The elite men's World Championship Road Race title will be decided this Sunday in Hamilton on a circuit that is being described as the toughest years, and an American team that is up to the task will contest it. The circuit, beginning and ending on main street in front of Hamilton's City Hall, is 21 laps on a short 12.4km circuit, for 260.4kms of hard labor against the toughest competition, the course featuring two climbs up the Niagara Escarpment per lap.
Those climbs are not particularly long or steep - the first is little more than a kilometer and a half with a 4.0% grade, and the second is 2.5km, on a 4.2% incline - but they will come hard and fast on the short course, and the pace will be hot. After a total of 42 grinds up the hills without much flat in between, with precious little room for recovery, it's going to take an all-around tough man with good team support to grit out the course, stay with the top dogs and claim the big prize. The strong Italian squad, lead by the nigh-unbeatable Paolo Bettini, who has already scored one rainbow jersey this season in the World Cup, is highly favored, and it's going to take a strong squad putting in a total effort to keep this race in hand, but Bettini will be a marked man, and as is the case in any bike race, and especially on a course this tough, there's room for surprises.
Last year, the Team USA struggled in the Worlds Road Race with a short-handed team, but this year, with the race in Canada, is taking and unprecedented full squad of 12 riders, and they head into the battle with a very real chance of victory.
George Hincapie leads the charge for Team USA in Hamilton. Big George is America's best one day racer, and after two seasons without a victory, and the early part of this year lost to illness, the pressure is no doubt on, and his motivation will be as high as it ever has been. The characteristics of the course in Hamilton suit the hard man. It's going to be a tough one, but Hincapie is a tough man, so I like his chances.
Courtesy of USPS/Berry Floor
Hincapie gets tough at Le Tour
Hincapie's greatest strengths as a racer are his steadiness and consistency, his doggedness and grinta in races of attrition, and the fact that every time he gets on his bike for serious, he rides with total commitment, leaving every last thing on the road. It's a good course for him: the short power climbs and endurance needed on this course will suit his strengths. If he stays with the leaders, he will stand a good chance in a sprint. Hincapie has the class to finish with the best in Hamilton, and those qualities will stand him in good stead on Sunday. On the flipside, there are those who say that Hincapie lacks that inner killer who has the aggressiveness to drive the victory home; that he doesn't know how to win. If winning is a habit, Hincapie certainly has a hump to get over after two dry years, and with all the talent on the road in Hamilton, Hincapie will be something of an underdog; but there can be no doubt that the strength is in him, so that will be a good place to be, and he will give it everything he has.
Hincapie left the Vuelta a week early this year to concentrate all his efforts on the Worlds, and he's been tough to reach in recent weeks, but that's probably because he's been doing 7 hours per day on his own, and that he is on it. Without much in the way of recent results, he could be underestimated by the competition, but his chances are legitimate, and he's got a strong team behind him.
Courtesy of USPS/Berry Floor
Hincapie and Landis working for the man in France
Hincapie will be joined by two of his US Postal/Berry Floor teammates: versatile super domestique Floyd Landis and the always strong Christian Vande Velde. Like Hincapie, both Vande Velde and Landis have had some setbacks this season, and will be motivated to shine. Landis lost a big part of his year to recovery from a broken hip, climbing into the saddle just in time to give it up big in both the Tour and the Vuelta, putting in stellar support rides for his captains. If he's got some of that form left in his body, he will be a huge asset and a big support to Hincapie. Vande Velde has spent the better part of this year rehabilitating back and hip injuries and leg strength imbalances, but word on the street is that he's flying now, and Vande Velde in form is certainly man enough for this job.
Leipheimer in the Vuelta
Three more men on the Team USA roster are seasoned European racers coming to Hamilton with the Vuelta a Espaņa in their legs: Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich and Italian with a U.S. racing license, Guido Trenti. Leipheimer is the fourth man on this roster coming into this race with the motivation of a tough season behind him. Leipheimer bet the farm on the Tour de France this year only to have the rug pulled out from under him on the first stage, when he broke his tailbone in the same crash that gave Tyler Hamilton his badge of honor. Leipheimer started slow this year in the Vuelta, but seemed to be finding his form in the final week. Like Hincapie, Landis and Vande Velde, he will be relatively fresh after his curtailed season, and will want to do a good ride. Bobby Julich lost his place on the Telekom squad this year, and hasn't made a decision about his fate for next year. He's a good support man, and the job search may give him extra steam. Guido Trenti, too, is a strong, solid professional. In last year's World Championships, he was Freddy Rodriguez's strongest ally, and there's no reason to believe he won't do the same active duty in Hamilton.
