By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
While the NBA Finals fever generated by the Sixers-Lakers series has swept over Philadelphia, a couple hundred thousand boisterous spectators used the First Union USPRO Championships as the perfect tailgate party. The fans were out in force, and they were treated to a spectacular show. In the finale, defending USPRO champion (and runner-up last year to winner Henk Vogels) Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) beat out Saturn’s Trent Klasna and U.S. Postal’s George Hincapie in an all-American, 1-2-3 finish. Rodriguez slipped away in the final 500 meters to became the first American winner since Hincapie in 1998.
“I felt just as happy last year for winning the jersey,” he said. “[But] this is greater for the fact that it’s a double, which is something that’s always hard to do.”
Like last year, Rodriguez claimed the stars-and-stripes jersey by being in the right place at the right time when the winning breakaway formed late in the race, putting himself into the final group of six that included Rodriguez, Hincapie, Klasna, Jakob Piil (CSC-World Online), Fabrizio Guidi (Mercury-Viatel) and Pedro Munoz Horillo (Mapei-Quick Step).
For the most part, all six had a smooth ride up until that point, sitting in the peloton while the early watch went on patrol, in the opening hours of the race when the sun was just beginning to heat things up and the cold beverages were just starting to flow.
The day got started under beautiful conditions on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with Sixers owner Pat Croce serving as the official starter.
The temperature heated up quickly, and the early break didn’t take much time to form, with a group of 16 taking shape on lap 2 of the 14.4-mile main circuit, under the impetus of Festina’s Luis Perez and IBM-Lotus’s Daniel Spence, who attacked on the second time up the Manayunk Wall. They were quickly joined by Mercury’s Mike Sayers, Postal’s Benoit Joachim, Robbie Ventura and Matt White; CSC’s Raphael Jeune; Saturn’s Chris Fisher and Frank McCormack; 7UP-Colorado Cyclist’s Ryan Guay and Clark Sheehan; Mapei’s Eddy Ratti; MROZ’s Eugen Wacker and Zbigniew Wyrzykowski; Zaxby’s Max Finkbeiner; and Festina’s Nicolas Reynaud.
With some of the biggest teams represented, the lead shot up over the next lap, increasing to 4:24 on the peloton, with a few chasers in between. By the fourth trip up the wall, the gap peaked at more than 7 minutes to the main field.
The chase behind wasn’t all-out, but with Domo, Navigators and Prime Alliance all contributing, it began to come down slowly, and up ahead, the break was beginning to lose cohesiveness.
With some uncertainty in the break, Perez, Spence and Sheehan went up the road, while the others began to soft pedal and wait for the catch. That catch came on lap 8, after more than 80 grueling miles at the front, but not until Perez had launched one more attack up the wall, sealing the king of the mountains competition and drawing a roar from the throngs lining the crowd barriers along the Wall.
Perez was finally caught in front of the big crowds at the start-finish, and with things back together, a series of attacks started to come, with only two more laps of the main circuit and three laps of the 3-mile finishing circuit remaining.
The moves came from the likes of Kirk Willett (Prime Alliance), Michael Barry (Saturn), Steve Larsen and Danny Pate (Prime Alliance), and Munoz Horillo, but the big guns were setting up for the 10th and final time up the Manayunk Wall.
The ever-active Munoz Horillo was the initiator of the move on lap 10, with Hincapie and Rodriguez reacting quickly, followed by Piil, Klasna and Guidi.
Those three would hit the finishing circuits with a lead of 30 seconds on a small peloton led by Navigators, who, unable to recruit any help, would chip away, but wouldn’t be able to close the gap.
That left the finish to the select group of six. On the first two trips into Fairmount Park and up Lemon Hill, things stayed intact, but when the racers hit the final 3-mile lap, things began to happen.
Piil was first to attack, just before the short climb up Lemon Hill, but was brought back by a strong Hincapie. When that move happened, Klasna looked to be struggling, but he bounced back to launch the next move, only to be shut down, with Hincapie again closing the gap. At that point, Munoz Horillo and Guidi couldn’t hold on any longer, and when the lead group dropped back down onto the parkway, it was down to four.
Klasna and Piil both tried once more, but to no avail. Then, just as they hit the roundabout at Logan Parkway, there was a moment of hesitation. Hincapie, Piil and Klasna all swung wide slowly, and then could only watch as Rodriguez dove inside, and came around the fountain with a huge gap. By the time they hit the line, Rodriguez was celebrating after winning by 100 meters. Klasna slipped away for second place, while Hincapie outsprinted Guidi, who had made his way back to the group.
It was a rare American sweep at Philly, led by repeat national champion Rodriguez, who was confident of winning, but surprised by how he did it.
“I won the race in a way I never expected to win it,” he said. “I expected to win it, but I expected to win it in a sprint.
And Rodriguez wasn’t pulling any punches when describing how big an event it was he won. “It’s the biggest event in America, but it’s also one of the biggest races in the world,” he said. “As an event, I can say there’s no other event, with the exception of the Tour de France, that lives up to it.”
So while the hearts of Philadelphia may belong to the Sixers right now, the eyes of the cycling world were on Rodriguez, as he pulled on the stars-and-stripes jersey that he’ll proudly carry back to Europe.
1. Fred Rodriguez (USA), Domo-Farm Frites, 156 mi in 5:57:56; 2. Trent Klasna (USA), Saturn, at 0:05; 3. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 4. Fabrizio Guidi (I), Mercury-Viatel; 5. Jakob Piil (Dk), CSC-World Online; 6. Pedro Munoz Horillo (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step, all s.t.; 7. Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), U.S. Postal Service, at 0:15; 8. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Mercury-Viatel; 9. Henk Vogels (Aus), Mercury-Viatel; 10. Julian Dean (NZ), U.S. Postal Service; 11. Dirk Friel (USA), Zaxby’s; 12. Steffen Radochla (G), Festina; 13. Simon Kessler (SA), IBM-Lotus; 14. Harm Jansen (Nl), Saturn; 15. John Lieswyn (USA), 7UP-Colorado Cyclist; 16. Damon Kluck (USA), Jelly Belly; 17. Glen Mitchell (NZ), Navigators; 18. Salvatore Commesso (I), Saeco; 19. Ernesto Lechuga (USA), DeFeet-LeMond; 20. Zbigniew Piatek (Pl), MROZ-Supradyn; 21. Gabriel Rampollo (I), DeFeet-LeMond; 22. Soren Peterson (Dk), Saturn; 23. Nikki Sorensen (Dk), CSC-World Online; 24. Geert Van Bondt (B), Mercury-Viatel; 25. Kirk O’Bee (USA), Navigators; 26. Antonio Cruz (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 27. Christian Vande Velde (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 28. Raimondas Vilcinskas (Lit), MROZ-Supradyn; 29. Brad Davidson (Aus), Saeco; 30. Jamie Ball (SA), IBM-Lotus; 31. Michael Barry (Can), Saturn; 32. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 33. Matthew White (Aus), U.S. Postal Service; 34. Vassili Davidenko (Rus), Navigators; 35. Chris Baldwin (USA), Navigators; 36. Francisco Lara (Sp), Festina, all s.t.