It isn't a stretch for Fitchburg to claim it's "on the road to Atlanta" this summer. With the Olympics just down the road, Fitchburg is indeed a training ground for elite international cyclists who aren't in the Tour de France.
Olympians from New Zealand, Norway and Australia have signed up for the 37th annual Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, as have American pros who were contenders for the Olympic team. The four-day stage race, named after 1956 Olympian Arthur Longsjo of Fitchburg, starts Thursday.
Pro teams Saturn, U.S. Postal Service and Nutra-Fig/Colorado Cyclist all have riders to watch in the top men's category. Nutra-Fig's Chris Horner of Lemon Grove, Calif., who won the Seattle road race and finished fourth overall in the Olympic trials, is seen as a major threat.
An area favorite is Tyler Hamilton, a U.S. Postal Service rider who grew up in Marblehead and was right behind Horner in the Olympic trials. Hamilton, 25, had two third-place finishes in last year's Longsjo and won a stage race in the Netherlands this spring.
His teammates for the Longsjo are Clark Sheehan, 27, of Denver, who won the Fitchburg time trial last year; Marty Jemison, 31, of Salt Lake City, who was 1993 national road race champion; and Anton Villatoro, 26, of Boulder, Colo., who is a dual citizen of the United States and Guatemala and has won a berth on the Guatemalan Olympic team.
Saturn's six-man lineup is led by 27-year-old Frank McCormack of Leicester, who finished third overall in the Olympic trials and was named an alternate for the Olympic team along with Hamilton. The others are McCormack's brother Mark, 25, of North Easton; five-time national champion Norman Alvis, 32, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; Scott Fortner, 30, of Littleton, Colo.; Scott Mercier, 28, of Louisville, Colo., and Canadian Brian Walton, 30, of North Delta, British Columbia, who won gold medals in the road race and points race at the PanAm Games last year.
Frank McCormack was overall winner in Fitchburg two years ago without a team behind him, and with Saturn he successfully defended the Wachusett Mountain stage last year. This time, he said, "I'd prefer it if one of my teammates won it, since they worked so hard for me during the trials."
The time trial, extended to 12 miles last year, is back to its traditional 7.3-mile, out-and-back route, and the other stages are unchanged, so Longsjo veterans should find no surprises on the course.
"As Frank McCormack showed when he won in '94, it's a very talented rider who's going to win, but not necessarily someone from one of the big teams," said Longsjo spokesman Alan Cote. "An individual rider can certainly pull off an upset."
Worcester-based O'Neil's, which always sponsors top-flight "hired guns" for Fitchburg, didn't have the money this year for Euro-pro ringers. But team manager Dan Legor has secured Vermonter Andy Bishop -- who previously raced for Motorola, Coors Light and Saab -- to wear an O'Neil's jersey in the Longsjo. O'Neil's also has Peter Vollers of Plymouth, Vt., Ken Lubin of Rutland, Chris McDonald of Hampden and Greg Swinand of Brighton, a Shrewsbury High School graduate. McDonald and Swinand were the points leaders in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Championships this spring.
Expect to see at least one rider from the U.S. national team, as well: Jonathan Page, 19, riding for Hot Tubes/G.S. Mengoni. Originally from Lakeville, Conn., Page lists his address as Holden, where he stays with his former juniors coach, Hot Tubes owner Toby Stanton.
Stanton's crop of juniors won't compete in Fitchburg this year because they'll be at the juniors national championships in Kenosha, Wis.
In the women's race, look for Australian Olympic team member Anna Wilson, who had the lead last week in the PowerBar International Women's Challenge in Utah, and another Aussie, Lynette Nixon, who was the fastest woman in last year's Wachusett Mountain stage but was penalized for drafting the men's pack. The U.S. Postal Service entry is Phyllis Hines, 34, of Atlanta, 1995 masters national road race and time trial champion, who has been resting up since a crash during the Olympic trials.
Australian national team members Tracey Wilson and Liz Tadich are also contenders. But their teammate Kathryn Watt, who had two early stage wins in this year's PowerBar and took the Longsjo title last year, is not coming because she's doing track training for the Olympics, according to race organizer Ray Wolejko of Lunenburg.
Others in the race include Nutra-Fig's Jessica Grieco, who won the crit in Fitchburg last year, and Norwegian Olympians Ragnhild Kostol and Ingunn Bollerud, whose team training site for Atlanta is in Greensboro, N.C. Internet users can find an updated roster on the Longsjo web site.
The Longsjo had tough competition for sponsors this year, with the Olympics and the 100th Boston Marathon on the calendar. As a result, the prize list, totaling $19,750, is about $20,000 less than last year's, Wolejko said.
Nonracing cyclists can get in on the riding with the
Fitchburg Fun Rides, a series of free, go-at-your-own-pace rides designed to put
riders back in town in time to watch the racing. Details are in the calendar of
The third edition of "The Best Bike Rides in New England" by Paul Thomas is available from Globe Pequot Press ($12.95), featuring new rides in Connecticut and southern New Hampshire among its 44 road tours. I helped editor Paul Angiolillo of Dedham update the White Mountains chapter by road-testing the routes last summer, and I can recommend the Triple Notch Classic for diehards, and the Bear Notch Challenge for less masochistic riders.
Angiolillo also has updated his 1993 book, "Mountain Biking Northern New England" (Menasha Ridge Press, $12.95) with new maps.
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