The rest of the team is filled out with the cream of the U.S.- based crop, and while the competition will almost certainly underestimate them, they're nothing to scoff at. While it's true that U.S.-based riders are at a disadvantage in preparing for a race of this length, due to the fact that while Euro riders are going the distance something like 100 times per year, opportunities for that kind of racing and depth of field are few and far between in the U.S.; but it isn't a lack of talent that holds them back. With home-continent and time-zone advantage and the inspiration of being part of this excellent full 12 man squad, this year could be a whole new story. These guys are no slouches, and I'm looking for them to break out a few suprises.
Photo by Jaime Nichols
One tough customer: Chris Horner
For Chris Horner, this season has been nothing but net. To hit only a few of the highlights, he kicked it off with a victory at Redlands, followed that up with an overall trouncing of the competition at the inaugural Tour de Georgia, led his teammate out for the stars and stripes jersey, and capped it off with a big, brilliant win on the streets of San Francisco. Chris is a tough, savvy bike racer, he knows how to win, and he knows how to ride as a selfless teammate, as well. He did his stint in Europe, and knows what he's facing. He's got plenty of experience and knows how to prepare. With the demise of the Saturn team, and unless a great new sponsor or two finds its way into the U.S. racing scene, Horner is going to be exactly the kind of guy it's hardest to employ - a racer who's worth money, and accustomed to making it, in a cash poor market - and he has plenty of reasons to ride hard. He's dangerous, and I'd look for him should Hincapie falter.
Photo by Jaime Nichols
Clinger in Manhattan Beach
Prime Alliance's David Clinger falls into the same category. He's young, talented and knows what it feels like to race the best of the best. He's a good all-day tough guy, and he's got a quick finish. Clinger has had a good year with a stage victory in Georgia, an overall victory in Housatonic/Tour of Connecticut, and dozens of podium appearances and strong rides all year long on the U.S. Circuit. He's trains long and hard in the coastal mountains in Southern California, so he's doing the time, and like Horner, he's a guy that has plenty of reasons to give it all he's got in Hamilton. At the very least, he will be killer support for Hincapie, and he has it in his power to put in a surprising ride.
Photo by Jaime Nichols
Lieswyn smiles in San Francisco
John Lieswyn and 2003 USPRO Champion Mark McCormack are well and deservedly respected journeymen of the American racing scene. Lieswyn is an incredible racer and character - he's tenacious, tactically savvy, a dedicated team player, tough as nails, and he knows how to suffer like nobody's business. He's also had a brilliant season, scoring the overall victory at the GP Cycliste de Beauce, and just generally never failing to frickin' drive it all year long. Lieswyn has vowed unstinting support to Hincapie, and he's definitely capable of adding a big jolt of power to the effort. McCormack is a consummate professional, and his form has just gotten more and more impressive as the 2003 season wore on. He took the USPRO jersey as the first American in the bunch gallop in Philly, and followed his teammate, Chris Horner, to a breakaway second place in San Francisco. This course will be good for him, and if his form is holding, he's going to be a strong, dependable teammate.
Courtesy of www.navpro.com
Chris Baldwin victorious in Beauce
With the final two men named to the squad, current US Elite National Time Trial Champion Chris Baldwin, who, with podium placements in the Cascade Cycling Classic, the GP de Cycliste de Beauce, and the International/Tour de Toona in 2003, and American cyclo-cross superstar Tim Johnson, who has 2 victories in the Mt. Washington Hill Climb, and four National cyclo-cross titles to his name, there's hardly a dull spot on the roster. Baldwin is young, talented and has an undeniable engine, and Johnson's strength will be the climbs. Both riders will be excellent and useful teammates who will be more than capable of carrying out their orders on the road.
Photo by Jaime Nichols
Tim Johnson at Bike Camp
Finally, there has been some speculation in recent weeks about Freddy Rodriguez taking the place of one of the men above. No official announcement has been made on that possibility, but Freddy comes off an excellent performance in Spain, with top three finishes in the Vuelta in his legs. He's a strong sprinter, and the power climbs will suit him, as well. If he goes, he has said that he will have no personal ambitions, but will give it all up for his good friend George Hincapie. It's hard to want to replace any of the men on this roster, but if Rodriguez does step up, he can only add strength and depth to the team, which is why this is such a great year. Last year, USA Cycling couldn't round up a complete squad, and this year, with the race in North America, we can't give all comers a ride!
Bottom line: this is a strong team, with a worthy, motivated captain who has victory in his future, and they could do some damage Sunday.
Team USA for the Worlds:
Christian Vande Velde