Cycling's minor league opened its barnstorm across the state yesterday in Philadelphia with the first day of the Tour of Pennsylvania.
Featuring some of the best espoir -- or under-23 -- international riders, the race is a showcase for many riders under 25 hoping to bag a professional contract and graduate into world-class cycling. It is also another sign that the sport is growing in the United States.
The 104-man collection of cycling's future will be on display across the commonwealth as the six-stage tour weaves its way to its finish Sunday in Pittsburgh.
And possibly somewhere in the mix is America's next Lance Armstrong.
The two-part first stage was yesterday near Memorial Hall in Philadelphia. Stage 2 will begin in Downingtown and end in Carlisle today.
Steven Van Vooren of Belgium won the 2.18-mile prologue time trial. American Daniel Holloway won the 30-mile criterium last night after finishing 10th in the earlier time trial. Van Vooren was 15th in the criterium.
For Ben Showman, a member of Pennsylvania Lightning and a recent graduate of West Point, the tour is an opportunity to gauge himself against not only his countrymen but also against international competition -- especially the Europeans.
"It's an international-level race," Showman said. "I suppose most people know the Tour de France, and you can compare it to that on a somewhat lesser scale."
The three-week Tour de France, cycling's World Series, will begin July 5. It will be the third Tour since Armstrong ended his career in 2005 with his seventh yellow jersey. His success and popularity sparked increased interest in the sport throughout the country.
Pennsylvania Lightning is housed on Bainbridge Street near South Street in Philadelphia and trains some of the best riders from the area and beyond. Jeff Salvitti, 19, of West Chester is in his third year of racing, but the Bucknell student has benefited from his proximity to Philadelphia.
"On the East Coast, there is no bigger place for cycling," Salvitti said. "There are so many races. There are so many training opportunities. There are so many good riders from around here."
Dave Chauner, a former Olympian and executive director of this tour, has helped run the Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Championship the past 24 years and organized many other cycling events. Bringing the first espoir tour in the United States to Pennsylvania and launching it in Philadelphia, Chauner said, was a logical choice.
"There are 11 races on the North American calendar that are the top races in North America, and five of them are in Pennsylvania," Chauner said. "There is no one other state that has more than one."
While the $150,000 purse attracted seven of the top international teams, the main goal was to buttress the American contingent of 11 pro and amateur clubs.
"Our objective here was to provide a major international race that Americans could ride in against Europeans without having to go to Europe," Chauner said.
Of course, the goal for every rider is to eventually make it to the Mecca of cycling and grand stage of the Tour de France.
"It's a lot harder road than people think," Salvitti said. "But I'm young enough, so I got time."
First Published June 25, 2008 4:00 AM