September 4 - Weekly RapWhile most Americans were enjoying their Labor Day holiday weekend lounging at the beach, the best homegrown professional cyclists were engaged in hard labor to determine who would have the honor of wearing the stars & stripes jerseys as USPRO National Road Race and Time Trial Champions for the next year. George Hincapie and Dave Zabriskie won the rights respectively. To Greenville, South Carolina we go where for the first time ever, the national pro championships would be races held only for Americans. In the past, the title would go to the first American to cross the finish line, who was often not the race winner. But with the growth and depth of U.S. talent in professional cycling, USA Cycling made a great move in creating these "Americans only" championship races.
The time trial took place last Friday on a 20-mile course over rolling hills with the final three miles going through a housing development, which meant lots of corners making it very technical. Being the only American ever to have won time trials in all three Grand Tours, the hands down favorite was Amgen Tour of California runner-up Zabriskie (CSC). However, defending champ Chris Baldwin of Toyota-United wasn't going to just hand Zabriskie the jersey without a good fight. Baldwin earned the right to start last so he had the advantage of using the times Zabriskie set to pace himself. At the halfway point, Baldwin had an eight-second advantage. With 500 meters to go, Baldwin had eleven seconds in hand and was about to pull off a stunning upset. He was determined to prove that U.S. domestic pros could compete with the best ProTour riders in the world. And then the unthinkable happened. Baldwin came into the final corner with 400 meters to go red hot at over 40 mph. He overcooked it and down he went. They got him back up quickly and had to put him onto another bike, but the title had slipped through his grasp. Zabriskie got the win with Baldwin finishing 32-seconds back. Discovery Channel's Jason McCartney took third.
Greenville happens to be the adopted home of Discovery Channel's Hincapie so he not only had his family and friends there cheering him on, but he had the advantage of knowing the roads and has trained on them for years. Sunday's 121-mile race included five trips up Paris Mountain, which is 2.2 miles long. It was a race of attrition with the ProTour riders – Hincapie, Zabriskie, McCartney and Levi Leipheimer – seemingly working together to make the race as hard as possible to break the legs of the domestic racers who had the advantage of teammates. And hard the race was as only 31 of the 100+ starters finished. Each time up the mountain, McCartney, Zabriskie or Leipheimer attacked, while Hincapie saved himself for the finale. The pack was quickly decimated by the merciless pace set on the climb. On the final trip to the summit, Hincapie surveyed the small pack of survivors and unleashed a fierce assault. Amgen Tour of California's King of the Mountains Leipheimer recovered and chased Hincapie down. Jelly Belly's Andrew Bajadali was somehow able to hang on for a while until he cramped up and had to settle for 7th. Former and soon to be teammates Hincapie and Leipheimer rolled on together until the final kilometer when Hincapie launched again to claim his second national pro title in his career. He won solo and taking it in front of his family and hometown fans proved to be an emotional experience and a highlight in an already memorable career.
Up next for the domestic peloton is the Univest Grand Prix this coming weekend in Souderton, Pennsylvania. The big guns from Navigators Insurance, Toyota-United and Colavita-Sutter Home will be doing battle, including two-time Amgen Tour of California stage winner J.J. Haedo.
