While Megan Guarnier crossed the finish line at the top of strength-sapping Chilkoot Hill on Sunday, she desperately locked eyes with her Team TIBCO director, Angela van Smoorenburg, and asked the question that bothered her through the final torturous lap of the Stillwater Criterium.
“Am I done?” she said.
“Oh yes”, van Smoorenburg said. And Guarnier, who gritted her teeth through her 13th and final ascent of the Nature Valley Grand Prix’s steepest grade, finally relaxed. She wasn’t sure the last lap was the last lap until van Smoorenburg confirmed it.
“I thought I was done, but I didn’t want to sit up (and stop too soon),” Guarnier said. “You always hear horror stories. I didn’t want to be one of them.”
Guarnier’s breakaway 17-second victory on the fifth and final stage couldn’t prevent Carmen Small of Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies from winning the overall championship, or Optum from wrapping up the team title.
Small, who began the day leading Emilia Fahlin by 36 seconds and defending champion Amber Neben by 44, took third in the stage to easily outdistance both Specialized-lululemon riders. Fahlin’s fourth-place finish in the stage left her second overall, 38 seconds behind Small. Neben fell off the pace late and lost so much ground on the stage – she crossed the line 20th – that she dropped to 12th overall.
“It’s a stellar result,” said Small, 32, a first-time Nature Valley champion. “I’m very excited about it. But I couldn’t have done it alone. I couldn’t have done it without the team that we have.
If I had been on any other team, it wouldn’t have happened. I owe a lot to them.”
Jade Wilcoxson of Optum, a Nature Valley Pro Chase alumna who usually sets a late hard pace for Small, guided Small through the final three laps and the last run up Chilkoot to finish second. Wilcoxson’s effort covered for the absence of sprinter Leah Kirchmann, who banged up her shoulder in a crash during the Uptown Minneapolis Criterium on Friday and did not start Sunday. And it earned Wilcoxson third place overall.
To handle the 22 percent grade up Chilkoot – an incline so dangerously steep that the city never plows it in the winter — most riders stand in the saddle to pump the pedals while balancing themselves on the handlebars. It’s tough on shoulders and elbows, and Kirchmann couldn’t ride without pain.
“This is such a tough course if you have any kind of injury, because you use your upper body so much on this course going up that climb,” Wilcoxson said.
For Small and Optum, the individual and team victory made up a stressful week that began with their team car being burglarized in St. Paul last Tuesday. Team director Rachel Heal, of Great Britain, lost her passport. None of the stolen items have been recovered, Heal said.
Small also learned Friday she wasn’t chosen for the Olympic Team. And Small has been racing while her husband, the German cyclist Ben Sonntag, awaits his green card so he can join her in the U.S.
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t disappointed,” Small said of the Olympic selection. “It was really close between about four of us. It was hard. I’m really happy for the people who made the team. They’re great bike racers and they deserve to go.
“I don’t know if I’ll continue or not. Four years is a long time to wait. I’m married. I want to have family. That is a priority in my life, too. Time will tell. We’ll see how the year turns out.”
Guarnier, already wearing the red jersey as the Freewheel Bike Most Aggressive Rider, tried breaking away in three previous stages — the St. Paul and Uptown Criteriums, as well as the Menomonie Road Race. Each time, the field caught her.
But not Sunday. Guarnier made her move after early leader Kristin McGrath of Exergy TWENTY12 jumped off her bike with eight laps to go to fix a mechanical problem. Two laps later, Guarnier grabbed the lead and held it to the finish.
“I just needed to keep putting pressure on the pedals and not being too concerned with what was coming behind me,” she said. “When I first went off, I didn’t think I could hold it. But then with five, four laps to go, when you start to think, oh, maybe I can keep the gap.”
And her question at the end? Guarnier said the digital counter at the finish line indicating the laps remaining still showed “1” as she approached. Small said she noticed the same thing. But van Smoorenburg said Guarnier seemed unsure the lap before, too. Passing van Smoorenburg then, Guarnier tapped her ear. Van Smoorenburg thought Guarnier was asking how many seconds ahead she was.
“She was a bit confused,” van Smoorenburg said.
Chilkoot can do that to people.
The other jersey winners for the week:
- TRIA Orthopedic Best Young Rider (under 26): Emilia Fahlin, Specialized-lululemon.
- Nature Valley Top Cat 2 (best amateur): Brianna Walle, Nature Valley.
- EXERGY Sprint Champion: Theresa Cliff Ryan, Exergy TWENTY12
- Jelly Bean Sport Beans Queen of the Hills: Jade Wilcoxson, Optum
- Freewheel Bike Most Aggressive Rider: Megan Guarnier, Team TIBCO
- Carla Swart Best Sportsman (by vote of riders): Anna Barensfeld, Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies