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Axeon Hagens Berman’s incredible 2016 season rolled on Saturday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as 21-year-old Greg Daniel stunned the pre-race favorites with a late-race solo attack that held to the line to take the U.S. national road title.
Alex Howes (Cannondale) finished second, five seconds back. Travis McCabe (Holowesko-Citadel) was third, in the same time.
“I didn’t want to make a fool of myself because I didn’t know if there was a group up the road,” Daniel said. “So I looked at the clock and saw zero. And I saw zero laps to go and the time was zero. I couldn’t believe it. It is still sinking in.”
After crossing the line, Daniel walked toward the podium showing no signs of the grueling 187km effort. He high-fived fans along the way, a look of disbelief still on his face.
Daniel’s teammate, Logan Owen — the only other Axeon Hagens Berman rider in the race — finished eighth after also figuring prominently in the final lap of 12 of the 187-kilometer race.
“I was talking to Greg going into the final lap and he said he was feeling good and wanted to go for it,” Owen said. “I trusted him and he trusted me to follow through on what we were going to do and it worked out perfectly. Either Greg or I could have won today. We had perfect teamwork. It could not have gone any better just working with two of us.”
One year ago, Daniel competed in the Under-23 national championships, finishing runner-up in the road race and third in the time trial. Now in his fourth year in the Under-23 developmental program headed up by Axel Merckx, Daniel’s previous biggest result was a runner-up finish on Stage 4 of the 2014 Amgen Tour of California, and the KOM jersey at the 2015 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
“It was aggressive all day, which played to my strength,” Daniel said. “When the pace slows down, I just like to keep going hard. I just felt good all day and made sure to keep hydrated. I was worried about cramping, and knew it was going to be humid and hot. So the best thing for me was to get in the break because I am not a sprinter. Logan was going to stay back and sprint for the finish.”
Daniel’s win was the latest in a dream season for the development squad led by Axel Merckx, which has also included Logan Owen’s win at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Adrien Costa’s unprecedented GC win at Tour de Bretagne, Nielson Powless’ run in the top 10 at the Amgen Tour of California, Tao Geoghegan Hart’s win at Trofeo Piva, Rúben Guerreiro’s win at GP Palio del Recite, and Eddie Dunbar’s sprint win at An Post Ras, also on Saturday, just weeks after a broken collarbone.
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) May 28, 2016
How It Played Out
The race began on under sunny skies, with heat a factor, as the temperature hovered around 30 degrees Celsius (85F) at the start.
Winston-Salem played host to the professional national championships for the first time, and the new course was a demanding one. The pro men faced 12 laps of 15 kilometres (9.6 miles) for a total of 187 kilometres (116 miles) and 2,505 metres (8,220 feet) of elevation gain.
Attacks flew left and right from the gun, with no breakaway being able to establish a gap until three laps into the race. The leaders were Daniel, Chris Jones and Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthCare), 2014 national road champion Eric Marcotte (Jamis), current national criterium champion Brad Huff (Rally Cycling), Robbie Squire (Holowesko-Citadel), Ben Wolfe (Jelly Belly), Bryan Lewis (Lupus Racing), and Griffen Easter (Team Illuminate)
The group set about building an advantage, though behind more riders attacked out of the peloton in hopes of bridging to the leaders. Most notably in the nine-rider chase group was 2010 national champion Ben King (Cannondale).
King was joined by Oscar Clark and John Hornbeck (Holowesko-Citadel), Samuel Hunter Grove (Cylance-InCycle), Jesse Anthony (Rally Cycling), Tanner Putt and Danny Summerhill (UnitedHealthCare), Barry Miller (Lupus Racing) and David Williams (Astellas).
The chasing group would never make the junction with the leaders, and was brought back into the peloton on the sixth lap. Rally Cycling did the bulk of the chasing, despite having Huff in the lead group. Huff however, appeared to be instructed by his sport director not to work in the front group.
Across the line with six laps to go, the leaders held an advantage of two minutes over the peloton, which was still led by the orange jerseys of Rally Cycling, with time trial powerhouse Tom Zirbel doing the bulk of the pace making.
The next time across the line the gap with five laps and 70 kilometres to race the gap had been halved and the writing was on the wall for the leaders.
With the breakaway less than a minute up the road, riders began attacking off the front of the peloton with defending champion Matthew Busche (UnitedHealthCare) and Danny Pate (Rally Cycling) among the most active.
