By Bryan Jew, Assistant Managing Editor
For the second year, big-time road racing hits the streets of San Francisco for Sunday’s San Francisco Grand Prix.
Last year, with the presence of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to bolster interest, the inaugural event was a huge success, with people lining the streets of the 10-mile course, including crowds four and five deep on the two major climbs on the course, on Fillmore and Taylor Streets.
This year, the hype machine has been turned up another notch. Not only will defending champion George Hincapie and U.S. Postal teammate Armstrong be on hand, but the event will feature live national TV coverage on the Outdoor Life Network.
Last year, saying he was under the weather, Armstrong withdrew in the middle of the race after helping to spring Hincapie into the winning breakaway. At the time, though, a Postal Service team staff member described the course as one that Armstrong would “eat up” if he were 100 percent.
The 109-mile race will feature three short opening laps, eight laps of the main 10-mile circuit, and five trips of an abbreviated, 5.2-mile version of the main circuit. With the race featuring eight trips up the Fillmore St. climb (0.4 miles with a maximum 18 percent grade) and 13 trips up Taylor St. (0.5 miles with a maximum 16 percent grade), the Grand Prix is a race that should select only the riders who show up at their strongest for the late-season event.
Last year’s final four of Hincapie, Michael Barry, Trent Klasna and Mark Walters showed that at the end, the course will sift out the strongest men of the day. Postal will draw much of the attention in what will be Armstrong’s final race of the year. The team will also feature Tour de France team members Floyd Landis, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Padrnos, but the top domestic teams will be looking to cap off their year as well.
In its final run under its current sponsorship, and possibly the last stand with the current core group, the Mercury team has been the hottest domestic squad since mid-summer, with recent wins including Chris Wherry at the Saturn Cycling Classic, Henk Vogels at the USPRO Criterium Championship and Gord Fraser at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and the Georgia Labor Day Omnium. With their future up in the air, Wherry and Vogels will be gunning for one more win in the Mercury colors.
While Mercury has been the story of late, Prime Alliance and Navigators had the hot hands earlier in the season and will be looking to end the season on a high note. Prime will be led by Danny Pate and Chris Horner, with Horner rumored to possibly be on the move to another team at season’s end. For Navigators, USPRO road race winner Walters will try to improve on his fourth place finish last year.
Another team with big ambitions will be Saturn, who last year had Barry and Klasna in the top three. With Klasna not quite matching up to last season’s form and Barry having moved on to Postal, the burden of being at the front for Saturn may fall on Harm Jansen, Soren Petersen or Tim Johnson.
One more rider to watch will be Kevin Livingston of Telekom, who earlier in the year announced that he is retiring at season’s end. Livingston was out for a ride with his former Postal teammates on Friday afternoon, and will ride as the lone representative of Telekom in a composite Jelly Belly-Carlsbad Clothing/Telekom squad for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Check in with VeloNews.com on Sunday, starting at 8:20 a.m. (Pacific Time) for live updates throughout the San Francisco Grand Prix.