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By Bryan Jew, Assistant managing editor
Rain poured down on Philadelphia on Saturday, putting a damper on the pre-race festivities at the Wachovia USPRO Championship, but rain or shine, Sunday’s race promises to be just as much of a classic as any of the previous 18 editions. As always, the U.S. professional teams have brought out their “A” squads, and they will be tested by six European teams intent on winning the most prestigious race in America. Heading the list of contenders will be the Danish CSC team, which won both of the lead-up events to USPRO, with Jakob Piil winning in Lancaster on Tuesday and Julian Dean taking a field-sprint victory in Trenton on Thursday.
Despite Saturday’s wet weather, a repeat of the tough conditions at Lancaster — where Piil won on a wet, cold evening – seems unlikely. Sunday’s forecast calls for a chance of showers early, but with the sun coming out by afternoon. If the temperatures reach the forecast high of 80 degrees F, heat and humidity could become a factor late in the day.
The race covers three opening laps of one-mile on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, followed by 10 laps of the main 14-mile circuit, which includes the famed Manayunk Wall and the two shorter climbs of Strawberry Meadows and Lemon Hill. After the 10 main laps, the race concludes with three-laps of a 3-mile finishing circuit
Although CSC goes in as a strong favorite, it’s impossible to discount the chances of any of the top contenders, including two-time champion Fred Rodriguez (Vini Caldirola), the Navigators squad of defending champion Mark Walters, this year’s U.S. powerhouse Saturn squad, U.S. Postal Service and Prime Alliance.
“[CSC] looks really good, but Philadelphia’s a strange race,” said 2000 winner Henk Vogels of Navigators. “It’s never really the favorite who wins it. It’s a long race, with a lot of people watching each other, and it can be the foreigner who takes off to win too.”
And, said Saturn’s Mark McCormack, things are in a constant state of flux during the six-hour day in the saddle. “One-day racing is unique. Every race is different and you have to be able to bounce from plan to plan to plan and figure out what’s going to happen by the end of the race,” he said. “You go into a race like Sunday with a pre-set plan, but things change lap to lap in that race. Fortunately we have a team with a lot of depth, and hopefully that will play into our favor.”
Running concurrently with the USPRO race will be the women’s Wachovia Liberty Classic, now in its 10th season. The race’s history has been dominated by Germany’s Petra Rossner, who has won six of the past seven races, including the last five consecutive. Those last five came with the U.S.-based Saturn squad, but this year Rossner makes the trip to Philadelphia with the German Nurnberger team.
After years of riding with the Saturn squad and enjoying leadouts from the likes of Anna Millward and Ina Teutenberg, Rossner will still have a strong supporting cast, including recent Tour de l’Aude winner Judith Arndt.
“I’m here with a really strong team, including the No. 4 rider in the world [Arndt],” said Rossner earlier in the week. “She’s always given me a great leadout.”
Although Rossner has dominated the Liberty Classic, she wouldn’t go so far as to predict a sixth consecutive victory. “It gets harder and harder to win it,” she said. “The day I think I’m going to win this race will be the day I lose it.”
Meanwhile, Saturn will try to keep its team win streak alive, with last year’s second-place finisher Laura Van Gilder or Teutenberg hoping to step up and fill Rossner’s shoes. And the American T-Mobile squad, coming off Amber Neben’s win at the recent Montreal stage race should also pose a strong threat, led by Dede Demet Barry, Kimberly Bruckner and Neben.
The women will cover four laps of the 14.4-mile circuit, for a total of 57.6 miles.
The USPRO Championship begins at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, with the women’s race starting at 9:10 a.m. Tune in to VeloNews.com for live coverage from Philadelphia.