Every year, a unique experience is provided to 12 amateur riders, 6 men and 6 women, to compete alongside against the country’s top men and women professional bicycle racers at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the premier race race on the 2010 USA Cycling National Racing Calendar.
“It’s been a great experience for me to be part of such a strong team. This is my first NRC race, it’s been a big step up, just trying to learn the ropes a little bit and just trying to ride the best I can.” said 22-year old Gabe Varela who qualified via the Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic.
“I still have a lot of work to do but it’s still motivating at the same time, it pushes you to want to get to the next level. I think you learn a lot about what it’s like to race to big events, what to expect and go from there.” said Varela of the experience.
And that’s exactly the point of the Pro Ride. To teach and to learn.
“One of the biggest goals is to teach these guys how to congeal as a group, being that they’re new to each other. These guys are pretty talented, they know how to race their bikes but how do you race your bike with somebody you’ve never raced with. So it’s really important that we’re trying to teach them how to work as a team and get to know each other in a short time-frame but yet still be successful on the road.” explained Bill Marshall, DS for this year’s Nature Valley Pro Ride.
They spent “quality time” together on and off the bike, going on “easy rides” and learning to gel.
“It’s been phenomenal, having to come into a race cold with five new teammates, trying to coordinate an effort to get someone up the road as best we can. I think this team has done a phenomenal job making sure that we have all the resources that we need and the team cohesion has just been second to none. All the guys are top-notch, we gelled pretty well and we, I think, done a great job getting guys up the road, getting them where they need to be.” said 26-year old Zach Garrett.
Here’s how it works: the top male and the top female finishers among amateurs in each Pro Ride qualify for the NVGP. The six men and six women will comprise the Nature Valley Cycling Team to race against the pros in the 12th annual NVGP.
This year, the qualifiers were Lucas Binder of San Diego, Brandon Gritters of Mission Viejo, Calif., Joseph Schmalz of Lawrence, Kan., and Varela of of Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. and Garrett of Sumter, S.C. And for the women, Mary Maroon of Sacramento, Calif., Anna Barensfeld of Brookline, Mass., Sue Butler of Portland, Ore., Nancy Jones Monroe, Ga., Emily Kachorek of Sacramento, Calif., and Kristen Meshberg of Lyons, Ill., all made the trip to Minnesota.
It’s not about you. “We laid the foundation early on when we got here on Monday, and said this is the objective, this isn’t about you, this is about all of us together.” explained Marshall. “And we went over some pretty specific things of what not to do and it’s all things that they know what not to do but you have to reiterate it because they are so young and they’re all of the go-go-go personality, the ‘I have to prove myself’.”
Marshall mused. “It would be interesting to see how well they would do, as the season progressed, if we kept it together as a team longer.”
The first thing that Marshall wanted to teach his riders was actually not about racing their bikes. “hey need to be thankful and respectful of those that are bringing them here and putting them up. Nature Valley puts in x amount of money and time and energy into the project. The local club, the local bike shop, Penn Cycles, they put in a lot of money and energy into this, if people aren’t appreciative of those that are supporting them, how are they going to be successful when racing? Because they won’t be. Because if they are not appreciative of those supporting them and helping them along the way then they aren’t going to have the resources to actually race. I think that’s very important for us and I teach that with the other programs when I’m at home not doing this.”
But it is also about the racing. Before each stage, DS and rider spend some 1-1 time together before the team briefing. (see video of pre-stage team briefing).
“I put them in 1-1 situation with me and we talk about things, what are your strengths, what do you think you can contribute to the team today. Then when I’ve done that, we sit down and talk about it as a group. We’re going stage by stage because all the big guns are here, we saw that they’re here to play and taking things very serious on the first crit, so we want to put people up front and be active as much as they possibly can.” said Marshall.
First NRC race. Varela had just upgraded to Cat 1 two months prior to the race, his first NRC race ever.
“I’ve been racing as pro/1/2 field as a [cat] 2 but I’d never done a pro/1 race before until this one. “[It's a] Big difference.” he smiled. “I like it though, I like the racing a lot, fast pace, you have to be careful to pick your spot, you have to be smart or you’re going to pay for it which is nice. In the 1/2 field, you can afford to do what you want, attack when you want and stuff like that, there’s not too much of a consequence when here there differently is.”
