It was nearly a clean sweep for Cannondale-Garmin’s Andrew Talansky at the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee Monday. As the peloton made its third ascent of Lookout Mountain, the newly crowned U.S. time trial champion went solo, developing a gap that would soon grow to more than two minutes.
In the chase behind him, Trek Factory Racing’s Matthew Busche — winner of the 2011 national road title — sat and waited. His team’s lone rider, Busche knew that attempting to pull Talansky back solo was a fool’s errand. A suicide mission. So he waited in hopes that his compatriots might summon the energy to bring Talansky back.
“When that break went, I thought it was over,” Busche admitted. “I was really upset that I’d missed it. But then in a chase group like that you have to understand that if Andrew stays away then nobody else is going to win … so you might need to burn a couple matches to pull him back.”
Luckily for Busche, the chase mobilized — pulling Talansky back on the penultimate climb of Chattanooga’s Kent Street and affording the 30-year-old Wauwatosa, Wisconsin native a shot at his second national road championship. Busche took that shot, winning solo as second- and third-place finishers Joe Dombrowski and Kiel Reijnen chased him futilely through the pouring rain.
“Being able to come to the line knowing I was alone and realizing I was going to win was special,” Busche said after the race. “I kind of wanted to slow down to enjoy it, but I didn’t know how fast Joe was coming up behind me. I wasn’t going to slow down until I crossed the line.”
As in recent years, the 111.4-mile road race was one of attrition.
“Everybody out here today gave it their all,” Busche said of the small group with whom he battled to the finish. “So to be a little stronger, or maybe a little better tactically? To win under hard conditions? Knowing you gave it your all is the best feeling.”
For second-place finisher Dombrowski, the final kilometers of the race were hard indeed, as he worked without avail to drop Busche.
“I knew my chances against Matthew, head-to-head, coming into a sprint,” Dombrowski said. Realistically, I don’t have the best shot there.”
One man who did have a chance — until disaster struck — was third-place finisher Kiel Reijnen of UnitedHealthcare. With one finishing circuit to go, Reijnen flatted at the start/finish line and was forced to stop for a wheel change as the race leaders sped off into the distance. Reijnen grimaced as he stood waiting, his dreams of winning the race almost certainly over.
A lesser man might have called it a day. But Reijnen mounted up and launched one of the sport’s most stunning comebacks, shocking the crowd minutes later with his almost inexplicable arrival on the line.
After the race, a clearly distraught Reijnen explained how he had managed to do the impossible.
“Coming into the final lap I thought I was going for the win,” he explained. “I think it was a combination of motivation and adrenaline [that allowed me to catch back on]. That combined with the fact that during the last lap there’s a lot of tactical fighting and cat and mouse. I was lucky because that means they slow up a bit in the front.”
“The Kent Street climb is where I really made it up. I just went full gas up it while everyone else was kind of watching one another. It allowed me to just tack back on. Also it was wet, so I took a lot of risks in the corners because I really had nothing to lose at that point.”
Despite his improbable comeback, Reijnen found no joy in a podium placement, crossing the line in tears.
“I came to win and I think I had the legs to do it,” he told VeloNews. “I’ve been third four times here now. I think I know what it takes to win and I think I just need a little bit of luck.”
After the race, Busche and Dombrowski reflected on the unique nature of the national championship.
“A podium’s great, but everyone wants a stars and stripes jersey for a year,” Dombrowski explained. “It’s a big accomplishment. So I think that a national championship is kind of an ‘all-in’ mentality. Sometimes you go to a stage race and you know you can’t win GC, but maybe you can place third. In a one-day race like nationals, you kind of just throw everything out there. There’s a lot on the line. Everyone races for the win. Nothing else.”
“It’s different from any other race, because it’s one day, one winner and even if you’re racing with your teammates, there’s only one stars and stripes jersey, so there’s a little bit of something in the back of your head where you’re like, ‘Well, I really kind of want that jersey.’”
Reflecting on the chance to represent the U.S. abroad wearing the colors of his nation, Busche acknowledged the privilege.
“It’s just special. There’s only one guy per year who gets to wear the colors of his country. So it’s an honor and I hope I represent the country well while wearing it. I’ll race my hardest for me, but also to represent the U.S.”