Three top teams, each with a former winner of the Fitchburg Longsjo
Classic stage race, are in the hunt for the 1998 Fitchburg title this week.
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Mercury has John Peters, who took the overall prize in the four-day race last year when he was on the Comptel Colorado Cyclist team. Saturn has local favorite Frank McCormack of Leicester, who won in 1994, when he had no team. And the Navigators squad has 1995 winner Mike Engleman, who was with Shaklee then.
"It really depends on who's in good form," said race promoter Ray Wolejko of the Fitchburg Cycling Club. "Mercury is sending so many riders (11), they'll be trying to control the field. It's going to be hard for any individual to make a move."
Early last week, Wolejko had not heard whether the U.S. Postal Service team, which includes 1996 Fitchburg winner Tyler Hamilton, planned to enter the race. And the Saeco-Timex women's team, which has last year's Fitchburg winner Giana Roberge, will be racing in Europe.
The racing begins Thursday with an expanded time trial, 13 miles long compared to last year's 7 miles. Instead of riding down Route 31 from the Best Western Royal Plaza, making a U-turn and heading straight back, the racers will turn onto Route 140 north for some climbing and loop back via Route 2A, entering the hotel driveway from the north.
"We changed it to make it longer, which riders have said they wanted, and hopefully a little safer," Wolejko said. "There's congestion on Route 31 with riders going in both directions, and we did have an accident last year where a rider coming up the hill T-boned a truck" turning left out of the driveway.
On the new course, the turn from Route 2A to Route 31 is a sharp downhill right, about 130 degrees, so "you've got to be going slow there," Wolejko said. "But these races are won going uphill, not downhill."
The Wachusett Mountain Road Race, on Saturday, also has a slight change this year, because of road repairs under way on the mountain. After several hilly circuits in Princeton and Westminster, the racers will climb to the finish line at the summit via the "up" road, instead of going up the steeper "down" road as in years past.
The mountain stage also has a new title sponsor, Unitil Fitchburg Gas & Electric Light Co.
In the women's competition, Saturn is likely to dominate. Its riders include national criterium champion Karen Bliss Livingston, 1996 Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, three-time national champion Dede Demet and 1997 national time trial champion Elizabeth Emery.
Including amateur categories, about 700 cyclists in all are expected. The stage race is part of the New England Women's Challenge series, and, for the first time, the Lance Armstrong Junior Olympic Race Series. While juniors will all race together, there will be separate leader's jerseys for the top finishers in the 15-16 and 17-18 age groups, Wolejko said.
The Fitchburg Cycling Club always adds to the mix by recruiting ringers to wear FCC jerseys. This year's FCC lineup includes pros from Switzerland and Australia, Wolejko said.
Mercury is the leading team in the U.S. National Racing Calendar standings, with New Zealander Julian Dean and Canadian Gord Fraser -- both Mercury riders who plan to race in Fitchburg -- nipping at the heels of U.S. Postal Service rider George Hincapie in the individual rankings.
Saturn's Frank McCormack has moved up to No. 8 in the standings, right behind his younger brother and teammate Mark. Frank won the prologue criterium and a time trial stage and the points jersey in the Grand Prix de Beauce in Quebec, which ended last Sunday. Saturn teammates riding at Fitchburg will include Canadian Olympic track cycling medalist Brian Walton, Scott Fortner and Bart Bowen.
Navigators' top man is 1994 national criterium champion Trent Klasna, No. 5 in the U.S. standings. But Wolejko thinks Klasna's teammate Scott Moninger, known as an exceptional climber, could be a dark horse candidate for the Fitchburg title.
The Tatnuck Watershed Festival at Coes Pond, Worcester, which was rained out June 13 and rescheduled for June 20, has been postponed again, to Sept. 12.
The Limey Show, featuring dealers of classic English bicycles and parts, runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m today
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Lynne Tolman's bicycling column archives