“Absolutely” mission accomplished for BISSELL said MERCO Credit Union Cycling Classic GC winner Ben Jacques-Maynes.
“We had great outings all four days here, our hill climbers had a great outing on Thursday. The time trial crew performed spectacularly, just the entire really on the time trial, we got really good leadout practice in the crit and 200k riding tempo, how can you not benefit from that? And then to finish off with the win is great. We finish off with two guys on the [stage] podium and that’s a great way to end the weekend and the GC as well.” BJM said after winning another river rock on Sunday.
Along with BJM’s overall win, the team finished with sweep of the GC, the red KOM/Point jersey, three stages wins from three different riders including a podium sweep on two of the stages. It was a case of BISSELL vs the field and BISSELL won.
It’s obvious that the race is important for the team who, for the second year in a row, brought a strong squad to compete and go for the win. But why is that?
“It’s probably one of the most underrated races in the country and we used to have a whole early season string of NRC races, honestly Tour of California sapped all the cash out of it so, races like this, Fresno, Visalia went away quickly and have been really hard to resurrect with the bad economy. The promoters here have done a great job to keep the race going at any level and we want to honor that and come here and race hard.” BJM explained.
Another reason is that the race is local for brothers Andy and Ben Jacques-Maynes who live two hours away in Watsonville, CA. Both have done the race many times in the past, at least 6 times if not 9 times for BJM. (The number is still up in the air)
Coming right after the team’s training camp, the race marks the delineation into racing.
“It’s always stepping in to race hard here, I guess we train good.” BJM laughed. “As always, it’s a first test but there’s plenty more good hard racing to come and I feel like I always improve off of what I do here so, it’s good opener and obviously winning is great way to start a season for myself and my BISSELL teammates.”
Andy Jacques-Maynes noted that the level of competition was also part of the equation. “Because the weather has been stellar for the whole month of January, basically it was summertime, so it makes the competition in Northern California pretty good as well so a ton of guys are trained up and we knew that this race would have pretty high level competition and that makes it a good start for the season.”
For sprinter Kyle Wamsley, the race was important to fine tune the leadouts with teammates Jay Thomson and Paddy Bevin. “We have a couple of different guys with Jay on the team and Paddy and I didn’t get to race for a full season last year. Work out our leadout a little bit, gauge the efforts we need in the last 10 laps. For us to have everybody here that is going to be pretty much the core squad, it’s important for us to know each other first, make sure that we’re on the podium second.” He added that the team is going to learn quite a bit from the criterium results.
The race started off with the beautiful and harder-than-it-looked-on-paper 82-mile Merced Immigration District Road Race where the team stacked the break and swept the podium with Rob Britton taking the win. The overall was theirs to lose at that point with gaps of 5 minutes on GC. The next day was the 12-mile Merced Boosters Time Trial where once again, the team swept the podium with Jeremy Vennell clocking the fastest time.
The third stage was the re-designed (due to construction) Downtown Grand Prix, with a hairpin u-turn. Before the stage, BJM called it, “I think it’s going to play out really well for us in the crit. With the U-turn, it’s going to be a great crit to be on the front. If it’s strung out it might actually be safer and it will definitely be safer up front. It will be better for us regardless.”
The team lined up at the front for 60 laps, setting the pace, mowing down every attack and prepared for the final sprint. There was a point to prove. BJM said, “Prove that we’re not just a time trial, GC type of team, that’s only half of us, a whole another half of guys who can finish it off so we’ll give them a chance to stretch their legs tomorrow.”
The team gave it a go. Wamsley took second, surging up to be beaten by an inch at the line and Bevin was third.
Following his second-place in the TT, I asked AJM what he would do to beat the BISSELL team at the point in the race with two stages to go. “It’s going to have to be a really long-range attack,” he replied, “we have fast guys at the end, we have guys that have good endurance. We were doing some really big rides in our training camp and we’re coming straight from that, the team is gelling really well, we’re riding really strong. I was very impressed by every teammate that we had.”
A long-range attack seemed to be working on the final stage, the 120-mile Almond Blossom Road Race when 2-man break got 11 minutes on the field, making CalGiant’s Evan Huffman the virtual yellow on the road. The combination of good timing & riding for the break and slow pace, crash and neutralization for the field, quickly grew the gap but the BISSELL squad calmly controlled the front. With two laps to go, they dialed up the pace to reel everyone in by the final lap. The sprint was on with BJM taking the win with Thomson in third.
Depth and fun. But with the season just starting, is the form too hot? No way says AJM who won the unofficial climbing competition at training camp on the Sunday ride. “I’ve been training a bunch and I skipped the whole cyclocross season with the emphasis of being really prepared for the road season so I feel like I’ve done my base really well and that’s all I’ve done and I have a lot of room to grow still so I’m pretty happy with it right now.” A sentiment that was repeated by his teammates.
The depth of the team was obviously on display at MERCO but that wasn’t the only thing, there was also a sense of fun amongst the team that could be seen both at camp and during the race. They just seemed more relaxed than last year.
“The guys are a lot more relaxed.” agreed BJM. “We brought in some good guys, Jay obviously fit right in. Most everybody on the team know each other real well at this point, so there’s none of that feeling guys out, any kind of issues. We’re a bunch of good guys, like guys you’d want to have over at your house and be friends with anyway.”
“And to get to race together and also, just to put it out there we have a lot of faith in your teammates, they get out there and work so hard, it’s really easy to get along well.” BJM added. “I’m sure I’m going to have plenty of opportunities to pay these guys back for the win here.”
What’s next for the BISSELL riders? Time to rest up a bit before the next team race, either San Dimas Stage Race for some or the Redlands Bicycle Classic for the others. Both the Jacques-Maynes brothers are headed to their grand-father’s wedding in Cambria where they might go do some recon of the Tour of California stages.
“We’ll be continuing to improve I think, I show up in form here but I always show up with room to improve. Last year I stepped up my game above this into Redlands and I think I should be able to do the same,” concluded BJM who finished second overall at Redlands last year. “I’m pretty confident.”