PHILADELPHIA (VN) — Yes, things have changed in Philadelphia.
There is not a single UCI ProTeam lining up on Sunday at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. The race doesn’t crown a national champion as it used to. The course has been shortened this year, in part, to make way for a gran fondo on Sunday morning. And, most notably, one of the most familiar faces of the race, Jerry Casale, will not be at the finish.
To pretend things are still the same in Philly would be wrong. But to hear one of its co-founder’s tell it, that’s the way it has to be.
Dave Chauner, co-founder and executive director of the race, said the changes to the event are for two reasons: sustainability and participant involvement.
“It’s become such an iconic course that people have really just expressed a lot of interest in doing it. It’s a unique experience,” he said.
“Our mission is also to develop American bike racing. We’re not going to go crazy to bring all the top teams over here; it just isn’t worth it… We want to create an American reality.”
This year’s field is mostly made up of domestic Continental squads, with the Danish national team, Canada’s Spidertech-C10, an American-Swedish mashup of CykelCity and Pure Energy Cycling, and the China-registered, American-run Champion System squad amongst the international teams on the 17-team roster.
But objectively, the Philadelphia International Championship is still an enormous U.S. bike race — one of the largest one-day races in the country. And the Continental teams coming to Philly don’t play nice, even when they’re touching shoulders with the WorldTour crews.
The absence of Goliaths, including the defunct High Road squad that owned the race from 2009 through 2011, in this year’s running has made unlikely favorites. UnitedHealthcare is top-to-bottom the strongest team in the race, while teams like squads like Team Type 1-Sanofi, Bissell and Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies will certainly look to animate the day.
Philly is a storied race. Its first winner was Eric Heiden in 1985. Lance Armstrong won it in 1993 with a brash move over the final climb of the Manayunk Wall. The rider to write his name in the race log as 2012 winner may do so with a diminished field and a shorter length, but he will still be a champion of one of America’s biggest one-day races.
This year’s edition of the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship sees a route change for the first time in the race’s 28-year history. Had it not been noted, the change may have been lost on most outside the race, as the course’s icons, the Manayunk Wall and Lemon Hill, are still prominent. Organizers cut the overall distance, however, from 251km to 199.6km.
The peloton will tackle the signature of the race, the Manayunk Wall, seven times this year instead of the historical 10. The climb is 800 meters long and ascends 250 feet, but the real hurt is a sustained section at 17 percent — a perfect launching pad for the ambitious attacker.
A young Lance Armstrong attacked on the Wall in 1993 and took not only the Philadelphia race but also the $1 million Triple Crown for winning in Lancaster, Reading and Philly.
“Once or twice? It’s not a big deal,” Chauner said of the Wall. “But six, seven, eight times? It really becomes a challenge.”
The field will ride three opening laps of 2.5km, seven large laps at 23.8km and five finishing laps of 5.1km, accounting for the 199.6km makeup of the UCI-ranked 1.HC race.
The shorter distance and decreased climbing will steer the race toward a field sprint. Anyone looking to break free will have to do so with more urgency than year’s past, as the decreased climbs up the wall and fewer laps up Lemon Hill will make for a tighter main field. The last time a breakaway went to the line from Manayunk was 2005, when Chris Wherry won the last national championship awarded in Philadelphia.
This is a course suited to a rider who can power up the short but steep climbs and still have enough punch to take a bunch sprint for the win. The course may be a bit shorter, but it shouldn’t get much easier.
“There’s a lot more contenders,” Chauner said. “There’s a lot more decent riders who can do 125 miles at full gas.”
The women’s event, the Liberty Classic, will cover the same circuits for a total of 92.7km. The women’s field will hit the Wall four times.
Riders to watch
Glancing over the preliminary start list, there is no overwhelming favorite. This one is wide open.
Frank Pipp (Bissell): The American sprinter (Bissell) is coming off a strong performance at nationals in South Carolina last weekend, where he took the chase sprint for second behind Timmy Duggan’s winning attack. If this race stays together — and history suggests that it will — look for Pipp to be at the front end of the sprint.
Jake Keough: The American won nine races in 2011, and his UnitedHealthcare team is hands down the strongest in the field. Teammate Robert Forster took third here last year, meaning the strongest team in the race has more than one reason to work. UnitedHealthcare will look to control the race all day, as it has more than one rider who can win the day.
