By Neal Rogers
Pro racers from across the U.S. and Europe trickled in to the town of Macon,Georgia, over the weekend as organizers of the country’s richest stagerace, the Dodge Tour de Georgia, made final preparations to commence racingTuesday, April 20.
In only its second year, the event received a huge boost with the Januaryannouncement that five-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong wouldbring his U.S. Postal Service-Berry Floor team to the event and use therace as preparation for a sixth consecutive Tour win. Shortly thereafter,2003 title-sponsor Dodge renewed its commitment for 2004, and a more challenging route was released reflecting Armstrong’s desire for a more mountainous course.
The event, billed as Georgia’s “Race to Defeat Cancer,” benefits theGeorgia Cancer Coalition, a cause closely aligned to Armstrong’s own cancer-fightingfoundation. While held entirely in Georgia, the race appears to be fillingthe void for a national, world-class stage race left open since the TourDuPont last ran in 1996, when Armstrong took the win.
Though Armstrong has not competed in a domestic stage race since winningthe 1998 Cascade Classic, the buzz around race headquarters is that hehas come to Georgia not solely for training but to race for the win, makinghim the nearly unanimous hands-on favorite. Those confirmed riding in supportof Armstrong are teammates George Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov, MichaelCreed, Antonio Cruz, Pavel Padronos and Daniel Rincon, with one remainingspot still undetermined.
The likeliest antagonist Armstrong will face is American Bobby Julich,who is enjoying his finest form since taking third overall at the 1998Tour de France. Julich, 32, has enjoyed a career renaissance since signingwith CSC late last year, taking third at Paris-Nice while riding in supportof winner Jörg Jaksche and, more recently, beating compatriot TylerHamilton in the closing time trial at the Tour of the Basque Country. Europeanveterans Max Sciandri, Jakob Piil and Jens Voigt, winner of March’s CriteriumInternational, add firepower to back Julich’s efforts. Though he hasn’traced in the States for eight years, Julich has made it known that he verymuch intends to race for overall victory in Georgia.
Also returning to race in the States is American David Clinger. Theformer Festina and U.S. Postal Service rider won the fifth stage at lastyear’s Tour de Georgia while riding for Prime Alliance and returns as ateammate of 2002 world champion Mario Cippolini, who added to the spectacleof the event when he announced last week that he will use Georgia as preparationfor next month’s Giro d’Italia. The six-day, seven-stage event will bethe first chance for Clinger to line up against the Health Net-Maxxis teamthat he had been in negotiations with last fall — a situation that endedin a controversial dispute on whether or not Clinger had signed with HealthNet before opting to instead ride for Domina Vacanze.
Wearing race number “1” will be defending champion Chris Horner ofWebcor Builders. Horner, fresh off an overall victory at the Sea OtterClassic — as well as the Redlands Classic and Pomona Valley stage racesin March — has grown used to winning stage races in the U.S. over the pastthree years. The match-up of an American Tour de France champion versusthe strongest rider in North America brings an interesting contest to therace, as many point to Horner’s performances at last fall’s T-Mobile International— where he beat Armstrong, Hincapie and Ekimov — and a strong showing atthe Hamilton world road race championships as evidence that he deservesa spot among Europe’s most elite racers.
Though Horner’s Webcor team is clearly not the all-star Saturn squadthat brought him to victory in Georgia last year, Horner, who is knownas much for his crafty riding as his strength, should not be counted outas threat to the general classification.
Another contender for the overall is South African climber David George(Barloworld), 8th at this year’s Tour de Langkawi. Relatively unknown tomany on the domestic circuit, George could play the dark horse and sneakaway in the hills.
Cippolini isn’t the only Italian sprint ace brought in to Georgia forthe week. Saeco has flown in two-time Italian national road champion SalvatoreCommesso, who is riding on a composite Saeco-Saunier Duval team alongsidecontroversial teammate Dario Pieri, who found himself in the headlinesfor the wrongreasons last week, and American Tim Johnson, who has faced multiplebouts of influenza so far this spring. When racing in the U.S., the SpanishSaunier Duval squad will run under the name of co-sponsor Prodir pens,hence the composite team’s name of Saeco-Prodir-Saunier Duval.
Scheduled on Landbouwkredit-Colnago’s tentative roster is Jacky Durand,the French rider known for his willingness to join any and every breakat the Tour de France. Should Durand choose to employ his aggressive tacticsin Georgia, many domestic riders in the peloton may find themselves shelledout the back early on.
Another wild card in Georgia is the American D-2 Navigators team, whichreturns after a tough spring campaign in Europe. National time trial championChris Baldwin will ride as the team’s protected GC contender, with on on-formKirk O’Bee expected to be looking for stage wins. Also expected at thestart are Phil Zajicek, Marc Walters, Jeff Louder, and the return of Aussiestrongman Henk Vogels, who is still finding his form following a devastatingcrash last summer at the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic.
Looking for home turf advantage will be the Atlanta-based Jittery Joe’soutfit, a team that stands a good chance of taking the KOM jersey withColombian climber Cesar Grajales, second-overall at Redlands.
