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As the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road Race Championship hits Chattanooga, Tennessee this Memorial Day, there is an invisible team whose jerseys won’t be represented among the colors of the men’s peloton.
Its members call it “The Wolfpack.”
Based in Boulder, Colorado the group of riding partners, which began as a local training camp designed to support Taylor Phinney’s 2012 Olympic road race ambitions, includes a who’s who of Monday’s likely podium contenders, including Garmin-Sharp’s Alex Howes, UnitedHealthcare riders Kiel Reijnen and Lucas Euser, Julian Kyer of Team SmartStop, Optum-Kelly Benefits rider Bjorn Selander, and, of course, Phinney himself.
“It’s just kind of a group of guys that have all known each other for a really long time, either on the national team, or racing against each other on trade teams,” Phinney explained. “We all live in Boulder. So when we’re back we always try to bring everyone together.”
(Recently retired pro Craig Lewis, Phinney said. is also a lifelong member of the ‘Pack.)
Convened by Phinney via group text message, the ‘Pack benefits from both camaraderie and the support to which the BMC rider has now grown accustomed, including a follow car (with custom Wolfpack car magnets) and food and bottle support from Phinney’s assistant and soigneur, Reed McCalvin.
As for the origins of the Wolfpack moniker, Howes and Phinney both acknowledge it was loosely inspired by a scene from the movie “The Hangover,” in which a group of buddies visit Las Vegas for a bachelor party.
“It’s just kind of like, when a group of dudes gets together, what do you call it? The Wolfpack seemed right,” Phinney told VeloNews. “It’s better than calling us ‘Cycle Bros’ or something.”
Come Monday, the ‘Pack will have it’s work cut out for it as the American men’s peloton tackles a 102.8 mile course, which includes four accents of Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain and seven climbs of a steep downtown block of Kent Street, known as “The Wall” for its steep 20-percent grade. (Earlier in the day, the women will compete on a 64.7-mile variation of the same course, featuring two mountain ascents and five Wall climbs.)
Could Wolfpack membership have its privileges come race day, particularly in a setting where riders like Phinney (who will race with a single BMC Racing teammate, Peter Stetina) will be unable to rely upon team tactics?
On this question, Phinney is firm.
“There’s no collusion between the members of The Wolfpack,” the recently crowned national time trial champion told VeloNews. “Alex really wants to win Monday, Kiel really wants to win Monday. Bjorn and Optum have a pretty specific game plan, I think.”
Howes agreed, noting that group members may be afforded certain niceties — but not race wins.
“When you spend five hours a day with a group of guys you tend to get pretty close,” said the Garmin-Sharp rider. “[Friends] look after one another in races. Those are the guys you may give a couple of extra inches to in the group. But when it comes down to winning nationals, it’s every man for himself.”
Still the competition remains friendly, said Howes. “We’ve always said, ‘If I don’t win it, I wouldn’t hate you if you did.’ Which isn’t the case for everybody,” the 26-year-old Golden, Colorado native laughed. “It would be hard to see one of those guys with the [stars and stripes] on his back. But either way I don’t think we’re going to lose any friendships over it.”
A win by Phinney in Monday’s road race would make him the first man in American cycling history to simultaneously capture both the national road and time trial jerseys. But Howes and Reijnen (a podium finisher at the national road race in 2010, 2012 and 2013) may each be better suited to the demands of Monday’s course than Phinney, who at 6-foot-5, and 180 pounds, is not exactly a pure climber.
Howes says the addition of “The Wall” within both the Chattanooga long laps and closing circuits could make for a smaller group at the finish than in 2013, when Jelly Belly’s Freddie Rodriguez sprinted to victory.
“I think that a lot of people were pretty frustrated last year,” Howes said. “The group that came to the finish was pretty darn big, maybe 20 guys? Out of a field of 80 that’s the peloton, it was probably the biggest group still out on the road. So a lot of teams will be looking to correct mistakes they made last year. I think it will be a more select group and that [the inclusion of “The Wall”] will play a part.”
With or without the assistance of his Boulder brethren, Howes says winning the stars and stripes in Chattanooga would be a dream come true.
“For me it would be everything. We spend half of the year in Europe, so wearing that jersey on your back and getting to represent America would be amazing. It would be kind of like a safety blanket, you know? Something to remind you of home no matter where you are.”
The Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road Race Championship will kick off at 9 a.m. Eastern time Monday with the women’s road race, to be followed by the men’s race at 1:30 p.m. Both races will be streamed live via the USA Cycling Tour Tracker app.
VeloNews’ Dan Wuori will be providing live updates throughout the holiday weekend. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dwuori.