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Philly field loaded with challengers

If you want to snack on giant pretzels and swill Rolling Rock for six hours during the First Union USPRO Championships on Sunday, you’ll need to head to the far end of the course and elbow your way through the crowds and into one of the all-day porch parties on the Manayunk Wall. There, you’ll drink in the heart-and-soul of the 18-year-old classic American race. But, if you want to see the final showdown in the battle for the U.S. champion’s jersey, it might be a better bet to plant yourself on the grassy slopes on Lemon Hill, on the finishing circuit of the 156-mile Philadelphia race. That’s

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By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer

If you want to snack on giant pretzels and swill Rolling Rock for six hours during the First Union USPRO Championships on Sunday, you’ll need to head to the far end of the course and elbow your way through the crowds and into one of the all-day porch parties on the Manayunk Wall. There, you’ll drink in the heart-and-soul of the 18-year-old classic American race. But, if you want to see the final showdown in the battle for the U.S. champion’s jersey, it might be a better bet to plant yourself on the grassy slopes on Lemon Hill, on the finishing circuit of the 156-mile Philadelphia race. That’s because, while the main selection of the race will likely be made in Manayunk, the three, three-mile finishing laps will be where the deciding punches and counterpunches are thrown, and where the final decision will be rendered.

Six hours before that decision is made, 140 riders will gather at the start/finish line on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the shadow of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the line, there will be two men who everyone will be watching as the heavy favorites for the race — two-time defending champion Fred Rodriguez of Domo-Farm Frites and his good buddy, the 1998 USPRO champion George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service) — but with two races already down in First Union Week, it’s become clear that Postal and the small Domo squad will have their hands full with challengers from other teams.

Back in May, U.S. Postal team director Frankie Andreu made no secrets of his team’s objectives, and who he thinks the protagonists will be. “We want to bring the jersey back [to Postal],” said Andreu, “and George is one of the best one-day riders in the world. Freddy too. It’s definitely going to be a battle between George and Freddy.”

That’s not to say that all of Postal’s hopes will be riding on Hincapie. While the first American takes home the stars-and-stripes jersey, riders from any country are eligible for the $40,000 first-place prize.

“The first objective is to win the race,” said Andreu, and Postal has one of the hottest young riders around in Belgian Tom Boonen, who sparkled in the spring with his third-place finish at Paris-Roubaix.

But with the exception of Boonen and Canadian Michael Barry, anyone on the otherwise all-American Postal roster could take the stars-and-stripes. Postal showed on Tuesday that it has come to the East Coast to race, when the team set up David Clinger for the win at the First Union Invitational in Lancaster. And in the two opening races, Hincapie has ridden like a strongman ready to win in Philadelphia.

While Postal has been out in force in the opening two races of the week, Rodriguez and his Domo team have been quiet. Rodriguez pulled out of Lancaster midway through the race to save himself for later in the week, and pulled out again in Trenton in the wet and miserable conditions.

Not backing down at the rainy Trenton race, though, were Navigators, Mercury and Prime Alliance, who will also have some of the top contenders on Sunday.

Mercury’s Chris Wherry said on Tuesday that he has the best form he’s ever had coming into First Union Week, and he showed it with his second-place finish at Lancaster. Then, on Thursday, Gord Fraser pulled out the win with an aggressive ride in Trenton. And 2000 Philadelphia winner Henk Vogels, who had mechanical problems after a crash in Trenton, still hasn’t shown his face much, but is on top form.

Another man on top form is Prime Alliance’s Chris Horner. He fractured his foot back in April, but Horner is back to the form that carried him to three stage-race wins in March. At Lancaster, he broke away on lap 1, was out front for eight laps, and then made the lead group before Wherry and Clinger broke away. Then at Trenton he was again at the front all day, and put himself in position to win before he and Navigators Ciaran Power got caught with 300 meters to go.

Horner was visibly upset with Power for not pulling through at the end of Trenton, and as teammate Michael Creed said, “Horner’s all fired up [for Sunday].”

While Postal and Mercury have taken the two wins so far, Navigators has been just a step behind, putting Tom Leaper on the podium in third place at Lancaster and Oleg Grichkine in second at Trenton. The team has a number of possibilities, but the No. 1 man at the start will likely be Vassili Davidenko, who sat out Lancaster to focus on Philly.

One team that has been notably absent from the podium has been Saturn, which was among the top teams for all of 2001. Trent Klasna, who had a breakout season last year, has had a recurring back problem flare up this year and had to sit up in the breakaway at Lancaster, but he says he’ll be ready come Sunday.

The Sunday forecast in Philadelphia calls for highs in the 80s, with high humidity, which could mean a race of attrition. That could hamper some of the European teams that are only fielding six or seven riders, compared with 10 for each of the American teams. The Europeans are finding their legs after jet lag on Tuesday, though, and a team like Belgium’s Lotto-Adecco or Poland’s Mroz could get into the mix on Sunday. Lotto has posted the best results of the Euro’s so far this week, Wesley Van Speybroeck’s third-place in Trenton.

If the weather forecast holds, and the American teams come out slugging, the riders could be in for a long, hard day in the saddle, and once again, the U.S. will crown a strongman in Philadelphia. Will it be Hincapie? Or Horner? Rodriguez or Wherry? Vogels or Davidenko? The final answer will come on those last three trips up Lemon Hill.