Aussie-turned-Georgia resident Nathan O’Neill (Colavita Olive Oil),winner of the prologue time trial at the TdG last year, recently underwentknee surgery and will be forced to sit out the race. In his absence, Colavitabrings Mark McCormack, Will Frischkorn and Aaron Olson as its main animatorsand while not likely as an overall threat, the team could play spoiler.
This year’s Tour de Georgia offers up three major climbing stages,consisting of two mountain days — stages 5 and 6 — and a hilly stage 4time trial that runs following a 78-mile road stage that morning.
As is often the case, the early stages will likely set up nicely forthe sprinters, giving Cippolini, Commesso and Piil a chance to test theirlegs against the best North America has to offer. Looking to trounce theEuropean sprinters will be North American fast men Charles Dionne (WebcorBuilders), Ivan Dominguez (Colavita Olive Oil), Gord Fraser and Greg Henderson(Heath Net-Maxxis) and Alex Candelario (Jelly Belly) as well as Hincapieand O’Bee.
Following the relatively flat opening 82-mile stage beginning and endingin Macon, stage 2 tackles a Category-3 and Category-4 climb before a flatfinish in Colombus. Many familiar with the domestic peloton are anxiousto see whether or not Cippolini will have what it takes to make it overthe pair of climbs to take advantage of the course’s flat finish.
“Domina Vacanze is probably planning on going to the front and tellingeveryone to just ‘ride piano’ on the climbs,” joked Vogels. “Then someOfoto rider is just going to attack from under his arm and fly up the road.”
Stage 3 is a expected to be a fast 77-mile day, with an elevation-lossprofile and a flat finish in to Rome, setting riders up for the evening’stime trial, an 18.9-mile course with a hill at mile 11 that offers 750feet of elevation gain in just over one mile, followed by a fast descentthat flattens out two miles from the finish. By the end of stage 4 theGC should begin to take shape — just in time for the hills.
“It’s like a normal, flat time trial course,” said Baldwin, “with amountain in the middle of it. It’s perfect.”
Following Thursday’s double day comes the Tour’s next real tests, withthe harder of the two days open to debate. Stage 5, from Dalton to Dahlonega,offers up three Category 2 climbs and a pair of Category 3’s over 140 miles,for a total of 18,953 feet of climbing ending with a screaming fast descentinto a brief uphill jaunt. It’s a day custom designed for a grand tourclimber like Armstrong, and while the race won’t likely be won on stage5, it most certainly will be lost by a handful of overall contenders.
After a transfer to the start town of Athens – which will play host later that evening to the infamous Athens Twilight Criterium – riders will embark on a 130-mile trek to the top of Brasstown Bald, a tough hors categorie climb that reaches 4679-feet in elevation. But before Brasstown Bald, the field will climb over Hogpen Gap, a steep Category 1 pitch that will likely shatter the field. 15,000 total feet of climbing on the day will all but decide the overall winner.
Stage 7, from Dawsonville to Alpharetta, is a flat 88-mile course thatis not expected to have any major impact on the overall classificationbut could affect the points jersey as well as give domestic sprinters onelast chance to beat the European stars.
Tuesday, April 20
Macon to Milledgeville to Macon, 82.1 miles (132.2 km)
Start Time: 12:30 p.m.
Expected Finish: 3:30 p.m.
Total Climbing: 5,886 ft (1794m)
Wednesday, April 21
Thomaston to Columbus, 117.9 miles (189.9 km)
Start Time: 10 a.m.
Expected Finish: 2:30 p.m.
Total Climbing: 8,112 ft (2472.5m)
Thursday, April 22
Carrollton to Rome, 78.4 miles (126.2 km)
Start Time: 9:30 a.m.
Expected Finish: 12:15 p.m.
Total Climbing: 3,893 ft (1186.5m)
Thursday, April 22
Rome, individual time trial, 18.6 miles (29.9 km)
Start Time: approximately 4:00 p.m
Expected Finish: 7:00 p.m.
Total Climbing: 2,012 ft (613m)
Friday, April 23
Dalton to Dahlonega, 139.4 miles (224.3 km)
Start Time: 10:00 a.m.
Expected Finish: 2:45 p.m.
Total Climbing: 18,953 ft (5777m)
Saturday, April 24
Athens to Hiawassee/Young Harris, 128.25 miles (206.4 km) Mountaintopfinish on Brasstown Bald.
Start Time: 10:00 a.m.
Expected Finish: 3:15 p.m.
Total Climbing: 15,110 ft (4605.5m)
Sunday, April 25
Dawsonville to Alpharetta circuit race, 88.4 miles (142.3 km)
Start Time: 1:00 p.m.
Expected Finish: 4:00 p.m.
Total Climbing: 5,666 ft (1727m)
Division I Trade Teams:
Saeco-Prodir-Saunier Duval (Italy, Spain)
Team CSC (Denmark)
U.S. Postal Service, presented by Berry Floor (USA)
Div II Trade Teams:
Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli (South Africa)
Domina Vacanze (Italy)
Navigators Insurance (USA)
Div III Trade Teams:
Colavita Olive Oil, presented by Bolla Wines (USA)
Health Net, presented by Maxxis (USA)
Jelly Belly-Aramark (USA)
Jittery Joe’s Coffee (USA)
Ofoto-Lombardi Sports (USA)
Sierra Nevada Cycling (USA)
Webcor Builders (USA)
USA Cycling U23 Team (USA)