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By Brian Holcombe
The Greenville Hospital System USA Cycling Professional Championships return to Greenville, South Carolina for the fourth year August 29-30 and pit the bulk of the domestic peloton against select ProTour riders in a battle for stars and stripes jerseys in the time trial and road race.
2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the one-day road race national championships.
A small group of specialists will contest the mostly flat, 20.7-mile time trial on Saturday. Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream) is the odds-on favorite to earn his fourth-consecutive national title in the race of truth. Zabriskie has not been beaten on the Greenville course, although Tom Zirbel (Bissell) came close in 2008, finishing five seconds off Zabriskie’s winning time of 40.39.
This could be Zirbel’s year to pull on the stars and stripes skinsuit. He won nearly every NRC time trial in 2009, including the final tune-up prior to the championships at the Tour of Utah. The individual NRC leader outpaced Zabriskie by 23 seconds in Utah and threw his hat into the ring as co-favorite. The Utah course was nearly pancake flat and served as an indicator of the specialists’ form ahead of nationals.
Other favorites for the time trial include Steven Cozza (Garmin-Slipstream) and Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies).
Riders will contest the 110-mile road race on Sunday. The road race follows two circuits – one long and one short – and includes four ascents of Paris Mountain near Furman University. The climb has factored heavily in each of the championships since 2006, whittling the lead group each year to a handful of leaders and launching George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton to wins in 2006, 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Defending champion Hamilton will not be at the start in Greenville after accepting his second racing ban for doping earlier this year. This is the second consecutive year that the defending champion will be absent – Leipheimer missed the 2008 championships to ride the Vuelta a España. Leipheimer will also miss the start on Sunday, still recovering from a fractured wrist suffered in stage 13 at the Tour de France.
The bulk of the race-making is likely to fall to the Garmin-Slipstream squad, which placed three riders in the top four in 2008. The ProTour team’s development squad recently swept the men’s U23 national championships in Bend, Oregon.
With Columbia-HTC teammate Craig Lewis expected to be out with the H1N1 virus, 2006 champion and hometown favorite Hincapie will face a difficult task, riding solo on Sunday. Hincapie was heavily marked in 2008 and should see the same level of attention in 2009.
Fresh off strong results at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, the BMC Racing Team, where some say Hincapie will ride in 2010, will rival Garmin-Slipstream’s firepower in Greenville. BMC lists seven riders on the preliminary startlist, with Jeff Louder and Brent Bookwalter both capable of podium finishes Sunday afternoon. Louder finished fifth in Greenville in 2008 and hopes to continue the form that landed him the highest American finish at last week’s Tour of Utah, in third overall.
Other domestic teams will bring their “A” games to Greenville in a bid to upset the heavyweights. Many of the domestic leaders have directed their late season focus to the final two weeks of August in order to peak ahead of the Tour of Utah and the national championships.
Domestic favorites to factor in the finale include Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell), Chris Baldwin (OUCH-Maxxis), Andrew Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia). Each have shown good form recently, although Bajadali abandoned in Utah with respiratory illness and Zajicek, who suffered severe cramping in Utah, will ride solo.
Coming at the peak of contract season and allowing teams to field all of their American license holders, the road race is a uniquely tactical race. Riders like Ted King (Cervélo TestTeam) who ride for international teams line up against teams fielding rosters of anywhere between two and ten riders.
In 2006, Zabriskie and Leipheimer, who rode for CSC and Gerolsteiner, respectively, shared race radio and caravan support with Hincapie, his Discovery Channel teammate Jason McCartney and their director Viatcheslav Ekimov.
Assuming they make the breakaway on Sunday, a team like Garmin-Slipstream, which fields arguably the strongest squad in the race, will be able to ride defensively for much of the race, awaiting the perfect opportunity to attack. This tactic failed the team in 2008, however, as Blake Caldwell lost the two-up sprint to Hamilton by a tire width.
With Garmin expected to play a dominant role on Sunday, it may be well worth watching what kind of cooperation – if any – Hincapie gets from BMC riders in the field. It might well provide an early answer to speculation about his plans for next season.
Weather on the way
With thunderstorms and temperatures in the upper 80’s F forecasted this weekend, weather could play a central role in the outcome of both races. Tropical Storm Danny is approaching the Carolina coast as well and could bring heavy rains and winds to Greenville. Windy, wet conditions could make the start order in Saturday’s time trial very important, as riders attempt to out-whit Mother Nature.
In the road race, a strong, attentive team could shred the peloton in heavy winds, while the technical inner circuit could become treacherous in the rain, allowing a strong-willed rider to jump away from the group near the finish.
Whether under sunny skies or a cloak of rain, new national time trial and road race champions will raise their arms atop the podium this weekend in Greenville.
Editor’s Note: Registration for the championships is open until Friday evening. VeloNews.com will publish a start list as soon as possible after registration closes.