Up the tough climb on Manly Street with less than three kilometres until the start/finish line, the breakaway was in sight. Through the line with four laps to go it was all back together, though the field had diminished.
The fourth lap proved to be decisive, as only 50 riders of the original 80 starters remained in the race. McCabe attacked at the beginning of the lap and was soon joined by Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) and Eaton in the lead.
Many riders sensed this move could be going somewhere, and attacks flew off the front of the peloton with many chase groups forming and the consistent attacks creating a constant reshuffling.
Toward the end of the lap a group of 20 had established itself, with most of the favorites finding themselves in the lead group. The two most notable riders to miss the move were Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and they chased hard, realizing their chance at victory had gone up the road.
The chase group had the gap pegged at 10 seconds with three laps to go and the groups seemed destined to come together with the lead group attacking each other.
Oscar Clark (Holowesko) attacked and was able to cause a split just as Bookwalter and Vermeulen made the junction with the leaders. Clark’s move drew out 10 riders and this appeared to be the winning move as the group approached two laps to go.
The group established by Clark’s attack was full of power with Howes, Marcotte, and Owen all on the right side of the split.
The classics style course made for relentless attacking, even among the lead group.
Vermeulen soon found himself back in the front group and immediately put in a little dig, but he never gained more than a handful of seconds. Pate punctured out of one of the many chase groups, and after taking a wheel change from neutral support he threw a bottle to the ground in frustration, realizing his race was over.
Onto Manly Hill for the penultimate time, Taylor Shelden (Jelly Belly) put in a strong attack just as a chase group containing Bookwalter bridged to the leaders. Owen was the only one able to follow and the duo set about opening up a gap.
As the bell rang for one lap to go, Owen and Shelden held a handful of seconds over a 20-rider group with all the pre-race favorites tucked in amongst the wheels.
The attacks kept coming, and soon a nine-rider group had formed, among them was fast-finisher and former national criterium champion John Murphy (UnitedHealthCare).
Clark continued to show his late-race strength, and put in a blistering attack up one of the many climbs out on course, splitting the lead group. Only Daniel, Clark, Eaton, Sheldon, and Huffman were able to join. Murphy tried desperately to make contact with the leaders, but ran out of gas.
King and Owen formed a chase behind, but as with Murphy, their legs were spent from a day of aggressive racing.
Unimaginably, everything came back together as the riders sprinted up Manly Street for the final time. Pre-race favorites such as Bookwalter, Reijnen, and Howes were in with a chance of pulling on the stars and stripes at the end of the day.
Daniel put in a demoralizing acceleration on the false flat over the top of Manly Road and suddenly he had a decent size gap with a kilometre to race. The young Axeon rider powered all the way to the line and stole the national championships from right under the noses of the favorites.
“When we hit that final climb up Manly Road, I just sat on, expecting a move,” Daniel said. “There wasn’t a move that went, so I thought maybe everyone else was tired. So I just decided to test my legs and no one followed. I tried not to look back, but when I looked back and saw a gap I just thought I needed to go full gas. I knew at that point I couldn’t sprint. So I just kept going to the line.”
Daniel crossed the line and put his hands on his head in disbelief. Howes won the sprint for silver, but that was clearly not what the Cannondale was racing for, and he slammed his front wheel on the ground in frustration once across the line.
“Greggy kind of slipped through the cracks,” Howes said. “Honestly, I just wasn’t in the right spot. I’m incredibly disappointed. I felt great out there. I wanted the win today because I think it would have helped my case for the Olympics. The team was brilliant. The staff and riders fully committed everything for me today, and it hurts to come up short.”
McCabe, the runner-up in 2014, finished third. Chad Beyer (Lupus Racing) had a solid ride to finish fourth with Amgen Tour of California King of Mountains winner Huffman finishing in fifth.
“I saw him go,” McCabe said. “There was a split-second moment [to follow Daniel], but it’s a decision you have to make right away. I came into the race not expecting to win. I mean, it sounds weird, and anything can happen in this race, but I think last year I tried too hard and I tried to force it, and it just never works in your favor, and I was really upset with it. So this year, I just came in with the mentality of ‘just race and let it happen.’
“It wasn’t really my race to win in a sense. I was pretty content with how it played out. I’d much rather see someone like Greg Daniel win than a WorldTour guy, so I was pretty happy with the result.”
Bookwalter, Reijnen, and Busche crossed the line together nearly a minute down on the winner.
National Championships United States - Road Race (NC) Winston-Salem → Winston-Salem