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By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
The main contenders have two races under their belts at First Union Week and now turn their attention to the main event, the USPRO Championship in Philadelphia on Sunday. The two U.S. Division I teams, U.S. Postal Service and Mercury-Viatel, have each taken one win so far this week, and will again be two of the major players in Philadelphia.
Of the two opening races, the First Union Invitational in Lancaster is the better indicator of who’s on form, and there were no big surprises. Leon Van Bon and Baden Cooke (Mercury-Viatel), George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service), Trent Klasna (Saturn) and Jakob Piil (CSC-World Online) all battled for the win at the end of the difficult 91-mile race, with Van Bon emerging for the win ahead of Hincapie.
Meanwhile, Thursday’s First Union Classic in Trenton, New Jersey, is more of a sprinter’s race, although Postal again showed good form in delivering Julian Dean to the win.
The USPRO Championship on Sunday will be a different beast altogether, with its distance – 156 miles – and 10 climbs up the famous Manayunk Wall. The stakes will also be greatly increased, with the USPRO champion’s jersey on the line for the first American and $40,000 for the winner of the race.
“Sunday still tops anything you can do at these races,” said U.S. Postal team director Frankie Andreu following Dean’s victory in Trenton. “The distance is the hardest part of the whole race, and numbers. If you have numbers in the front you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you won’t win the race.”
Andreu hopes to have the strength and the numbers with a strong team that includes strongmen Viatcheslav Ekimov, Matt White, Christian Vande Velde and Benoit Joachim to support team leader Hincapie. “We’ve got 10 very strong guys,” said Andreu.
“Everybody’s got a strong team,” he added. “You come to Philadelphia, you only bring your strongest.”
Mercury clearly fits that bill, with a roster loaded with riders who spent the first half of the season in Europe waging the team’s first campaign as a Division I squad. Van Bon will be backed by a full squad including Geert Van Bondt, Chris Horner, Henk Vogels and Mike Sayers.
The two American Divison II teams put in their time in Europe as well this spring, with Saturn racing in Denmark and in eastern Europe’s Peace Race, while Navigators spent late April and early May in France, Belgium and Italy.
One of the Saturn riders who didn’t make the Euro’ trip, Trent Klasna, has been tabbed by many as one of the top favorites following a torrid domestic season that’s included overall wins at Redlands and Sea Otter, the Housatonic Valley Classic and the national time trial championship. Klasna won’t be Saturn’s lone weapon, though, as Michael Barry, Harm Jansen and Soren Peterson have been racing well this week and all have to be respected as threats from that team.
Navigators preparation has paid off as well, with the team faring much better this year in the opening rounds at First Union. Vassili Davidenko will be the main man from the New Jersey-based team.
The depth of the field and strength of the teams could also benefit riders with lesser support, such as defending champion Rodriguez, whose Domo team numbers only seven. Rodriguez hopes that no single team has too much control of the race. “If both Postal and Mercury are strong on Sunday, that’s good for me,” he said.
At the start of the week, the strongest of the European team looked like CSC-World Online, which had three danger men: Arvis Piziks, Jakob Piil and Michael Sandstod. Their hopes for Sunday took a big hit at Lancaster, however, when Sandstod crashed hard, breaking his hip and collarbone. “He’s our strongest guy,” said Piziks, the runner-up at Trenton. “It’s almost impossible to replace him.”
Also missing from the start will be Festina’s David Clinger. Clinger fractured his elbow while racing in France in May, and missed the entire First Union Week.
Many of the teams have taken the attitude that they’re going for the overall win first, with the U.S. championship the secondary objective. If that’s the case, it could make for an interesting battle for the stars-and-stripes, and some longshots could emerge. 7UP’s John Lieswyn was seventh overall last year, and third American, and could put himself in a similar position this year. If things fall into place, riders like Chris Baldwin (Navigators) or Danny Pate (Prime Alliance) could somehow find themselves in contention as well.
Most likely though, both the overall and the U.S. championship will be a battle of the heavyweights, with Mercury and Postal stepping to the fore, and Saturn, Navigators and CSC working their way into the fight.
The race begins at 9 A.M. Sunday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It promises to be a long, hot day, with the weather forecast calling for plenty of sun and temperatures around 80 degrees F.
Tune into VeloNews Interactive for complete coverage on Sunday.