Ken Hanson: Hanson’s won six UCI races already in 2012, and finished fourth in 2011 TD Bank race. His Optum squad is also one of the strongest in the field. Hanson’s a fast finisher, and Philly will likely come down to a sprint for the line. Road captain Alex Candelario, who is a powerful sprinter that can get over the climbs, is one to watch as well.
Freddie Rodriguez: “Fast Freddie” (Exergy) won outright here in 2001, and was named a USPRO champ three times. He knows how to win in Philly, and his performance at the Amgen Tour of California showed his class this year. He climbed well and took third on the opening day’s sprint. He’s a good bet.
John Murphy: The Kenda-5-hour Energy rider won the 2009 U.S. professional criterium championsihp and has ridden for three U.S. world championship teams. Philly is of course a long way from a criterium, but Murphy’s multiple-year stint in Europe with BMC Racing taught him the nuances of long one-day racing.
What the men’s field may lack in star power over the weekend, the women have covered.
World champion and defending Liberty Classic winner Giorgia Bronzini and her Diadora-Pasta Zara team will be racing in Philadelphia Sunday in hopes of defending the crown.
They’ll have their hands full, as the hyper-talented Specialized-lululemon squad brings with it four-time winner Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. The German sprinter won a stage of the inaugural women’s Exergy Tour in Idaho last week, and the team swept the top three spots of the overall podium.
Orica-AIS, the women’s partner team to the first-ever Australian men’s first division team, will also be on hand, working for Australian time trial champion Shara Gillow, who finished fourth overall in the Exergy tour. Alexis Rhodes, the current Australian road race champion, will be wearing the green and gold champion jersey and could also leave her mark on the race.
American domestic teams will look to make a splash, starting with Tibco-To the Top, which sent its riders to race a healthy European schedule this spring. Joanne Kiesanowski of New Zealand was just off the top step in Philly in 2009 and was sixth last year. She will be the captain for the team and American Jennifer Purcell finished on the podium here last year in third.
Though the Exergy Twenty12 squad suffered a setback last week when team captain Kristin Armstrong broke her collarbone, the team’s stands a strong with Philadelphian Theresa Cliff-Ryan, who finished third here in 2010. She recently won the opening stage of the Exergy Tour, showing she is in good form.
The new big-time women’s team this year is Optum Pro Cycling. The team leads the National Racing Calendar team standings and former Canadian national champion Joelle Numainville finished fourth here last year. She is complemented by Carmen Small and Leah Kirchmann, who both had strong results in Idaho last week.
The Liberty Classic, with 163 of the world’s top pro women cyclists, gets underway at 10:55 a.m. on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway just 10 minutes after the pro men take off to contest the TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. The women will race 92.7km.
Where the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship is headed may be more clear after this year’s event.
Chauner said that bringing a top-tier ProTeam to the event can add some $150,000 to the bottom line of the race, and that often the smaller teams will then race just waiting for the first division team to make a move.
“What I’ve begun to realize is that the revenue model for UCI road races is not sustainable, unless you have deep pockets,” he said. “To be honest, I’m not sure how much the American audience really cares.
“I think it’s wonderful if you’ve got angels who can put out $2 million a year. But you can’t sustain that kind of model the way the revenue is.”
The race’s long-term viability will depend on the success of the Bicycling Open, a new gran fondo that will run Sunday morning before the race. According to Chauner, the cost of closing down the roads has gone up some 50 percent in the last three years, mandating another revenue stream. Chauner has dipped his toes in recent years with Sunday morning public rides, but 2012 marks his first full move into the participation-based events game.
“Those kinds of costs are going to end up killing the event if we don’t have more bodies and participation,” Chauner said. From a media standpoint, it’s hard to say if the move will pay off, though he thinks it will. When Olympic medalist and 7-Eleven rider Eric Heiden won the first Philly race in 1985, his photo landed prominently in USA Today and The Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.
“When you really think about it, does a sponsor care that it’s an elite pro race or if there’s 5,000 people there?” Chauner asked.
At the moment, that much is hard to know.
Sunday’s weather forecast: Sunny, with a high of 72. The race will be televised by ComcastSportsNet’s family of regional sports networks. NBC Sports Network will air the 60-minute race special nationally on Monday, June 4. For more information, visit www.procyclingtour.com.