Eric Marcotte has been a national champion before - in 2011, he won both the road race and criterium national championships for the Masters 30-35. The full time chiropractor from Scottsdale, Arizona, was a well known quality on the domestic racing scene, heading up the Elbowz elite amateur team for years. But in last year's Tour of Alberta, he and fellow Elbowz teammate Travis McCabe dabbled in the professional ranks, guest riding for Team SmartStop. The next year, both were full time professionals for the small domestic squad in the midst of a transition from focusing on the criterium circuit to stage races and road races.
Then, Marcotte, still working full time, won the national championships. McCabe was close behind in second. Garmin-Sharp's Alex Howes was the best placed World Tour rider in third and a number of other, supposedly stronger, teams were left with nothing in the wake of four hours of thrilling, unpredictable, tooth-and-nail racing.
The national championships are always a tactically interesting affair, pitting domestic teams with numbers against smaller World Tour or Professional Continental outfits with one, two, maybe five riders. BMC, Garmin-Sharp, Trek, and the like have the strongest riders, but they are outnumbered and oft looked at to control the race. Last year, Phil Gaimon - then on Bissell - almost won after a huge solo effort in the final circuits. Matthew Busche of Trek - a former national champion - ultimately closed down his move, only to have Freddy Rodriguez and others blow by him in the sprint. This year was no different with 5-hour Energy, Team SmartStop, Jamis, Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, United Health Care, and Optum - Kelly Benefits all putting riders in the large early breakaway. Marcotte and Julian Kyer, who placed fourth in the time trial on Saturday, were there for Smartstop. Garmin-Sharp had former national champ Ben King up the road too, though BMC and Trek decidedly missed out, largely due to low numbers.
The first trip up Lookout Mountain shredded the field and a bad crash involving Taylor Phinney - who is reocovering from surgery to fix a complex break of his left tibia and fibia - whittled down BMC's chances. The blistering pace set by Garmin, led by and working for Tom Danielson, Phil Gaimon, and Alex Howes, continued the work a lap later. BMC's Peter Stetina tried to bridge but failed. Later, Alex Howes would manage to jump across to the breakaway, taking McCabe with him, but the rest of the field was too small and too tired to close the large gap to the break at that point.
The fourth and final ascent of Lookout Mountain, an almost 3 mile long climb gaining 1,000 feet, saw Marcotte and others dropped from the break, but he regained contact on the descent and a group of 11 hit the final three circuits through downtown Chattanooga with the knowledge the winner would come from the group. And then all hell broke loose.
Ben King tried to split the group and pried off four other riders, but then the gap closed back as the groups went over the Tennessee River with two laps to go. Alex Howes gave it a go on the 20% grades of "the wall" with a lap and a half to go, but he only shed his teammate King and one other rider. Outnumbered, he could only watch as Scott Zwizanski, McCabe, and Jim Stemper rode up the road to a 20 second gap. But under impetus from Howes, the freshest looking of the group (100 miles pales in comparison to the 160 of the Ardennes classics he so loves), and Matt Busche, the gap came back down. Chris Jones of United Healthcare jumped from the back of the second group with two kilometers remaining and blitzed across to the trio, rested a mere second or two, and attacked again, but the trio were quick to mark him as the rest of the group reformed. There, Marcotte, able to recover while others chased his teammate McCabe, shot to the front as the group came to the final corner with under 300m to go and powered home to a convincing win with McCabe the only rider able to catch his wheel.
As the remainder of the field trickled across the line, it was clear SmartStop's "come and get it" approach to the race, placing as many riders as possible up the road, along with the aggressive riding of other weaker domestic teams met the challenges posed by the looming horsepower of Garmin-Sharp and the other World Tour riders. Instead of traveling to Europe, the stars and stripes jersey will be sitting on the back of a first year professional working full time, and nobody will be able to say his team didn't earn it. They took the race by the scruff of its neck, putting Garmin and BMC on the back foot - American racing at its best.
Powers Doubles Up
Earlier in the day, a different scene was unfolding with the big name European pros animating the women's race, which traversed Lookout Mountain twice before returning to Chattanooga for smaller circuits downtown. The women's race is always more open, meaning the cream rises to the top more regularly and more quickly than in the men's race. The two trips over Lookout Mountain eviscerated the field and by the time the race hit the three finishing circuits downtown, United Healthcare's Lauren Hall led by a minute over Laura Abbot, time trial champion Alison Powers, Jade Wilcoxson, Taylor Wiles, Evelyn Stevens (both Specialize - Lululemon), Megan Guarnier (Lotto Boels), and a select few others. In the scrappy racing that followed, Powers launched with a lap and a half remaining, eventually summoning forth a 15 second gap over Guarnier and Stevens that would hold til the finish. Powers is a former national champion and now becomes the first U.S. woman to win the time trial and road race in the same year.