On Tap: Nature Valley Grand Prix

Posted on 15. Jun, 2011 by in race

The Nature Valley Grand Prix starts today in Minnesota, with 6 stages in 5 days which include a mix of urban criteriums, road races with finishing circuits and a time trial. The same stages as last year.

Weather has played a major role in the past for the race, including last year when stage 2, the Cannon Falls Road Race was cancelled due to more than 40 tornado sightings across Minnesota. Rain is predicted for the opening day of the race, but the weather should improve into Thursday, with temperatures heading to around 80F for the weekend.

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Both the men’s and women’s Nature Valley Grand Prix are invitationals and the fields are stacked for 2011. The women’s race may be the more dramatic. Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong had a four-year Nature Valley Grand Prix winning streak end with her retirement to start a family after winning the world championship time trial in 2009. Her “retirement” was short-lived and Armstrong will be back to try and reclaim her crown this year with Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12. But 2010 champion Shelley Olds, who raced for Armstrong last year, returns with a different team, Diadora-Pasta Zara-Manhattan, and has plans to establish a streak of her own. Both will face stiff competition from the deepest field in the history of the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

HTC-Highroad, ranked No. 1 in the world, is sending a strong squad that includes 2010 Nature Valley Grand Prix stage winners Chloe Hosking and Evelyn Stevens. Stevens may be their team leader since the Saint Paul Time Trial and Stillwater Criterium have proven to be crucial in past editions of Nature Valley, and Stevens proved herself last year by winning Stillwater and the USA Cycling national time trial on successive weekends. But the favorite may be world road champion Giorgia Bronzini, who just won the Liberty Classic in Philadelphia with the support of her Colavita Forno D’Asolo teammates, including veteran sprinter Theresa Cliff-Ryan. Bronzini’s Director Rachel Heal seemed confident earlier in the season when she said, “With Giorgia on our squad, I’m confident that we will add Nature Valley to our roster of victories.” So far, her predictions have proven to be accurate.

TIBCO’s Joelle Numainville has been riding stronger and stronger, making the Canadian Champion  one to watch. It will be interesting to see if the small Missing Link Coaching Systems/Specialized team continues racing with the same aggressivity that they demonstrated at Gila earlier this year.

Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) and Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit) climb side by side in 2010

Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) and Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit) climb side by side in 2010

In its infinite wisdom (!), the UCI approved the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team to race in its title sponsor’s backyard. As a Pro Continental team, the UCI rules clearly state that it is not allowed to race in National level races. Though the rule is archaic and makes no sense in North America, this exception makes even less sense. The rules were part of the decision making for some teams to choose to not become a Pro Conti team – and now they learn that exceptions may be granted, well maybe. Pretty tough to get a sponsor to come aboard with it is unknown which rule will be enforced and when.

With UHC on the start line, the favorite would have to be Rory Sutherland, going for his fourth straight title with support from sprinter Hilton Clark to grab time bonuses away from the competition.

It’s not just the UHC team that is racing in its sponsor’s backyard. Minneapolis the hometown of Circuit Global Sports Management and many of the Kelly Benefit Strategies-Optumhealth partners are based in Minnesota. Last year, the KBS team had the yellow jersey until the last day and they want that top step this year. Performance Director Jonas Carney stated, “Since this team began racing here, we’ve won several stages, the best young riders jersey, worn yellow, and finished on the podium. We are prepared to sacrifice everything this year for a chance to win the overall title.”

Winner of the Stillwater Criterium in 2006, Frank Pipp is back on form this year as demonstrated at the races since he won the overall at Joe Martin Stage Race. And then there’s Jamis/Sutter Home, with the always dangerous Luis Amaran. The wild card in the bunch is Team Exergy with  Andres Diaz who showed good form at Philly.

The stages. The race starts with a split day on Wednesday with the time trial in the morning followed by the St Paul Downtown Criterium in the evening. The 6.1-mile (9.8 km) St. Paul Time Trial is mostly flat, out-and-back course, but includes a stiff, 0.7 mile kicker at the end. Like last year, rule 1M1(h) is enforced which means no time trial bikes. Last year’s fastest times were 14′38″ clocked by Alison Starnes and 12′55″ by Scott Zwizanski. First woman starts at 8:30am CT and the first man at 10:0am CT.

Stage 2 is on a course full of twists, turns – a flat, fast, five-corner course that features brick sections around Rice Park and some of the most beautiful architecture in the Midwest. One change for this year is that time bonus sprints have been separated from points sprints, so riders chasing the yellow jersey won’t be competing with sprint jersey contenders. Starting at 6:15pm, the women do 28 laps and the men do 40, starting at 7:45pm.

Thursday is the 107 km (66.5 mi) Cannon Falls Road Race, the same distance for both the men and women. The course winds through scenic Goodhue County before finishing on a 3.1km (1.9 mile) circuit in downtown Cannon Falls. A gravel road section on the way into town adds another wild card to this stage. If the winds are calm in 2011, look for a pack sprint. If it’s windy, all bets are off. The men start at 5pm and the women at 5:30pm.

For the third year now, Friday brings the Uptown Minneapolis Criterium raced on a pancake-flat .88-km (0.5 mi) course that comprises six tight corners and a furious race to the finish line. Positioning coming out of the final corner will be crucial. Like Saint Paul, the time bonus and points sprints will be separate this year, forcing teams to keep close track of the laps. Starting at 6:15pm, the women do 30 laps and the men, 40, at 7:45pm.

Field makes it way up Chilkoot Hill

Field makes it way up Chilkoot Hill

The race leaves Minnesota on Saturday and heads to Menomonie, Wisconsin for the 5th Stage, the Menomonie Road Race. The first major climb comes just 12 miles into races that are 81 miles for the women and 101 miles for the men. The four Sports Beans King and Queen of the Hills lines will again be categorized, and there will be plenty of hills that are not part of that competition. Both the men and women finish off with four laps around the flat 4.8km (3.0-mile) circuits inside the city. The men start at noon and the women at 1:30pm.

And last but certainly not least is the brutal Stillwater Criterium. This signature stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix is infamous for Chilkoot Hill, the 20 percent grade wall that climbs to the finish line. But this epic climb is followed by a false flat and then First Street Hill on the backside, where many attacks take place because riders have had no chance to recover from Chilkoot. A four-corner, white-knuckled descent brings the riders back to the foot of Chilkoot for the next lap. With its unique corners and abrupt changes in grade, experience on this idiosyncratic course is a major advantage. The ‘Saturn sit-up’ has been key in the crit in the past. Starting at 11:45am, the women do 13 laps and the men, 20, at 1:30pm.

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