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Can Jonathan Cantwell extend his streak into the U.S. Pro Criterium championship?

National criterium jersey will change hands on new course

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The Glencoe crit course

The place is Glencoe, Illinois, and the time is Saturday August 14 at 5:00 p.m. The scene is one of the most contentious – and story-laden – criteriums of the North American season: the U.S. Professional Criterium Championship.

Defending American crit champ John Murphy (BMC Racing) is absent on European duty. Fly V Australia’s Jonathan Cantwell hasn’t lost a race since mid-July, but his teammate Ben Kersten was the first across the line last year (although Murphy got the title as the first American across the line). Perhaps the biggest story ahead of the weekend is the new course. The Glencoe circuit has never been raced on in this configuration and with 10 corners and six blocks of continuous ascent leading into the downhill finish straight, we should see the most unpredictable crit nationals in years.

The Game

The $15,000 U.S. Pro Crit takes on a new look this weekend as the event changes locations and schedules. The race moves across Chicago this year from its 24-year home in Downers Grove to the northern suburbs. Also changing is the lineup of championship events. With the women and men’s elite races moved to elite nationals in Bend, Oregon, in June, the focus is on the pro men fighting for the stars and stripes. While just one jersey is on the line Saturday, the new, challenging course should make for arguably the most exciting crit championship in years.

According to Glencoe race director Jon Knouse, the event comes after budget cuts forced Downers Grove to scale back the city’s event schedule. “There was a note printed in the local racing blog here called Chicago Bike Racing that they had their budget meeting in Downers Grove and punted a bunch of their events for the year,” said Knouse, who worked with nationals race director Steve Hanson’s team to bring the event across town. “I don’t want to say we’re saviors. We didn’t really save the day. We probably saved the race for Illinois, but USA Cycling probably could have made it happen somewhere else, but I was just real excited to be able to keep it in our area. We have a very vibrant cycling community and it would have been a shame to see it go away.”

Murphy won't be able to repeat, since he's racing in France.

The Glencoe course is a take-off on the traditional track used for the Glencoe Grand Prix, which makes its fourth annual appearance this year. The 2.1km, 10-corner loop is technically challenging and features a block-long climb and a long false flat on the backside. Riders will roll the course clockwise and will descend for six blocks from the start/finish to the farthest out point of the course at Valley Road. When they turn right onto South Avenue, the peloton will face the one-block climb to Hazel Avenue, where they’ll gain a false flat that will carry them five blocks to the final corner onto the Vernon Avenue finish straight.

Park Avenue, which leads into the final corner, is three lanes wide and according to Knouse, the turn onto Vernon is “big and wide.” The final corner at Downers Grove was the key to that race, but with plenty of room to operate and lesser speeds, the last bend in Glencoe should be no more important – or sketchy – than in any other tough crit on the national circuit.

“In Downers Grove, everybody knew what was going to happen,” said Knouse, who was a frequent attendee of the race. “We race and race and race and then we sprint for that final turn for a win, which I don’t think is the case here.”

The Players

The 100km U.S. criterium championship is one of the only events on the calendar that continues to allow foreign competitors to contest a national championship. That being said, it’s important to split the contenders into two groups: those riding purely for the race win and the Americans gunning for the win and the stars and stripes jersey.

Foreign riders like Cantwell and Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) have largely dominated the U.S. sprint game in 2010. Murphy won’t be in Glencoe – he’s currently racing the Tour de l’Ain in France and hasn’t flown the jersey in a national-caliber race in the U.S. this year. If the Americans duke it out in a bunch finish, it may well be for a secondary podium spot and any number of riders could take the win, though those without a top international sprinter will likely have the best shot. Bissell’s Daniel Holloway and Kyle Wamsley fit that profile. Ken Hanson is also a top threat and his Slovenian Team Type 1 teammate Aldo Ino Ilesic will sell out for the jersey.

2010 Tour of Elk Grove, John Cantwell
Cantwell has been on a streak.

Riders like Alex Candelario (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Jake Keough (UnitedHealthcare) should also be in the conversation, but they may see their teams’ intentions muddied by strong international breakaway riders and sprinters. Rahsaan Bahati (Bahati Foundation) won the national title in 2008, but he’s had a rocky season and little to show in the way of results.

As for the larger race picture, Cantwell has to be the man to beat. He hasn’t lost a race since mid-July and on Saturday took out the final nationals prep event in Charlotte, North Carolina. While shorthanded, Cantwell’s team will look to set up a bunch finish for their man with the hot hand and he’ll benefit from his friendly crit guns Kersten and Alessandro Bazzana and break threats Hayden Brooks and David Kemp.

If the bunch comes to the line together, other serious international contenders include David Veilleux and Zach Bell (Kelly Benefit Strategies); Karl Menzies and Andrew Pinfold (UnitedHealthcare); and Alejandro Borrajo (Jamis-Sutter Home).

With a double-digit count on corners and a six-block ascent each lap, a successful breakaway could very well get away for good on Saturday. If that happens, the story of foreign versus national riders will play out even more clearly. The strong American teams may allow a group of all international riders a longer leash than they would otherwise. On the other hand, Fly V Australia and KBS are likely to chase down any move that they don’t make, regardless of the composition.

Mike Friedman, Will Routley and their Jelly Belly-Kenda squad will be gassing it hard to make a break happen. Jamis and Mountain Khakis-Jittery Joe’s should do the same, as they’ll be more likely to take out the win sprinting from a small group than against the big trains on a downhill finish. Frank Pipp (Bissell), Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Brad White (UnitedHealthcare) all have the motors to go to the line and would not surprise if they posted up in the finale.

Whether the race goes to a bunch sprint or a break sticks it to the finish, a new course and high stakes should make the racing in Glencoe unpredictable, exciting and hard-nosed.

Women’s Race

While the women won’t be racing for a national title, a strong startlist will warm the Glencoe course up at 3:45 p.m. Saturday. Elite and U23 national champs Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Colavita-Baci) and Samantha Schneider (Tibco-To The Top) will both be on hand. Vera Bradley Foundation will bring a full six-rider squad and Laura Van Gilder is on the early roster under the Mellow Mushroom banner.

The women will face off for the $7,500 purse for 60 minutes on the long circuit at Glencoe.