Day One of the U.S. Pro Road National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, saw Lawson Craddock (Team BikeExchange Jayco) defend his time trial title while Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo) made a bold return to racing after spinal surgery.
With the temperatures ramping up in the South, the pro women’s field got off to a hard-hitting start mid-morning. Defending road race champion Lauren Stephens (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB) initially turning in the fastest intermediate time (15:54.70) as the riders cruised through calm winds alongside the scenic Melton Hill Reservoir.
Meanwhile, of the five U23 women in the elite field, Olivia Cummins (LUX-CTS p/b Specialized) initially looked poised to set the best time for her category —raced at the same time but scored separately— until teammate Zoe Ta-Perez bested her.
Stephens put herself in the hot seat with a time of 31:58.1 at the finish but that was still more than a minute and a half slower than last year’s winning time set by reigning champion Chloé Dygert on the same course. Dygert, however, was unable to defend her title as she's managing an Epstein Barr infection.
Twenty-year-old Ta-Perez was the first to unseat Stephen, taking an impressive 28 seconds off Stephens’ time to secure the U23 jersey for 2022 and perhaps a podium finish in the elites as well.
But then the heavy hitters took to the 23.3km course, and it was clear that the jersey would be a two-up battle between Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo) and two-time former world champion Amber Neben. The 47-year-old was trailing Thomas by just 19 seconds at the intermediate split.
The race for the podium was on, and ultimately it was Thomas who powered through to capture the Stars and Stripes, arriving 44.42 seconds ahead of Neben at the line. Thomas, who had undergone spinal surgery earlier in the year, was also fast enough to best Dygert’s 2021 winning time with a 29:38 at the finish.
“I’ve worked hard at (my) time trials,” Thomas said following her win. “And I’ve finished third here many many times and just haven’t gotten it quite together. It’s been a tough spring…and what I was really trying to focus on was doing my best time trial and I think [I got there] by like 40 seconds, so I was just really happy with my effort. This one’s really special.”
Ta-Perez held on for third, her second Nationals medal from the same performance.
For the men's race, organizers tacked on an additional 12kms on the Tennessee Valley course for a total race distance of 35.3kms.
Among the first wave of riders out of the start house George Simpson (Project Echelon Racing) was fastest at both of the two intermediate checkpoints and the finish with a time of 42:27.45. By midday, however, the heat index had pushed the temperatures close to 34 °C, and it would be another two hours before the top riders were out on course.
Simpson, who had won the time trial event at Tour of the Gila earlier this year, would tumble from the top spot once Magnus Sheffield (INEOS Grenadiers) took the competition up a notch when he blazed in nearly two minutes faster as the final riders were preparing to make their start. Sheffield is a promising up-and-coming rider who earlier this season netted a stage win at the Vuelta a Andalucia and won De Brabantse Pijl.
“I’m super happy, I made a big improvement and step up from last year,” said Sheffield, who took second on the day. “Obviously I came here to win, it’s a lot of traveling to come here from Europe, but I’m really lucky that my team supports me and let me come over here. I really hope to return next year to try and take the jersey.
“It’s really special to be back racing in the US. It’s not something we get to do much anymore. I’m happy to be back here with my family and enjoy being in the US.”
In Tennessee, the 20-year-old's average speed of 55.5kph was fast enough to even hold off last year’s Stars and Stripes champion Lawson Craddock (EF Education-EasyPost) through the first intermediate checkpoint.
But Craddock was clearly on a mission. At the 27km mark, he passed fellow race favorite Chad Haga (Team DSM), despite Haga having gone off the blocks a full minute before him. His next target was his two-minute man, Project Echelon Racing’s Stephen Vogel, who he also got by handily as he grew closer to the finish.
Needing only four seconds to take the virtual jersey off Sheffield’s shoulders, Craddock pushed past the brutal heat to blast his way across the line to victory, defending his title by putting nearly seven seconds into Sheffield at the finish.
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