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UnitedHealthcare heads to crit nationals with two defending champs

Coryn Rivera and John Murphy aim to defend their national crit titles as the race moves to a new time slot, this Saturday in South Carolina

The blue and white UnitedHealthcare kit might as well have a target on the back this weekend at USA Cycling pro criterium national championships because the team heads into Saturday’s race with defending champs in both the men’s and women’s races in Greenville, South Carolina.

Coryn Rivera, 22, has proven herself as one of the top sprinters on the U.S. criterium circuit, and she’ll look to keep her stars-and-stripes jersey for another year.

“We are going to Greenville as a team with confidence and momentum. We are looking to keep the stars and stripes on the UnitedHealthcare Blue Train,” she said in a team press statement.

But when the UHC team takes to the .95-mile route through downtown Greenville, it will be up against the likes of Erica Allar (Colavita-Bianchi), who won the National Criterium Calendar (NCC) last year and was second behind Rivera at 2014 nationals. Samantha Schneider (ISCorp-SmartChoice MRI) rounded out last year’s crit nationals podium, and she too will be a rider to watch.

For her part, the youthful Rivera plans to rely on a strong team, which she credits for her success in 2014. “It was total team execution last year at crit nationals; we had just come off of a great weekend of crit racing at the Gateway Cup, and we proved, as a team, we are the best crit squad in the country.”

John Murphy is Rivera’s counterpart in the UHC men’s squad, and he also cited his team as a major component in his plans to double-up as criterium national champion.

“It’s an awesome feeling to be a national champion, but it’s impossible to do it without a strong team behind you,” he said.

An experienced group will back Murphy in Greenville, including Tanner Putt who recently returned from a successful early season campaign in Europe. Putt rode in an early breakaway at Scheldeprijs just two weeks ago. Putt will be joined by Brad White, who shared the 2014 podium with Murphy. They’ll also have support from Luke Keough, who was the top rider in the NCC last season.

The UHC squad will likely see challenges on a few fronts. Champion System-Stan’s No Tubes will bring a five-rider squad which includes Isaac Howe, who was fifth in last year’s NCC.

Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies’ Eric Young could also be a rider to watch. He won four races last season, including stage 5 at the Tour of Utah, and will have a strong team at his disposal, including Tom Zirbel and Phil Gaimon, who recently won the Redlands Bicycle Classic. Team SmartStop will also have a six-man squad in Greenville, including the reigning national road race champion, Eric Marcotte.

Among the many X-factors in Saturday’s race, perhaps the greatest unknown is how the domestic peloton will perform in the new, late-April time slot. Previously, the championships were held in September after a full summer of U.S. racing.

Rivera acknowledged this change, but looked on the positive side of things, saying, “We’ve only done a couple crits so far this year, but our teamwork hasn’t changed. It has been an honor representing the stars-and-stripes this year, even if that has only been three crits.”