U.S. professional road championships bring elite riders to Greenville

A star-studded National Pro Championships start Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (VN) — More than 100 of America’s elite pro cyclists will converge on Greenville, South Carolina, this Memorial Day weekend for the 27th annual USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships. The individual time trial will be held Saturday, followed by the road race Monday.

The professional men’s field will vie for the national championship jerseys currently held by Garmin-Barracuda’s David Zabriskie (time trial) and Radio Shack-Nissan’s Matthew Busche (road), each of whom plans to be on hand to defend his 2011 title.

A bumper crop of WorldTour riders – many fresh off of eight days of racing at the Amgen Tour of California – will be racing during Greenville’s final turn as host city, including BMC Racing’s George Hincapie (a three-time prior champion and Greenville resident), Tejay van Garderen and Brent Bookwalter, Radio Shack-Nissan’s Busche, Ben King and Chris Horner, and Liquigas-Cannondale’s Timmy Duggan and Ted King. (Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step is not scheduled to attend.)

If numbers play a role, however, it could be Garmin-Barracuda’s weekend to shine. The Colorado-based team will be out in force, fielding a seven-man squad for Monday’s 112.4-mile road race, including Tour de France stage winners Zabriskie and Tyler Farrar. Can spectators expect shock and awe from the Argyle Armada?

“To sweep the weekend would be a good thing for sure,” Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews Thursday. “And for the first time in a while, I think we’ve got a couple of guys who could win.”

Should the race end in a sprint, as it often does, the team may hold a trump card in Farrar. The Washington-native is making an unplanned appearance after crashing out of the Giro d’Italia on stage 6. After only a week back on the bike, Farrar is hoping for the best, but comforted knowing the team has several cards to play.

“With perfect preparation and all guns blazing, I think [winning] would definitely be my plan, but I’m also not sure where I am following the crash,” admitted Farrar. “We’ll just have to see how the race unfolds once we get out there. It’ll be pretty obvious to me, once we hit the first climb, whether I have it or not. If I feel good, then great, but if I don’t it’ll give the team free reign to run with a different strategy.”

The climb of which Farrar speaks is Paris Mountain, a grueling 2.2-mile ascent (maximum gradient 15%) that the peloton will visit four times this year. Clearly the course’s most selective element (and the site of this year’s inaugural Volkswagen King of the Mountain points competition), the climb may favor Farrar’s teammate Tom Danielson – or perhaps the man who knows it best, BMC’s George Hincapie, who lives near its base.

“Yeah, we definitely have the home-court advantage,” explained Hincapie’s BMC teammate van Garderen, fresh off a Paris Mountain recon ride Thursday with his hometown teammate. “We’ve been talking strategy for the race. We’re both really motivated and it’s great being with George in his hometown.”

Van Garderen may be among a few riders with legitimate hopes of snagging a pair of championship jerseys. Not only is the 23-year-old a spectacular climber, he’s also one of the only American cyclists capable of holding his own in a time trial field currently ruled by Zabriskie. And van Garderen and Hincapie were both in the final, four-man group that contested the sprint for the 2011 national road title.

Despite Zabriskie’s dominant performance at the Amgen Tour of California, van Garderen insists the defending time trial national champ is not invincible, particularly with a little help from the Greenville parcours.

“I think this time trial is a little different [from that of the Amgen Tour],” explained van Garderen.

“You know, California was all in the [aero] bars, it was just straight and flat. This course [three laps of a 6.9-mile course] is a bit more technical. You can make up time in the corners, sometimes you get out of the aero bars and stand, so it’s a bit more dynamic as opposed to the whole time in just one position. It’s a little different approach here, so I think that might favor me a little bit.”

Whoever takes the weekend’s most coveted podium positions will be in for a treat: the opportunity to sport stars-and-stripes within the peloton for a year. 2011 road champion Matthew Busche says the experience has been humbling.

“[Wearing the national champion’s jersey] has been great. It’s given me a little bit of notoriety. I don’t know if you’d call it clout or recognition or what, but it’s been a big honor to wear my country’s colors and represent the United States. I hope that I’ve done that well,” he said.

Busche plans to defend his title, despite having battled flu-like symptoms since April’s Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.

“I’ve definitely had less than a perfect lead up having been sick over these past few weeks, but sometimes that’s just the way it works. You can’t think about it come race day. I’ll definitely be back to do my best.”

For live race updates and commentary throughout the weekend, follow VeloNews’ Dan Wuori on Twitter at @dwuori.