Kelly Benefit Strategies Pro Cycling battled crashes, injuries, and some of the top Continental teams in Europe to claim the top GC prize at Festningsrittet, one of Norway’s premiere stage races. Jesse Anthony topped the overall podium Sunday in beautiful downtown Kongsvinger after his second 2nd place finish in as many days, with teammate Neil Shirley joining him in the top five overall.
Shirley, along with the rest of the team, ran won of his best races of the year, putting in several efforts that would prove crucial to teammate Anthony’s overall crown. Performance Director Jonas Carney described the race as “highly tactical”, and a genuine team effort was imperative for the team to pull out the win against such a competitive field.
Sunday’s third and final stage, 171k from Charlottenberg into downtown Kongsvinger, would be KBS’ last chance to win the race outright, and things looked promising for the only American team after two hard days of racing.
“We knew the race would inevitably be fought and won on the 5 closing circuits through downtown Kongsvinger, but there was a tough stretch of road to get there first,” said Carney. “The Thuringer Energie team was our our main competition for the GC, and they had the help of the entire German National Team for this race, whose goal was to defend the sprint jersey. There was one big climb leading into the circuits, and this was where we wanted to apply a lot of pressure.”
The stiff pace up the aforementioned climb saw the Thuringer Energie team lose 5 of their 6 riders — everyone except race leader Marcel Kittel. The German National team also lost 5 of 6, and Carney saw the perfect opportunity begin to open up. He put Shirley, Scott Zwizanski, and Alex Candelario on the front in the group of 35 and they pushed the pace for the next 100k, keep this fortunate gap as wide as possible.
The race would be fought and won on the five 5.6km finishing circuits in Kongsvinger, running over some of toughest, twistiest roads of the race. Zwizanski set up Shirley to attack on the biggest climb of the circuit, and he launched successfully but the group was able to reel him back in. Anthony counter-attacked immediately, and his timing couldn’t have been better.
“(Anthony’s) attack was timed well, and he slipped away with one rider from Glud/Marstrand and one from Joe Piels Cyclingteam with 20k to go,” said Carney after the race. “They gained 20 seconds on the front group, and the race leader from Thuringer was forced to chase. He brought back quite a bit of time, but with his teammates dropped, he was unable to reel it in all the way on his own.”
Anthony sensed the opportunity and finished strong, taking second on the stage and completing the race with a six second gap on race leader Marcel Kittel and the rest of the chasers, enough to snatch the overall GC victory from Thuringer-Energie. Shirley finished 7th on the stage and 5th on GC, one of his top results for the year.
“Cando, Ryan and Zwiz were amazing teammates today, they looked after Neil and I amazingly well for the entire race,” said Anthony after the race. “It feels great to finally win a race in Europe, and I couldn’t be happier to deliver the win after some really heroic efforts by the rest of the guys.”
“This is an important win for our team,” added Carney. “Joe Piels, Thuringer Energie, Joker Bianchi, Sparebanken, and Glud/Marstrand are strong, respected Continental teams in Europe. Even after losing our strongest rider (Veilleux) to a crash in the first stage, we still came out on top. I couldn’t be more proud of the efforts by our guys through this tough and unique race.”
The three day, UCI 2.2 ranked stage race marked the first time KBS has raced in Scandinavia, and when they weren’t busy maintaining the race’s persistent pace, riders were treated to host of beautiful sights and sounds through Norway and Sweden’s rolling, lush countrysides.
“When we weren’t covering moves, it was hard to ignore the beautiful scenery that Sweden has to offer,” said Neil Shirley after the first stage. “At one point we were speeding along a one-lane road with dense forest on our left and a massive and magnificent lake to our right. I was wishing I had a camera in my jersey pocket.” (Read an in-depth race report on Stage 1 from Neil Shirley)
The first stage, 140k from the race’s central hub in Kongsvinger to Arvika, Sweden, took place on twisty roads and constantly rolling terrain. In what proved to be the trend for the entire race, attacks flew early and the pace stayed hot throughout. The team worked to have at least one rider in every breakaway, and things were going well as the race headed across the border into Sweden.
Neil Shirley attacked hard up the stage’s final steep slope, and three other riders were able to bridge across. The gap hovered between 20-25 seconds, but the chasers were bearing down hard and the gap started to plummet. Coming into the final kilometer, the lead was reduced to seconds and just as Shirley was about to cross the line, the field came thundering down. Shirley finished fourth after his efforts, just shy of his first European podium.
Despite the near miss, the race was a considerable success and put Shirley and Candelario in the top ten on GC heading into Stage 2.
Stage 2, a tough 197km trek in and around Kongsvinger, gave the team an opportunity to move further up the GC. With Veilleux forced to abandon after his crash, the team was down to 5 riders, and climbing specialists Neil Shirley and Jesse Anthony would be the go-to-guys for a brief but nasty uphill finish.
“The finish was on a cobbled road through an old tunnel and into a courtyard inside a medievil fortress at the top of a 1200 meter-long climb,” said Anthony after the race. “It’s hard to imagine, but it is a pretty awesome scene when you actually see it. It’s really cool how some of these European races incorporate the local history into the event.” (Read an in-depth race report from Jesse Anthony on Stage 2 )
After a long day of attacks and chases through rolling hills, the peloton finally reached the epic final climb. With around 400 meters to go, the road steepened significantly and Anthony was able to open up a small gap and dig in full-tilt for the final few hundred meters. Shirley followed the surge of riders who chased, and kept himself in perfect position to pounce. Anthony lost his gap and was passed by powerful German rider Marcel Kittel in the final few hundred meters, settling for second on the stage. Shirley completed his stupendous effort in 4th place, keeping his high place in the GC, and Anthony moved into second overall, setting the team up nicely for the victory it would claim the following day.