By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
The final — and most important — day of the three-race Wachovia Cycling Series is set to go, and the man to beat is American Fred Rodriguez. At least that’s the hot tip based on betting odds posted by Sportsbook.com. The online casino has made the winner of Thursday’s race in Trenton, New Jersey, a 5-to-2 favorite in the field of 178 riders that will contest the 156-mile USPRO Championship in Philadelphia starting at 9 EST Sunday morning.
But Rodriguez, who is coming off three hard weeks at the Giro d’Italia, isn’t so sure the smart money will be on him. The Acqua & Sapone rider knows he will be a marked man, and that will make things difficult.
“If everything goes according to plan, then I’ve got a chance,” said the last U.S. rider to win the event outright (2001). “But the odds are probably against me, because all the other teams are going to be watching me.”
Rodriguez also admitted that his team’s strategy will be centered on the U.S. national championship jersey given to the top finishing American, rather than the overall race win. “Obviously you’d like to get both,” he said. “But yeah, the jersey is more important for us.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by America’s top domestic pro, Chris Horner of Webcor, who along with CSC’s Bobby Julich and Postal’s Max van Heeswijk, is second to Rodriguez on the betting board at 7-to-2.
“We’ll be racing for the jersey,” said Horner, who downplayed the significance of the $40,000 first place prize (the total purse is $135,00). “The extra money would be nice, but if I get in a good break with three Euros, even if those guys can beat me in a sprint, you better believe I’ll be driving that break.”
At least one of the American-based teams will not be taking the jersey-first attitude. Navigators says it’s all about the race win, with Aussie Henk Vogels tabbed as their No. 1 man.
“That’s bullshit,” said the 2000 race winner and course record holder. “This is the biggest one-day race in America and the guy who wins it is an instant legend. To say you’re not going for the race win, that’s almost funny.”
The general consensus is that the race will be decided by either a late-race breakaway or a field sprint.
“The strategy for us will be to wait until about three laps to go,” said Horner of the race that will see riders contest 10 laps of the main 14.4-mile circuit, which includes the famed 17-percent climb up the Manayunk Wall, before contesting three 3-mile laps on the finishing circuit near downtown Philly. “You assume the winning break will come from there.”
This was not the case a year ago, though, when Saeco’s Stefano Zanini charged out of a peloton that had been whittled to 30 men, edging Uros Murn and Julian Dean at the line. Then-Saturn rider Mark McCormack was the fourth man across the line, giving him the U.S. national title.
Among the powerhouse European teams that have made their way across the Atlantic is the Danish-based CSC formation. But without a huge card to play in the sprint, director sportiff Sean Yates isn’t overly optimistic.
“The course just isn’t really tough enough for us to make the difference,” conceded Yates. “You’ve got one hill in it, and after that you’ve got 30 kilometers to recover. Obviously we’ve got strong riders, but it’s not possible to make the race hard because it’s too easy to sit on.
“So basically you’ve got to keep things under control and not flick yourself by letting a breakaway get away with the wrong people in it. You have to hold fire and keep a lid on things as long as possible.”
If CSC can pull this off, Yates pointed to Jakob Piil as his team’s best hope.
“Jakob really wants to win this race,” said Yates of the 1999 Philly victor. “It would make him the only guy to do it twice and he’s very motivated.”
Piil, who won last year’s Lancaster event on a wet and nasty day, likely won’t get any help from the skies above this year. Although it was cold and rainy all day Saturday in Philadelphia, the weathermen are calling for a dry and mild race day, with a high of 71 and only a 10-percent chance of rain.
“I’d prefer if it heated up,” Rodriguez said. “I like it when it’s warm. It puts the hurt on other people and narrows the field.”
Tune in to VeloNews just after the start of the race for live lap-by-lap coverage, then check back later in the day for a full report, results and photos. Race notes
While the men are doing battle for 156 miles, a huge 197-ride women’s field will be contesting the 57.6-mile Wachovia Liberty Classic starting at 9:10 p.m. Among the favorites will be last year’s victor, Canadian Lyne Bessette and six-time winner Petra Rossner.
Because of the relatively short distance, expect this race to come down to a field sprint unless someone can replicate Bessette’s last-lap attack from a year ago.
In the 10 years of this race, there has never been an American winner, but if you’re looking for someone to break that streak, it could be Genesis Scuba’s Tina Pic, who been on top form of late.
A live pre-race broadcast that was slated for 7 p.m. Saturday was scrapped by the local ABC affiliate because of special coverage on the death of former President Ronald Reagan. The station still plans on airing live coverage of the race starting at 9 a.m. Sunday.
A day after banging his knee hard in a crash at the Trenton race, American Tim Johnson was spotted in the host hotel elevator looking and feeling better. Johnson said he was sore but would definitely be on the start line come Sunday.
The rest of the odds for Sunday are as follows:
Mark McCormack: 5-1
Mirko Celestino: 6-1
Jakob Piil: 8-1
Mark Walters: 15-1
Danny Pate: 18-1
Charles Dionne: 20-1
Gordon Fraser: 20-1
Michael Barry: 20-1
Tim Johnson: 25-1
Adam Bergman: 25-1
Cesar Grajales: 25-1
Henk Vogels: 25-1
Mariano Friedick: 25-1
John Lieswyn: 30-1
The Field: 2-1