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By Neal Rogers
To the delight of a partisan hometown crowd, Discovery Channel’s George Hincapie won the first-ever all-American national road championship in Greenville, South Carolina, Sunday, crossing the finish line alone in front of a decimated field that produced only 31 finishers. Fellow ProTour rider Levi Leipheimer of Gerolsteiner finished second, 16 seconds behind Hincapie, with TIAA-CREF’s Danny Pate rounding out the podium, 1:20 off the winning pace. It was Hincapie’s second national road championship, following a win in Philadelphia in 1998.
After 21 years of an international invitational in Philadelphia, with the first American across the line awarded the national title, the revamped national championship was considered anyone’s race over an untested 120.5-mile course that dished up five rolling 21.8-mile laps and three 3.7-mile finishing circuits in downtown Greenville.
Overcast skies, temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity of 67 percent greeted a field of 102 UCI-licensed American professionals. Hincapie came into the race as the overwhelming favorite, and from the first lap, his tactics were clear — to keep the pace high and make sure no breakaways were allowed to form. And Hincapie found an ally in Leipheimer, who competed in his final event in a Gerolsteiner jersey before joining Hincapie at Discovery in 2007. Leipheimer kept the pace hard all day, riding at the front of a dwindling field that was halved the first of five times over the 3-mile, 1000-foot climb up Paris Mountain, the course’s only major climb.
Riding without any American trade-team teammates, both Leipheimer and CSC’s Dave Zabriskie shared race radio and caravan support with Hincapie and his sole Discovery Channel teammate Jason McCartney, who were supported by former Discovery pro Viatcheslav Ekimov in his first race as a team director.
Zabriskie, who took a stars-and-stripes title of his own Friday in the national time trial championship, spent the week as Hincapie’s houseguest, and his allegiance to Hincapie was apparent when he and McCartney drove the pace on the second of five trips over Paris Mountain, halving the field again. Though both McCartney and Zabriskie were dropped from the lead group, from that selection the winning group was made. No major breakaways would develop; instead, the race was one of attrition, as Hincapie and Leipheimer whittled down the field until Hincapie attacked Leipheimer with 1km remaining and soloed across the finish line.
With the subsequent podium celebration, in front of friends and family with Hincapie’s wife, Melanie, a former Tour de France podium presenter, on stage to present the national championship jersey, the day seemed almost scripted for Hincapie.
“It was definitely a race of attrition,” Hincapie said. “I hoped that everybody went hard up the hill every time. I knew that it was going to be really hard and I was really dead at the end, but I knew that if I’m dead everybody else has got to be even more dead. The crowd was amazing. Everywhere I saw my name on the road, which are roads that I ride on everyday, and I heard my name from the beginning to end. And to have my family right here at the end of the race is just an amazing experience, really emotional.”
Though he ended up sixth, the breakthrough ride of the day came from Jelly Belly’s Andy Bajadali, the only domestic-based rider to survive the pace set by Leipheimer and Hincapie on the final, decisive trip over Paris Mountain on the fifth long lap. A fading Bajadali temporarily withstood double-pronged attacks by Hincapie and Leipheimer in the final 20 miles before dropping off the pace due to cramps and exhaustion.
Eight riders made it over Paris Mountain on that second climb — Hincapie, Leipheimer and Bajadali; Phil Zajicek and Burke Swindlehurst (Navigators Insurance); Chris Baldwin, Justin England and defending national road champion Chris Wherry (Toyota-United). Missing from the group was Health Net-Maxxis and TIAA-CREF, which entered the race with 14 riders.
As the lead group of eight crossed the finish line at the completion of two large laps, 44 miles into the race, a chase group led by six TIAA-CREF riders dangled just 20 seconds back. Leipheimer’s servitude to Hincapie became apparent as he brought bottles to his once and future teammate.
