By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
First Union week continues on Thursday evening with the fastest of the three races, the 91-mile First Union Classic in Trenton, New Jersey. The flat, fast, 7-mile circuit seems to ensure a field sprint finish year after year, while the high speeds string out the peloton for most of the three-hour race, making positioning crucial throughout the race. Defending champion Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) will be on hand to try to defend his title, but a loaded Mercury-Viatel team, fresh off its Lancaster win, will be tough to beat.
The race begins on State Street in Trenton, in front of the New Jersey State Museum, winds through Cadwalader Park, then heads back along State Street into a 14-turn circuit that winds past Trenton’s City Hall before going back onto State for the long finishing straightaway. Last year, in the middle of the race, several big gaps opened up in the long single-file line of riders, putting an end to the day for many riders, and making life difficult for anybody hanging out at the tail end of the peloton.
Up front, though, is where the main battle will be contested. While Mercury team director John Wordin discounted Lancaster winner Leon Van Bon’s chances of taking two in a row, Wordin’s team is loaded with sprinters suited for the Trenton course. Fabrizio Guidi, Jans Koerts, Baden Cooke and Gord Fraser could be almost interchangeable at the finish, and Mercury should be a powerful force at the front on the final trip through the 14-turn circuit that winds past City Hall and then onto the finishing straightaway.
Although Wordin said before Lancaster that he would be a happy man if his team won one of the three races during the week, Mercury will still have plenty of motivation, as a large sponsor’s presence will be on hand. “They did want us to put more emphasis on winning Trenton this year,” Wordin said.
Trenton is a big race as well for the New Jersey-based Navigators, who feel that they’ve brought their best team ever to First Union Week. With the finishing crew of Vassili Davidenko, Oleg Grichkine, Franky Van Haesebroucke and Todd Littlehales, the Navigators feel they have the manpower to match up against anybody. “It’s not a feeling we’ve had at Trenton before,” commented Littlehales on Wednesday. “I’ve never been as excited for Trenton as I am this year.”
All of the U.S. teams, it seems, have boosted their rosters coming into First Union Week this year. “Every team is better than last year,” said Wordin. “Saturn’s better, Navigators is better, Postal is much better.”
Indeed, U.S. Postal has brought its strongest squad in recent memory to Philly week. While George Hincapie is the clear leader for the week, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Julian Dean could also be among the main contenders for the finish in Trenton.
For the Saturn team, Harm Jansen and Soren Peterson will probably take the spotlight off of Trent Klasna for a day, while Klasna focuses on Sunday’s USPRO Championship in Philadelphia.
With his seven-man Domo squad matching up against the full 10-man squads of the U.S. teams, Rodriguez won’t have as much firepower at his disposal, but if it comes down to a field sprint, he could emerge at the finish as he did last year. Meanwhile, the CSC-World Online team was dealt a serious blow on Tuesday, when Michael Sandstod crashed hard at the race in Lancaster, ending his week of racing in the U.S.
The Trenton race begins at 4:30 P.M. local time, with the weather report calling for similar conditions to those at Lancaster: mid-70s and muggy, with a chance of rain showers. VeloNews Interactive will have race coverage and results following the race Thursday night.