August 21 - Weekly RapWe're going to lead off this week in the good ol' U-S-of-A as the USPRO Criterium Championship was held this past weekend in Downer's Grove, Illinois with a stars & stripes jersey up for grabs. Since the field included international racers, the national title would go to the first American to cross the finish line. They raced Saturday on the same course as kind of a "dress rehearsal" and then came back the next day with the national championship at stake. It was a typically hot Mid-Western summer day, which made the 100-km race even more challenging. On this course, after an uphill charge, it becomes a race to the last corner. Heading into the final corner Sunday was TIAA CREF's Brad Huff and Toyota-United's Tony Cruz. The two were banging their handlebars as they hugged the corner, with Cruz, who won the title in 1999, being forced to the inside. As they drag raced to the line, Navigators Insurance's Hilton Clarke came rocketing around them to take the big win with Huff taking second and Cruz in third. However, Clarke is Australian, thus Huff claimed his first national championship along with the red, white & blue jersey to wear for the next year.
Up next for the domestic pros is the Chris Thater Memorial Criterium in Binghamton, New York on August 26th & 27th.
On the other side of the Atlantic, two stage races were running concurrently. Formerly known as the Tour du Benelux, the Eneco Tour kicked off August 16th and will finish this Wednesday. It's a seven-stage ProTour race that was won last year by Amgen Tour of California 3rd place finisher Bobby Julich (CSC). Having crashed out of the Tour de France in dramatic fashion with a broken wrist, Julich dropped out of the Eneco race before the third stage. Mentally his head wasn't in the game and after a long tiring season, he headed back to the States to rest and start planning for next season. Discovery Channel's George Hincapie again found himself taking a frustrating second place in the opening prologue by less than one second to Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher. But he wasn't going to let it happen again. In stage 4, a technical time trial on wet roads, Hincapie finally got the well-deserved stage win by .14-second over Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), which also put the American into the red leader's jersey, three seconds ahead of Schumacher. World Champion Tom Boonen (Quick.Step-Innergetic) won three stages thus far, including stage 5, which finished in his hometown making his twentieth victory of the season especially sweet. With two more stages to go, look for the Disco boys to help Big George hang onto the overall win. It won't be easy though as the race will be hitting some of the difficult terrain in Holland and Belgium that many of the riders faced during the spring classics.
In Southwest Germany, the five-stage Rothhaus-Regio Tour launched August 16th marked by the return of T-Mobile stars Andreas Kloden and Michael Rogers in their first significant races since their sensational performances at the Tour de France. And they did not disappoint. Kloden got the overall win over his teammate Rogers and the duo dominated the race. Kloden took second in stage 2. In stage 3, Rogers got the win with Kloden at his side ahead of the peloton. Having utilized his time-trialing ability in the Tour de France to steal a podium position, Kloden again displayed his time-trialing prowess by taking out the stage 4 win. Of note in the Regio Tour was the return of sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) in his first stage race since he crashed out early in the Giro de Italia with a broken kneecap. The Italian was using the race to ride himself back into form. He let it rip on the stage 5 sprint and seemed pleased to have taken fifth place proving that his speed is coming back.
The third and final Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana is set to get started this Saturday, August 26th. Rabobank's Denis Menchov returns as defending champion. After delivering a top result last year, Discovery Channel will be fully supporting Tom Danielson in his first leadership role in a Grand Tour. But this is Spain's national tour and they will be sending lots of muscle into battle. Back from his stage 3 crash at the Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde has fully recovered from his broken collarbone and he'll be a favorite of the host country's fans. However, Valverde will be sharing the Caisse de'Espargne-Illes Balears team leadership with Tour de France podium finisher Oscar Pereiro. Incredibly CSC's Carlos Sastre will be making the start of his third Grand Tour this season and he'll be looking to improve upon the great finishes he scored in Italy and France in his home country's race. You can never count out Alexandre Vinkourov (Astana) either as he comes into the race super-motivated. Vino always comes to race and race aggressively. Many of the sprinters you saw light it up in the Tour de France will be in Spain, including former World Champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Erik Zabel and his Milram teammate Petacchi, and this year's Tour de France points jersey winner Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto). McEwen dominated the sprint finishes in France and if he's fully recovered, look for him to add more Grand Tour stage wins to his already impressive collection over the three-week race. There won't be many Americans competing in Spain, but McEwen will have teammate Chris Horner (Bend, Oregon) in a supporting role.
The Cool Down
It was a special day for Canadian Gord Fraser at the USPRO Criterium Championship. While he would have been unable to hold the American title, the race had personal significance for the HealthNet star sprinter: it was his last National Racing Calendar event in his remarkable thirteen-year career. Fraser raced in North America for most of his career, but he also had success in Europe where he won stages of the Criterium International, the Tour of Asturias, and GP Rennes. The three-time Olympian has won more than 200 races and won the NRC points title twice.
"You never get tired of winning. Sometimes even if it's just a small local race, if you give everything you can to win, it can be just as satisfying as winning a big race," said Fraser, who will be involved with several upcoming cycling camps while searching for his next big challenge. "For the fans, just the fact that I've done the best I could, always given 100 percent, whether it's with the responsibility of winning or helping a teammate. I've always given every race 100 percent of my ability." With an attitude like that, although Fraser didn't win this past weekend, he leaves pro cycling as a winner.