“I felt obligated since they were feeding me, and that was giving me a huge advantage, so I just did the professional thing,” Leipheimer said. “If I was going to go back and get bottles for myself, it doesn’t cost me any more energy to bring two more bottles to him, so it’s just a professional courtesy. They took care of me, and they didn’t have to. That’s about it.”
Soon after, TIAA-CREF’s Lucas Euser, Blake Caldwell, Mike Creed, Will Frischkorn, Craig Lewis and Pate bridged across the leaders, joined by Frank Pipp (Targetraining), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Kodakgallery.com-Sierra Nevada), Bernard Van Ulden (Navigators Insurnace), Todd Herriott (Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home) and Thad Dulin (Nerac-Outdoorlights.com). 54 riders in the main field, trailed 2:20 behind the leaders, including Zabriskie and McCartney, although none would see the front of the race again.
The lead group of 19 riders rode cohesively on lap 3, with Leipheimer, England and Dulin contributing to the pace while Wherry, Hincapie, Pate and Zajicek sat in as protected team leaders. On the third trip over Paris Mountain Leipheimer again set a punishing tempo, shedding Baldwin while Lewis struggled to keep contact. Showing his strength on the climb, Bajadali leapt ahead to take the $100 KOM prime.
“I felt great on the climb all day,” Bajadali said. “When I pre-rode the climb yesterday, I had a grin on my face. It was perfect for me.”
As the field came through the start/finish area to begin the fourth of five laps, Frischkorn and Creed attacked and opened a maximum lead of one minute. But Creed faltered at the base of the Paris Mountain climb and was quickly absorbed and shot out the back of the chasing leaders. Frischkorn was passed halfway up the climb, with Leipheimer again driving the group. Bajadali again snatched the $100 KOM prime at the top of the climb, while behind, Pate and Caldwell were the only TIAA-CREF riders remaining. Along with Leipheimer and Bajadali, the riders remaining were Zajicek and Swindlehurst, Jacques-Maynes, Hincapie, Wherry, Leipheimer and Bajadali.
With 5km remaining until the final summit over Mount Paris, Hincapie rotated through, pulled aside and assessed the remainders of the group. As the group made the right-hand turn to the base of the climb, Leipheimer again went to the front and this time, the Montana native buried himself with the intent of paring down the group one last time. Jacques-Maynes was first to pop, followed in succession by Caldwell, Zajicek, Swindlehurst and Wherry. Only Pate and Bajadali were able to match the ProTour strength of Hincapie and Leipheimer.
Climbing the roads that lead to his house nestled halfway up Paris Mountain, Hincapie attacked Leipheimer, Pate and Bajadali 1km from the summit. The move shed Pate, but as rain began to fall from the clouds that had hovered overhead all afternoon, Bajadali chased courageously, and with Leipheimer in tow, the 33-year-old Jelly Belly rider caught Hincapie on the descent.
As the trio rode over rolling roads back into downtown Greenville, Hincapie and Leipheimer began to attack and counterattack Bajadali, but the 2005 Tour of Utah overall winner was resilient, and even kept the pace up with occasional pulls at the front.
“You’re kind of forced to [pull through], because if you sit on, they play the teammate role, and one attacks and one sits,” Bajadali said. “So you’re better off working in that situation and keeping it away from the other riders and having an opportunity to pick up the win if the gap is big enough.
“We were trying to work out kind of a deal, you know, but I came here to race. Even if I finished off the podium, that didn’t really matter to me, I just wanted to race my bike and go for the win. I’m not content with second place. If you come down to the national championship with two of the best riders in the world, you want to compete. I faded at the end, but I think it was honorable.”
With only the three 3.7-mile circuits remaining and Pate one minute behind, it was clear that the winner of the race would emerge from this lead threesome. And with Bajadali sometimes dangling several bike lengths off the pace, a betting man would have to have put it all on Hincapie. Sensing the moment was right, Hincapie attacked again on the backside of the course, and this time, after Bajadali failed to respond, Leipheimer also left the frustrated Jelly Belly rider behind.
