that are eligible to represent the United States at major international competitions such as world cups and world championships. In fact, four women endurance riders surpassed the talent pool time standard of 3:49.120 as Kristin Armstrong and Christine Thorburn also eclipsed the benchmark.
Armstrong and Thorburn, currently two of the most dominant riders on the domestic road circuit, squared off in the consolation round for the bronze medal after qualifying third and fourth respectively. In the qualifier, Armstrong’s 3:48.256 put her in the talent pool, but Thorburn’s initial 3:49.817 fell just short.
“My main goal right now is the time trial at worlds and I knew that if I came here and beat the time standard for the talent pool, then everything above and beyond was a bonus,” said Armstrong.
In the evening medal round, Armstrong shaved nearly three seconds off her qualifying time, posting a personal best of 3:45.828 for third place, while Thorburn shed more than a second to record a 3:48.267 to slip into the talent pool.
“I like to think I can go faster, but making the talent pool was my goal for the week,” said Thorburn.
In the men’s 4km individual pursuit, Charles Huff clocked the fastest time in the qualifying round ahead of Bobby Lea, and then beat the defending champion in the gold medal final. Huff’s 4:37.679 earned him the elite national title, and although Lea’s 4:39.547 wasn’t fast enough to repeat as the elite national champ, the 21-year-old snagged the U23 title.
In the consolation round, Curtis Gunn put down a 4:43.958 to earn the bronze medal ahead of Kenny Williams who clocked a 4:44.479.
Sprinters also took center stage on opening night as 37-year-old Stephen Alfred didn’t let a group of riders nearly half his age spoil his bid for a national title. In addition to Alfred, the final six was comprised of the next generation of great American sprinters, 19-year-olds Ryan Nelman, Aaron Kacala, and Michael Blatchford and twenty-something Athens Olympic team members Giddeon Massie and Christian Stahl. After working their way through the qualifying heats and repechage rounds, the final six squared off for a final mad dash that went convincingly to Alfred.
Kevin Belz, another rider expected to be in contention, handily won the 7-12 final to put six riders under the age of 23 in the top-eight at the end of the day.
In the final medal event of the evening, Josh Kerkhof easily out-sprinted Dave McCook to win the men’s 15km scratch race.
The victories by Huff, Alfred and Kerkhof put them in the talent pool.
In a non-national championship event, Blatchford blitzed a 20-rider field to win a 250-meter time trial that was contested for talent pool entry purposes. Blatchford’s time of 18.432 seconds beat Nelman’s 18.739 as the top six riders were all 22-years-old or younger.