Over to Europe we go. First stop: Spain. The first week of the final Grand Tour of this season is in the books and it has been a thrilling week at the Vuelta a Espana indeed. From the "never say die" file comes Erik Zabel (Milram), who finally took out a Grand Tour stage win, his first since 2003 after repeatedly coming in 2nd and 3rd. With temperatures over 100 degrees, the 36-year-old scorched the uphill sprint finish in stage 4. Stage 5 was the first mountain stage with four to conquer over 178 kms in cooler temperatures. The race was sparked by plenty of attacks and counterattacks. Last year's ProTour winner Danilo DiLuca (Liquigas) barely got the win over 22-year-old Janez Brajkovic (Discovery Channel), who was the only one able to hang onto the Italian's wheel after he attacked with 3 km to go, putting race favorites Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) and Carlos Sastre (CSC) into difficulty. Both lost a little time, but none more than sprint star Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), who failed to make the time cut and was sent home. Credit Agricole's Thor Hushovd won stage 6 in a pack sprint after 177-km of flat roads. Back to the mountains for stage 7, it was Valverde who captured the win. Astana's always aggressive leader Alexandre Vinokourov launched with Brajkovic, but Valverde proved to be the better sprinter. Although he came to the race to gain experience and support teammate Tom Danielson, Brajkovic put on the golden leader's jersey after finishing seven seconds behind Valverde. Stage 8 was a 181-km transitional stage between mountains and it proved to be a very fast race. The last kilometer was mostly uphill and the tenacious Vino won by one-second over the peloton. Proving to be a true contender for the overall, Vino came right back the next day to win stage 9. It was the queen stage, 207 kms long with six mountain climbs. It played out like a heavyweight title fight with the fighters trading blow after blow in the final kilometers. Vino attacked with teammate Andrei Kashechkin with 7 km to go. Valverde countered with 2 km to go, which dropped Sastre, DiLuca and Jose Angel Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and reeled in Kashechkin, but Vino could not be corked. He took out his second consecutive stage and the golden jersey landed on Valverde's shoulders, his first ever in a Grand Tour. Two more weeks of racing to go and it looks as if it's going to be a battle royale between Valverde, Vino and Kashechkin.
In the United Kingdom, the Tour of Britain was held last week. CSC's Martin Pedersen got his first professional win by winning stage 1 in a three-man break. Racing in his home country on loan from Discovery Channel, Roger Hammond sprinted to victory in stage 2, the same stage he won last year. 19-year-old Matt Goss (South Australian.com-AIS) got the GC lead after collecting valuable time bonuses out on the road. That was impressive enough for CSC to sign the Australian teenager for next season. Pedersen reclaimed the lead after stage 3, which was won by Quick Step's Filippo Pozzato, who attacked with 15 km to go and held on to win by 32 seconds over the CSC- and T-Mobile-driven pack. Three men, including two Brits, got away and stayed away in stage 4 to finish with a five-minute advantage over the peloton. Unfortunately for the host country, the win went to non-Brit Frederik Willems (Chocolade Jacques). Controversy ensued in Stage 5 when the riders decided not to contest the stage after they were lead off course by an errant course marshal and to protest what they felt were poor security conditions. After riding the stage at a pedestrian's pace, the peloton raced the final 30 km with Quick Step's Francesco Chicchi collecting the stage win after receiving a lead-out from World Champion Tom Boonen. The tour wrapped in London the next day with an 82 km criterium won by Boonen. Pedersen held on to win the overall with his CSC teammate Andy Schleck taking home the King of the Mountains prize and the UK's own Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) earning the points jersey.
In France, the Tour de l'Avenir is the "race of the future." Pro racers under the age of 23 are competing in a ten-stage race. After four stages, 22-year-old Nicholas Roche (Cofidis) has the lead after scoring his first pro win in a sprint finish. The young Irishman is following in his father's footsteps. Stephen Roche won the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championship.
The seven-stage Tour of Poland commenced on Monday and defending champion Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) is back as the race favorite. The champion of Luxembourg won last year's event by a scant five seconds over Pieter Weening, while two others finished within eighteen seconds. This year, his competition might come from Eneco Tour winner Stefan Schumacher and Fabian Wegmann of Gerolsteiner and the Liquigas duo of Stefano Garzelli and Vincenzo Nibali. Discovery Channel's Max Van Heeswijk notched his first win of the season with a victory in a stage 1 pack gallop.
The Cool Down
Sad news arrived from the HealthNet camp with an announcement about the premature retirement of 24-year-old New Zealander Hayden Roulston due to a serious heart condition. Roulston, who competed in the Amgen Tour of California before going on to win a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games, was diagnosed with a rare form of heart disease. He had been hoping to hang on until the 2008 Olympic Games, but unfortunately that's no longer possible. We all wish him well.
Two-time Giro d' Italia winner Gilberto Simoni is planning to wrap his 2006 racing season in a very unconventional way for one of the top road racers in the ProTour peloton. Simoni, an exceptional climber, will be competing in five mountain bike races over the next month.
It appears that not everyone is thrilled to have a Grand Tour stage take place on their local streets. After Vuelta a Espana stage 4 was completed, a resident of Caceres went to the police station to file papers citing the peloton for racing through town at 60 km in a 50 km zone. Word is the local police got a good chuckle out of that one…