And he experienced a doozy of a introduction to NRC racing with the St Paul Downtown Criterium, where the field was strung out from beginning to end.
“I’ve never been in a crit that never slowed down. I started the middle of the pack maybe the back third. The idea was to get to the front as fast as possible but it was more difficult than I thought, I tried to move up at times but I had to get some recovery too. There wasn’t that much recovery when you sat in the group it really was that strung out so eventually I tried to not work as much as possible but it was still had.” said Varela.
It didn’t take long for Varela to become accustomed to NRC crits. He made his way into a short-lived break in the closing laps of the 95-mile Menomonie Road Race a few days later.
“It was a tough race the first 30 miles or so, it was really fast, the break was trying to go. After the break did go, it was a good hard steady tempo until we hit the circuits. Once we hit the circuits, it picked up again, and the break was close, maybe 15, 20 seconds, somewhere in there, and I felt pretty good when we hit the circuits, I was sitting top 20, and made my way to the front and figured I would give it a shot.” explained Varela.
He then added with a smile. “It felt good, I felt good towards the end which was nice. The first crits hurt but as the week went on, I started to feel a little bit better.” His break was caught before the finale.
Varela describes himself as an allrounder. “There’s not one area where I’m spectacular but I feel I can climb fairly well, I can time trial fairly well, sprint a little bit.”
His goal is to make it as a pro, and he thinks he can do it. “I think so, I’m not sure exactly when but yes.”
Nature Valley Pro Ride should help him go to the next step. “I still have a lot of work to do but it’s still motivating at the same time, it pushes you to want to get to the next level. I think you learn a lot about what it’s like to race to big events, what to expect and go from there. “
Military man. Garrett races for U.S. Military Cycling. To accept the Nature Valley Pro Ride invitation, he first had to receive permission for time off from his commanders at Shaw Air Force Base.
He was working as the flight commander for the physiology unit, which specializes in altitude physiology, academics and training. Three weeks after Nature Valley, Garrett was deployed to Korea. “I’ll be taking care of human performance enhancement activities at the air force base there.”
Garrett negotiated the time-off with his commander. “It was give-and-take with the commander, put in a little bit overtime to show him hey this is what I want to do and I’m willing to work for it so giving him the time, showing him I can get the job done as well as take care of myself and do some of the fun things that I want to do.”
While it wasn’t Garrett’s first NRC race it was his first time racing at Nature Valley Grand Prix, and he had to overcome a “mental block”.
“I’m a littler fish in a bigger pond now, racing with guys that are paid to ride their bikes day in and day out but realizing also that I have the legs to be here, I’ve earned my spot to be in this pack so there was a big mental block there to get over but I think I handled that pretty well.” said Garrett who gave Menomonie as an example.
The reaction of the pros to the team was good. “They give me a little bit of room if you’re willing to work your way in there and show them you’re not scared of them. There’s also that unspoken respect that you have to give to certain things that are going on, like when the team has their train lined up at the front you just don’t run into them or anything.”
His role during the week was that of domestique. “I have to legs to finish the race, just don’t quite have the power that the others, they can really power away. I’m really the guy that will help them get where they need to be, if they need extra food, extra water or just need someone to haul them up to the front out of danger, I’m more than happy to fill that role.” said Garrett, who then added, “We’re here to serve crosses over into cycling too.”
As for going pro, Garrett is looking at all options. “Right now, I would love to say that I want to make cycling my career but at the same time I want to continue serving my country so I’d like to at least see if I can get a pro contract and work a special deal there. We do have some individuals that have gotten pro contracts, for basketball, baseball, that kind of thing, we do have programs set aside for that. I think it would definitely be a first for cycling but our motto is we’ll make them say no so I’ll at least ask the question and if I have to turn down a pro cycling contract, “ Garrett smiled, “woe is me”
Let’s see what happens to this crop of Nature Valley Pro Riders. Previous riders that have made it to the pro ranks include Alison Starnes (TIBCO/To The Top) and Olivia Dillon (Peanut Butter Co TWENTY12).
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