While Wherry, Pate and Swindlehurst worked together to reel in the leaders, Leipheimer chased after Hincapie, who lapped Jacques-Maynes and Caldwell on the small circuits. The 22-year-old Caldwell finished ninth, 2:51 down, as the last true finisher of the race; all other lapped riders were given prorated times. Frischkorn, who was attributed 10th place, was given a time gap of 9:15 to Hincapie.
Leipheimer caught Hincapie just as they crossed the finish line with one final lap remaining. And though there was anticipation in the crowd of several thousand over an exciting two-man battle for the win, in reality, the outcome had been decided long before. Hincapie attacked with 1km to go, and Leipheimer failed to respond.
“Man, I spent that last effort I had getting back up to him and it cost me that last ticket I had. My legs were completely finished,” Leipheimer said. “I was trying to trick him into not sprinting. But I’m happy. I did a good race.”
Hincapie called the win one of the brightest moments in his career.
“It was just really special,” Hincapie said. “I got up on the podium and I got really emotional. You know, I’ve been in this sport for 13 years now as a professional and I can count moments like this on one or two fingers. This is definitely a highlight. I’m super happy that I won, and thanks to Greenville.”
Asked about Leipheimer’s overwhelming contribution to the pace, Hincapie said the pair had similar interests. “It was in Levi’s best interest to make it as hard as possible also,” Hincapie said. “He’s one of, if not the best climber, in the world, so it was in his best interest to make it as hard as possible on the climb.”
Leipheimer acknowledged that he’d taken the lion’s share of the work, but said it was necessary to shed dead weight.
“Maybe I did more work,” Leipheimer said. “George could have done the same thing, but he was playing it more conservatively, making sure he was going to win. I was playing it more aggressively and using that climb to my advantage. I didn’t want to go up that climb easy once. I figured it was 45, 50 minutes of climbing, and I needed to take advantage of that.”
Behind, Pate jumped Wherry and Swindlehurst, passing Bajadali in the process. Swindlehurst outlasted Wherry for fourth, while Wherry also passed the depleted Jelly Belly rider, who trickled in for sixth, 1:49 behind Hincapie.
Last year’s champ said the race’s outcome was not a surprise. “Once I saw the course I knew what was going to happen,” Wherry said. “A couple of ProTour guys are the strongest guys in the race. Yeah, it could be tactical, but 15 TIAA-CREF guys aren’t going to go over the climb four times with George and Levi, so they whittle it down every time, and that’s that. You could try to get away on the flats and go up the road, but Will Frischkorn and Mike Creed tried that and they blew themselves up before they even got to the climb.”
Bajadali agreed that from the outset, the race was Hincapie’s to lose.
“It’s George’s hometown,” he said. “He was almost destined to win this thing, almost from its inception.”
1. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 0:16
3. Danny Pate (USA), TIAA-CREF, at 1:20
4. Burke Swindlehurst (USA), Navigators Insurance, at 1:25
5. Chris Wherry (USA), Toyota-United, at 1:38
6. Andrew Bajadali (USA), Jelly Belly, at 1:49
7. Ben Jacques-Mayne, (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, at 2:39
8. Phil Zajicek (USA), Navigators Insurance, same time
9. Blake Caldwell (USA), TIAA-CREF, at 2:51
10. Will Frischkorn (USA), TIAA-CREF, at 9:15
1. Georgie Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, 0:16
3. Danny Pate (USA), TIAA-CREF, 1:20
4. Burke Swindlehurst (USA), Navigators Insurance, 1:25
5. Chris Wherry (USA), Toyota-United, 1:38
