Riders from Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies did the hardest work in Wednesday night’s St. Paul Criterium, the second stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix. They chased down Loren Rowney of Specialized-lululemon on a late-race breakout and protected the overall yellow jersey for teammate Carmen Small, winner of Wednesday morning’s time trial.
The only thing Optum failed to do was win the stage.
Exergy TWENTY12’s Theresa Cliff-Ryan burst ahead of Small and Optum sprint specialist Leah Kirchmann into the final corner and pulled away down St. Peter Street to win in 59 minutes and nine seconds. Kirchmann finished second and Small third.
But Small earned 16 seconds’ worth of time bonuses to reduce her overall time to 1 hour, 16 minutes and 23 seconds. That was good for a 25-second lead on defending champion Amber Neben, who led for several early laps before dropping off and finishing 15th. Optum teammate Janel Holcomb, fourth after the time trial, moved up to third after helping chase down Rowney.
“I wasn’t worried,” Small said. “The girls rode absolutely incredible. It was pretty awesome.”
Rowney forged ahead with 11 laps to go in the 28-lap criterium and led by as many as nine seconds until Holcomb, Jade Wilcoxson and Denise Ramsden wiped it out. Cliff-Ryan said she and her teammates expected Optum to reel in Rowney, who would finish fifth, and were perfectly content to watch it happen.
“My team knew that (Optum) didn’t want to let a breakaway go because they had Leah there for the sprint. She’s an excellent sprinter,” Cliff-Ryan said. “And they wanted to protect Carmen overall. So we knew they wanted to pull her back, so we just let them do the work to save my girls for the lead out for me.”
Optum might have chased Rowney down earlier had Small not tempered their aggressiveness.
“The girls wanted to close faster and I was like, slow, slow, slow. Just keep eye’s distance,” Small said. “The main thing is, we just wanted her to dangle out here as long as possible.”
Once the peloton caught up with four laps to go, Optum and Exergy Twenty12 riders traded off the lead the rest of the way. Exergy Twenty12’s Kristin McGrath jumped ahead with three laps left, pushing the pace as the field sped by alfresco diners noshing on crepes and steak tartare at the popular French restaurant Meritage. Then McGrath gave way to teammate and time trial runner-up Jackie Crowell heading into the final lap.
“We wanted it to come down to a sprint,” Ryan said.
Kirchmann settled in behind Wilcoxson, who led the pack into the wind down W. 7th Street toward the Xcel Energy Center.
“I felt pretty bad,” Kirchmann said. “She was suffering pretty good but made it really fast. Then Carmen took over on the last straight there with me on her wheel.”
But Small couldn’t hold off Ryan.
“My last girl, Heather (Logan Sprenger), made a jump on the second-to-last straight, and got me into the last corner first,” Ryan said. “All I had to do was sprint the last straight. They did an excellent job keeping me in position and leading me out.”
Said Kirchmann: “We wanted to be 1-2 coming out of the corner, but unfortunately Exergy jumped us into the corner. That sort of foiled our plan a little bit. But we were still able to pull off second and third, and hold onto the yellow jersey, so we’re happy with that.”
Crowell, 24, maintained the white jersey she earned in the morning as the TRIA Best Young Rider. In the team competition, Optum won the stage and leads Exergy Twenty12 by 32 seconds heading into Thursday’s Stage 3, the Cannon Falls Road Race.
Top 10 Stage 2 Results
1. Theresa Cliff Ryan (Exergy TWENTY12) .59’09”
2. *Leah Kirchmann (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies)
3. Carmen Small (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies)
4. Lenore Pipes (Kowalski’s Collegiate All-Stars)
5. *Loren Rowney (Specialized-lululemon)
6. *Emily Collins (Vanderkitten-Focus)
7. *Anne-Marie Morin (Specialized-Mazda-SGC)
8. Heather Logan Sprenger (Exergy TWENTY12)
9. *Samantha Schneider (Team TIBCO)
10. Lindsay Bayer (Nature Valley Cycling Team)
Top 10 GC After Stage 2
1. Carmen Small (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) 1.16’23”
2. Amber Neben (Specialized-lululemon) 25″
3. Janel Holcomb (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) 29″
4. *Jackie Crowell (Exergy TWENTY12) 32″
5. Jade Wilcoxson (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) 37″
6. *Emilia Fahlin (Specialized-lululemon) 39″
7. *Denise Ramsden (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) 45″
8. #Brianna Walle (Nature Valley Cycling Team) 48″
9. #Amber Gaffney (SC Velo – Empower Coaching) 53″
10. *Leah Kirchmann (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) 54″