Last month, I raced in the Nature Valley Grand Prix, a five day stage race in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nature Valley is one of the most important races on the National Racing Calendar, earning a ranking of NRC 2.1, the highest designation for an NRC stage race. As a result of it’s important place on the calendar, nearly every American pro team is on hand to vie for the top step on the podium. As I said in my last update, the first four stages were sheer domination by United Healthcare. By the fifth stage they had won every stage and claimed the top three places on the general classification. After each stage, you could see the mood of the other teams darken, frustrated by their inability to shake United Healthcare’s stranglehold on the race. But, Saturday’s road race stage in Menominee, Wisconsin was going to be a different story.
During our pre-race meeting, the objective was clear: dethrone United Healthcare. It was tempting to suggest that the other professional teams combine their forces and race collectively against UHC, but that is considered exceedingly bad form in the professional peloton. Rather, we decided to race aggressively from the gun, attacking throughout the opening miles of the stage and really dropping the hammer on the several steep, but short, climbs on the 100 mile course. We put one of our strongest riders, Luis Amaran, in the breakaway only a few kilometers into the race. He was joined by five other riders who quickly established their advantage. At this point, United Healthcare amassed at the front and began setting tempo, trying to keep the breakaway from gaining too great of an advantage. The rest of the field settled in behind them, our team riding together near the front to protect our GC riders from the wind.
As we approached the first major climb of the day, United Healthcare was looking strong. Word was passed from our director in the team car that this would be our opportunity to attack and test their strength. As soon as we hit the bottom of the climb, the fireworks started. As the attacks went flying, UHC’s riders quickly slipped back through the peloton, exhausted from the effort of chasing the early break. Quickly, a nine or ten man move was established containing our team’s best climber, Tyler Wren. United Healthcare put one of their strongest riders in the move, but he was isolated, without any teammates to help him. We were happy that we had succeeded in isolating UHC, but we were concerned that our own GC rider was still riding in the field.
As UHC chased relentlessly to pull back the break, we moved back into position behind them, waiting for the next climb. Riding up next to our best placed rider on GC, Tom Zirbel, I told him that there would probably be attacks on the next climb, and that he would have to go with them if he wanted to make it to the breakaway, which was still maintaining a small gap off the front.
**As they say, those who can’t do, coach!**
True to form, Tom attacked on the next climb and used his prodigious time-trialing abilities to ride solo to the breakaway. He made short work of the gap, and he was with the leaders in no-time. Meanwhile, UHC continued the chase, but we could see that they were beginning to lose heart. Before we hit the third and last major climb of the day, they had all but abandoned the chase, apparently attempting to save their energy for the next day’s brutal stage in Stillwater, Minnesota (hometown of Michelle Bachmann!). As we approached that final big climb, I told my teammate Jamey Driscoll that the other teams may attempt one final climb. Sure enough, Kelly Benefits launched two riders, and Jamey jumped with five other riders intent on chasing down the breakaway. With half of our team in the breakaway, we knew our work for the day was gone. Gradually, the break solidified their advantage and rode away from the now lethargic field. The writing was on the wall for UHC. Unless their rider, Rory Sutherland, succeeded in fending off attacks from every other team in the peloton alone, their dominance of the race was finished. Sure enough, as the final circuits unfolded in Menominee, Sutherland lost minutes to a small group of leaders and ceded the race lead to Jesse Anthony (a New England native) of Kelly Benefits.
At the end of the day, United Healthcare was knocked out of the top-ten all together, and our Luis and Jamey had moved into fourth and tenth on GC, respectively. In the twenty brutal ascents of the 25% grade of Chilcoot Hill in the following day’s criterium, we managed to leap frog third place and push Luis onto the podium. Jamey’s strong performance left him in 8th overall, a fine showing for a hard week’s racing. I enjoyed the aggressive racing, and the strong results that we earned in the following week’s criteriums in Cincinnati, attested to the fine training that Nature Valley provided.
Once again, thank you for reading. On Monday, July 25, I leave for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the UCI Tour do Rio. This five-day stage race is a major target for our team, so I look forward to reporting on some successful racing!