By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Just minutes after George Hincapie won the San Francisco Grand Prix, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown addressed the huge crowd assembled in front of the Ferry Building along the waterfront. “You want the race next year?” said the mayor, dressed in a mustard sportscoat and matching hat. And he was met with an enthusiastic roar from thousands of spectators.
By all measures, the first-year race was a huge success. “This was a Barry Bonds home run into the water,” said Mark Gorski, U.S. Postal Team general manager and head of Tailwind Sports, the organization that put together the Grand Prix.
With the streets in some of San Francisco’s most famous districts basically shut down, spectators packed the sides of the course, including two brutally steep climbs that were the signature of the race. The two climbs, one on Fillmore St. and one on Taylor, were only about a half-mile each, and rated at 18 percent and 16 percent, respectively, but they proved much tougher than that estimated grade. The top riders were all equipped with extra small gears for the climbs, 25-tooth cogs for most, with some riders using 27s or 28s.
Even a seasoned pro like Hincapie was taken aback. “This course was really unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything that steep.”
To go along with it, the crowds were packed five-deep on both climbs, and a solid crowd, estimated at 200,000 to 300,000, lined almost the entire length of the 10.2-mile circuit. “On the hills, you couldn’t even hear yourself think,” said Hincapie.
The difficulty of the course led many to expect a race of attrition, but the Saturn team didn’t want to wait around, sending Trent Klasna, Eric Wohlberg and Harm Jansen up the road early, to be joined by Mercury’s Mike Sayers and Gord Fraser, Navigators’ Oleg Grichkine and Corona’s Siddharta Camil.
With that breakaway gaining more than two minutes, and with the Postal team missing out, Hincapie’s teammates would have to make the chase. When they finally did, on the sixth of 10 main circuits, it blew the race apart. With Lance Armstrong and Viatcheslav Ekimov leading the way, a 10-man chase group chewed up the gap in one lap, while behind the main field splintered into several smaller groups.
After the catch, just before the Fillmore St. climb on lap 7, the lead group swelled to 16. But on the seventh time up that climb, Klasna attacked again, this time bringing out Kirk O’Bee (Navigators), Michael Barry (Saturn), Mark Walters (Navigators), Hincapie and Chris Wherry (Mercury).
With those four major teams represented, the chase behind cooled off, while Armstrong abandoned the race, still feeling some effect from a stomach virus earlier in the week, and content with putting Hincapie into the lead group.
On lap 9, after an acceleration up Fillmore by Hincapie, the group was whittled to four as Wherry and O’Bee dropped off the pace. Those four – Hincapie, Klasna, Barry and Walters – would finish the 10 main laps together, and then begin the five finishing circuits, which consisted of half the course, including the Taylor Street hill.
On the second-to-last lap, Walters was dropped on a rise through Fisherman’s Wharf, leaving Hincapie to do battle with the two Saturn riders. Although he was outnumbered, tactics never really came into play. “This was really a race of attrition,” he said. “There were no more tactics at that point.”
Instead, it just came down to pure power, as the tall Postal rider put in a fierce attack half-way up Taylor St., with less than three miles to go.
Once he hit the Embarcadero along the water for the final time, he knew he had the race won, ahead of Barry, who would finish second, and Klasna. He had time to bask in the warmth of the sun and the cheers of the crowd. And at the finish, he echoed the sentiments of Mayor Brown, Gorski, the crowd and all of the other riders. “It was a spectacular event,” he said.
1. George Hincapie, U.S. Postal Service, 127.5 mi in 5:20:42; 2. Michael Barry, Saturn, at 0:01; 3. Trent Klasna, Saturn, at 0:10; 4. Mark Walters, Navigators, at 1:13; 5. Mark McCormack, at 4:32; 6. Viatcheslav Ekimov, U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 7. Vassili Davidenko, Navigators, at 4:41; 8. Kirk O’Bee, Navigators, at 4:55; 9. Chris Wherry, Mercury, s.t.; 10. Eric Wohlberg, Saturn, at 9:48; 11. Tim Johnson, Saturn; 12. Harm Jansen, Saturn, all s.t.; 13. Glen Mitchell, Navigators, at 12:30; 14. Chris Fisher, Saturn; 15. Jason McCartney, Jelly Belly; 16. Brendon Vesty, Navigators, all s.t.; 17. Luca Barla, Saeco, at 13:23; 18. John Kelly, Alto Velo-Webcor, s.t.; 19. Thomas Frischnecht, Alto Velo-Webcor, at 13:25; 20. Scottie Weiss, Zaxby’s-DeFeet, at 13:38; 21. Jon Hamblen, Cannondale-Wheelworks, at 13:56; 22. Steve Larsen, Prime Alliance, at 14:30; 23. Ted Huang, Alto Velo-Webcor; 24. Dirk Friel, Zaxby’s-DeFeet; 25. James Mattis, Alto Velo-Webcor; 26. Ben Jacques-Maynes, Lombardi Sports, all s.t.; 27. Patrick Heaney, Lombardi Sports, at 17:14; 28. Domingo Gonzalez, Corona-MasterCard, at 17:45.