A Race by Any Other Name

VeloNews.com reported on Tuesday that the U.S. Open Cycling Championships, which ran from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Richmond on April 13 last year, will be returning this year.

Except it’s going to be called the “U.S. Open of Cycling.”

And it’s going to be in Providence, Rhode Island, not Virginia.

And it’s going to be at the end of May instead of mid-April.

But other than that, the organization is happy to announce the return of their race. Which begs the question, what exactly is a race? Is a race’s identity tied to its calendar slot? The course? The name? The promoter? The riders? Clearly this particular organization is relying on the last two criteria, since there are precious few other unifying elements between last year’s “edition” and this year’s. By those measures, ASO actually holds Fleche Wallonne twice in a single week, it’s just that the second time they change the date and the course and call it Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Now that’s organization.

We don’t have an inside window into the Open’s situation – maybe there are sponsorship opportunities in Rhode Island that aren’t there in Virginia, maybe municipal cooperation on road use is better up north, or maybe the Providence Super 8 is offering discounts that are just too good to pass up. Certainly, the race was in trouble at the start last year, but the promoter brought in veteran race director John Eustice, who managed to pull together a good race that was made great by cold, snowy conditions and the fact that you could watch it on TV. Despite that success, it seems likely that the issues that put the Virginia version in jeopardy last year couldn’t be speedily resolved again this year, hence the changes. Since we don’t know what those issues are, we can only examine the new edition from the outside.

The Calendar

The date change is more or less of a wash in terms of improvement. There was some hope that the race could develop into a sort of U.S. spring classic with the mid-April date, but there are advantages to the change. The new date, May 31, would put the Open in the position of potentially opening “Philly Week” – the East Coast swing of big races that begin with the CSC Invitational, then moves to the Commerce Bank trio of road races that culminates with the former USPRO championship race through the streets of Philadelphia. Such grouping of races is beneficial to teams, the media, and organizers, as it cuts down on travel time and costs while helping the promoters get the big players at their events. After all, look at how well it works for the spring classics in Europe. So, the new date is good, until you combine it with…

The Location

Providence is a lovely place, and one with an undeniably good competitive cycling history, at least when it comes to cyclocross. The other undeniable thing about Providence is that it is a long way from Arlington, Virginia, 7.25 hours, according to Google. Arlington is where the CSC Invitational, a mainstay of the NRC calendar and a prized win for criterium specialists, kicks off at 12:25 pm on June 1, the day after the Open.

Now, according to Eustice on VeloNews, the Open will leave plenty of time for the teams to get down to Virginia. Technically, that’s probably correct – the number of hours between the Open finish and the CSC start should allow riders to physically be present for both events without warping the space-time continuum. The question is how good they’ll be feeling once they get there. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Open ends at 2:00 pm. Allow an optimistic hour for podium presentations, press conferences, loading the trucks, rider showers, and getting on the road. So, according to Google, everyone should be checking into an Arlington hotel around 10:30pm, if we allow for a quick bathroom break along the way.

The only problem with that scenario is that the majority of the drive is down I-95, which takes in the New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC metro areas on its way into sunny Arlington. Those with experience in that particular corridor would plan on a midnight check-in. At least the summer Jersey shore traffic won’t have kicked in yet.

Had the race used the new date for the old route (or even the old date with the new route), it would have been perfect. But with the proposed logistics, CSC Invitational goers might be seeing a lot of surly faces under the team tents. Hopefully, the new Open date won’t result in teams skipping the CSC race in favor of heading to Pennsylvania to wait for the start of the Commerce Bank series.

The Format

No change here. The format for the Open is a straight John Eustice special – one large loop of 50 or 60 miles, then a bunch of finishing laps on a 4-5 mile circuit in town. It’s a model that Eustice has been using for years at the Univest Grand Prix, and which he modified for last year’s Open, substituting a point-to-point route for the initial loop.

The motivation behind the format is hard to argue with – you get the open roads and varied terrain of a road race, and some of the spectator-friendliness of a crit. However, last year’s Univest revealed chinks in the armor. When a break arrived at the finishing circuits so far ahead of the field that it had already completed a lap by the time the peloton approached, officials were forced to pull the field to avoid chaos. But even that didn’t work, as riders on different laps mixed in, got confused, and then didn’t chase guys they needed to chase. The resulting mess took an hour to sort out after the finish, and reshuffled all of the standings with the exception of the winner, Will Frischkorn (Slipstream).

There’s a reason the limitations of the format only emerged at Univest last year. Until then, Univest was run as an elite amateur race, and amateurs are notorious for keeping a tight leash on even the earliest of breakaways. So, in the race’s previous nine runnings, the peloton had always entered the finishing circuit on the same lap as the leaders, since they were always within 10 minutes of each other. With professionals now competing at Univest, the dynamic has changed – the finishing circuits make up nearly half of the total race length, and the professionals are more than happy to let the early break skewer itself far beyond the halfway point before bringing it back. Needless to say, there was an air of surprise when the field found itself pulled with around 40 miles remaining, as the break was still well in hand.

Hopefully, Eustice has found a way to avoid a similar mess at the Open, which will most certainly include professionals and their associated racing dynamics. It all worked out at last year’s Open, so there’s hope. One option would be to extend the initial long loop and cut back the number of finishing circuits so that they fall later in the race. At the very least, the teams should be warned ahead of time, so that they can bring the break back to, say, eight minutes or so before hitting the finishing circuit.

All that aside, can you really call it a finishing circuit when it accounts for 40 percent of the race?

The Name

There’s no doubt the change from “U.S. Open Cycling Championship” to the “U.S. Open of Cycling” is a good one, though the name still leaves something to be desired. The original name was ridiculous, as the race isn’t a U.S. championship of any kind. That sort of absurd naming convention is right up there with promoters putting “de” in the names of American races, and every race with a 10 meter stretch of poor pavement putting “Roubaix” in its name. Tarting up a race name with European linguistic knick-knacks or calling an event a championship when it isn’t is not befitting of truly professional events.

All things considered, the bland name has worked out well for the Open promoters – after all, it would have been even harder to claim that the 2008 event is the same race as the 2007 one if they were forced to run “Williamsburg-Richmond” or the “Tour de Virginia” on the roads around the Providence reservoir. Maybe, with such a versatile name, the U.S. Open can become like the (rightfully named) World Championships – same name, same format, different city every year.

Wherever it may roam, whenever it may be held, and whatever it may be called, SC wishes the U.S. Open of Cycling the best.