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Preview: New courses, equal prize money mark U.S. professional championships

With new courses, equal prize money, and live television and online coverage, a high-energy U.S. professional championships are set to open

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The new-look U.S. professional road championships are set to kick off on Saturday in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with wide-open men’s and women’s fields, equal prizes, and live video coverage. National champions Megan Guarnier (Rabobank) and Timmy Duggan (Saxo-Tinkoff) face tall orders in their repeat bids, but a win in Chattanooga could be the highest profile national title since the race moved out of Philadelphia almost a decade ago.

After seven years in Greenville, South Carolina, the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships will debut in Chattanooga this weekend. The event, the first in which the men’s and women’s professional races will coincide at the same location, promises fans both twice the action and unprecedented broadcast coverage — including a live telecast of the men’s road race and streaming online and mobile coverage of both events. The men’s and women’s time trials will be held Saturday, May 25, with road races scheduled for Monday, May 27.

Defending road race champions Duggan and Guarnier will both be on hand to defend their distinctive champions’ jerseys, each adorned with the stars and stripes of the United States. They’ll be fighting for the same prize money as well, as the event is offering equal payouts to the top 20 in each race.

Despite its new locale, the road course features a familiar format, with beginning and ending circuits through downtown Chattanooga separated by 16.1-mile laps, each including a three-mile climb of Lookout Mountain (1,150 feet of elevation gain). The men will complete the climb four times for a total distance of 100.6 miles, with the women completing two laps (63.1 miles).

Though eager to stage a defense of his title, Duggan admitted his year in the stars and stripes has been less than ideal. The Saxo rider, a resident of Nederland, Colorado, suffered a broken tibia and collarbone during stage 3 of January’s Santos Tour Down Under. Early season injuries aside, Duggan considers Monday’s defense a major priority.

“Winning the national championship has meant a lot to me,” he told VeloNews. “It’s an honor you’re reminded of each day when you put that jersey on. I’m sure hoping to win again in Chattanooga. I do not want to give my jersey back.”

Duggan returned to racing at April’s Presidential Tour of Turkey and arrives in Tennessee fresh off of the Amgen Tour of California.

Like her male counterpart, women’s road champion Megan Guarnier plans a vigorous, albeit solo, defense. In late 2012, the New York native became the first American woman to sign with the Rabobank squad of world champion and Olympic gold medalist Marianne Vos.

For Guarnier, who was named to the long team for the 2012 Summer Olympics — but ultimately not to the team — the chance to wear the stars and stripes was an opportunity to regain her confidence.

“It was an emotional roller coaster of a year, but wearing that jersey has been amazing,” she said. “There’s a lot to road racing that’s unpredictable. [Winning again] will be hard, but I’ve come to Chattanooga to give it my best.”

Though they’ve never met, the defending road champions will share more than a jersey this weekend. Each is the lone American representative for a European squad.

In Guarnier’s case, this means her Tennessee support team consists of a party of one: her fiancé. Duggan, who will also be without his team’s logistical support, has made plans to partner with former Cannondale teammate Ted King and 2011 champion Matthew Busche (RadioShack-Leopard) — all three are without teammates, with RadioShack’s Chris Horner and 2010 champion Ben King set to miss the race with injuries.

But don’t expect the loose alliance the trio have dubbed “Team No Team” to extend to the road. Busche told VeloNews that all bets are off when it comes to capturing the stars and stripes — even among those fielding sizable teams.

“Even when you’ve got guys there wearing the same kit, it’s an interesting situation at nationals,” Busche told VeloNews. “At the end of the day, it’s all about that jersey, so it can be a tricky situation when it comes to sacrificing for a teammate. Believe you me, [Timmy, Ted, and I] won’t be racing as a team on the road. But it’s nice to buddy up as far as logistics go.”

Amgen injuries take out both TT champs

While the road race is slated to see the return of both reigning champions, injuries sustained at the Amgen Tour of California will prevent the start of each defending time trial champion. Garmin-Sharp’s multiple-time champion David Zabriskie was forced to abandon the Amgen Tour after sustaining a broken collarbone while doing course recognizance ahead of the stage 6 time trial one week ago today. Former world champion Amber Neben (Pasta Zara) was likewise removed from contention after suffering a broken hip and ribs during the women’s invitational time trial.

The absence of the dominating Zabriskie, in particular, holds open the prospect of an unusually competitive field, with BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies’ Tom Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski, and Bontrager’s Nathan Brown among likely podium contenders.

Specialized-lululemon’s Evelyn Stevens is a double threat in the women’s field. The winner of last week’s Amgen Tour women’s TT is also a serious contender for the road title, as are former champion Robin Farina (NOW-Novartis for MS), Janel Holcomb (Optum), and Exergy Twenty16’s Kristin McGrath and Alison Tetrick.

Both the men and women will compete on a rolling, 19-mile TT course adjacent to sponsor Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. Riders will complete two out-and-back runs of 9.5 miles each, allowing spectators to view each rider multiple times.

Fans unable to participate on-site will enjoy enhanced broadcast coverage. Both Saturday’s time trials and Monday’s road races will be carried live online and on mobile devices via Tour Tracker. Universal Sports will air coverage of the final two hours of the men’s race Monday, beginning at 4 p.m. EDT. The live broadcast will include highlights from the time trials and women’s road race, with Craig Hummer, Robbie Ventura, and Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong sharing commentary duties. A recap of the weekend will air Sunday, June 2 at 1 p.m. EDT on NBC Sports Network.

VeloNews contributor Dan Wuori will be reporting all weekend from Chattanooga. For live updates follow @dwuori on Twitter.