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The Wachovia 2004 US Pro Championships Preview
 
By Jaime Nichols
Date: 6/5/2004
The Wachovia 2004 US Pro Championships Preview
 

Photos by Scott Schaffrick.

"Philly Week" culminates in the most prestigious and potentially career-defining race in the US calendar. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Wachovia US Pro Championship is the longest-running and richest single day event in the country, and one of the richest in the world. It's also a yearly celebration of summer in the streets of Philadelphia, a spectacle that regularly draws over half a million spectators, and is so much a part of the life of the city so that even those Philadephians who don't follow the non-stop thrills and drama of the sport of professional cycling know the names and faces of our hard-working heros like no where else in the country.

First run in 1985, and won by Eric Heiden, known better as an Olympic gold medal winning speed-skater, the Wachovia US Pro Championship is the flagship of Threshold Sports' Pro Cycling Tour, boasting the longest running sponsor relationship in American cycling - although the sponsor and with it, the race, have changed names twice over the event's 20 year history. The race will cover 156 miles (250 km) on a 14.4 mile course beginning and ending at Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in front of the steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From there, it heads north along the Schuylkill River, through the residential neighborhood of Manayunk before heading back over Lemon Hill, and the finish line.


Click for larger image.

The course features 10 slogs up the infamous "Manayunk Wall," a short, steep climb that wears the pack down and often makes the selections that decides the race in the final laps. With over six hours of racing, the other main difficulty is the sheer distance, which challenges US pros, who traditionally ride short, fast criteriums and circuit races.

The race's most defining feature is that it decides which of our worthy contenders will wear the stars and stripes, as the first American over the line is crowned the US Pro Champion. The International flavor of the race, with Americans marking each other in pursuit of the championship, and Europeans looking to take advantage of the race within the race to bid for the win, makes it a tactically complex, with, essentially, the potential to produce two victors - one who takes the prize overall, and one who steps into the jersey of the US Pro Champion.

We've got a bumper crop, here in Philadelphia, too. Looking especially good this year is former two-time US Pro Champion Fred Rodriguez, who has to be the hot favorite. Freddy will be a marked man, and he is, I would say, the most obvious choice; but he knows how to win here, and he's been showing all week that he has the legs, and his team will be dedicated to one purpose: getting him the jersey. If Fast Freddy makes it to the line, I wouldn't want to bet against him against any other man here.

Which is not to say he won't be up against a tough field. Right after Freddy, I'd have to tap the CSC Team. With only one American, Bobby Julich, who is returning from the shadows this season, they have a shot at the jersey, but Bobby J. himself told the Daily Peloton that the team's first priority will be the race win, and even if his Danish teammate wins the race, Julich could still win the race within the race. Since that's the case, they have a lot of cards to play. Jakob Piil has always ridden well here, and won the race in 1999. He'll be supported by a hard team with the likes of Tristan Hoffman and Lars Michaelson.

More than one guy this week has told me that defending Champion Mark McCormack is flying right now, and though he's been quiet all week, he's one that can surprise you. He's been a deserving US Pro Champion, and he could hang in. He's supported by some good horses in guys like Nathan O'Neill and Will Frischkorn, and McCormack's Cuban teammate Ivan Dominguez is one of the few who might be able to challenge Fast Freddy in a field sprint, should it come to that.

The US Postal service, as always, is nothing to shake a stick at. The first year I came to this race, the rider who impressed me most was Canadian Michael Barry who rode so hard that he collapsed over his handlebars. Barry is one that could hang on for victory while the Americans fight it out behind him. Among them, his teammates Tony Cruz, Dave Zabriskie, Damon Kluck, Pat McCarty and Michael Creed - are all strong riders; and let's not forget the unstoppable Max Van Heeswijk. Postal wants it outright this year, and they certainly have the manpower to make that happen.

Health Net is America's toughest team, with a roster that reads like a who's who of American cycling. Danny Pate is always a strong motor, and word is that Chris Wherry and Jason McCartney have excellent form. Gord Fraser is another sprinter who could punk F-Rod if the chips fall his way, and you can't shake a stick at Mike Sayers or recently crowned track World Champion Greg Henderson, but I'm going with my sentimental favorite, and that's American cycling legend John Lieswyn. He's been riding like a man on fire all week long, and reports that he's still got some juice in the tank. Seeing Lieswyn crowned US Pro Champion would truly be justice for a man with a career like his, and we may not have him for much longer.

And then, there's Chris Horner. It feels ridiculous to be mentioning him so late in this article, but Horner has been saving up all week for Sunday. He's had a tough time getting prepared for this race. It's not the best time of the year for him to be on top form, and he's disadvantaged by a team that can't match these others in strength, man for man; but if he wants it, it never pays to underestimate Horner's chances. Horner is a tough, determined customer, and he's pretty darned savvy on a bike. He will be able to key off of the other favorites, and a well timed attack from him would be tough to bring back.

I can't call this a preview of the race without mentioning Henk Vogels, who's had an amazing comeback from potentially career-ending injuries. It's not your everyday guy who can go from not being able to walk six months ago, to riding the US Pro Championships. Henk won here in 2000, setting the all-time course record at 5:52:11, riding for Mercury. It's been a hard road back from his devastating crash at the end of last season, but Henk is a powerhouse, and his team is always in the action.

Also strong is Jelly Belly's Adam Bergman. He'll be underestimated by most of the field and he could do some damage. He's got strong teammates in Alex Candelario and Ernie Lechuga, and you can't get a better lead out into the Manayunk Wall than Jonas Carney. Trent Klasna says his form isn't what it was, but he could still find it, maybe "under a rock" somewhere. He could suprise us, and his teammate on the Sierra Nevada Team, Eric Wohlberg, is never far from the top.

That's a lot of trouble right there, and I'm not even mentioning most of the European riders. Freddy Rodriguez told us the other day that it was his belief that it would be the Americans who would animate this race - these guys are hungry for this one - and I think he's right.

The posters for the race around here say "For the 20th straight year, brotherly love takes a day off," and I think there are a lot of tough guys around here gearing up for a battle. It should be a brilliant 20th anniversary edition of the Wachovia US Pro Championships!

 
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