6. Andrew Bajadali (USA), Jelly Belly, 1:49
7. Ben Jacques-Mayne (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, 2:39
8. Phil Zajicek (USA), Navigators Insurance, 2:39
9. Blake Caldwell (USA), TIAA-CREF, 2:51
10. William Frischkorn (USA), TIAA-CREF, 9:15
11. Justin England (USA), Toyota-United, 9:30
12. Todd Herriott (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, 10:46
13. Bernard Vanulden (USA), Navigators Insurance, 12:39
14. Shawn Milne (USA), Navigators Insurance, 13:08
15. Peter Stetina (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:09
16. Matt Shriver (USA), TTC, 13:09
17. Neil Shirley (USA), Jittery Joe's Coffee, 13:10
18. Bryan Smith (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:11
19. Curtis Gunn (USA), SLP, 13:12
20. Craig Lewis (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:13
21. Steven Cozza (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:13
22. Tim Johnson (USA), HWM, 13:13
23. Todd Henriksen (USA), VMG, 13:13
24. Hugh Moran (USA), AEG, 13:13
25. Tom Zirbel (USA), ABB, 13:15
26. Justin Spinelli (USA), NER, 13:16
27. Eneas Freyre (USA), TTC, 13:16
28. Lucas Euser (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:18
29. Ian Macgregor (USA), TIAA-CREF, 13:19
30. Todd Wells (USA), TTC, 15:08
31. Jeffrey Louder (USA), HWM, 18:36
Christpher Baldwin (USA), Toyota-United, DNF
Sterling Magnell (USA), Toyota-United, DNF
Chris Stockburger (USA), Toyota-United, DNF
Joshua Thornton (USA), Toyota-United, DNF
Keith Norris (USA), AEG, DNF
Jake Rubelt (USA), AEG, DNF
Gregory Wolf (USA), AEG, DNF
Zachary Grabowski (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, DNF
Mark Mccormack (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, DNF
Jonathan Page (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, DNF
Tyler Wren (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, DNF
Ian Ayers (USA), Colavita Olive Oil-Sutter Home, DNF
Roman Kilun (USA), HWM, DNF
Michael Jones (USA), HWM, DNF
Mike Sayers (USA), HWM, DNF
Scott Moninger (USA), HWM, DNF
Kirk O'Bee (USA), HWM, DNF
Doug Ollerenshaw (USA), HWM, DNF
Garrett Peltonen (USA), HWM, DNF
Kyle Gritters (USA), HWM, DNF
Kirk Albers (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
Alex Candelario (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
Brice Jones (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
David Mccook (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
Jeremy Powers (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
Nick Reistad (USA), Jelly Belly, DNF
Austin King (USA), Jittery Joe's Coffee, DNF
Jesse Anthony (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, DNF
Michael Dietrich (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, DNF
Jackson Stewart (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, DNF
Scott Zwizanski (USA), KodakGallery.com-Sierra Nevada, DNF
Thad Dulin (USA), NER, DNF
Jonathon Hamblen (USA), NER, DNF
Daniel Holt (USA), NER, DNF
Scott Edge (USA), NER, DNF
Eddy Hilger (USA), ABB, DNF
Robbie King (USA), ABB, DNF
Edward King (USA), ABB, DNF
Jake Rytlewski (USA), ABB, DNF
Brian Sheedy (USA), ABB, DNF
John Delong (USA), RAP, DNF
Christopher Herby (USA), RAP, DNF
Peter Penzell (USA), RAP, DNF
Daniel Ramsey (USA), SLP, DNF
Adam Livingston (USA), SLP, DNF
Ryan Yee (USA), SLP, DNF
William Elliston (USA), TTC, DNF
Daniel Greenfield (USA), TTC, DNF
Andrew Guptill (USA), TTC, DNF
Wesley Hartman (USA), TTC, DNF
Clayton Barrows (USA), AGI, DNF
Mike Friedman (USA), TIAA-CREF, DNF
Chad Hartley (USA), TIAA-CREF, DNF
Brad Huff (USA), TIAA-CREF, DNF
Tomas Barnet (USA), CAI, DNF
Alexander Boyd (USA), VMG, DNF
Phillip Gaimon (USA), VMG, DNF
Apostoltyson (USA), VBG, DNF
Jason Mccartney (USA), Discovery Channel, DNF