Tom Zirbel of the Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies team set the fastest time on the Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial, the opening stage of the North Star Grand Prix on Wednesday morning. The only rider to crack the 10-minute mark, Zirbel clocked a time of nine minutes and 51 seconds on the five-mile course along East River Parkway. Mac Brennan of Bissell-ABG-Giant was second, at 13 seconds down, only 600 hundreds of a second faster than third place Eric Marcotte of Team SmartStop.
“I felt good. The last few days I was like ‘oh this could be good’, when you have that feeling in your legs when you have more to give so I’m happy that I went as well as I felt,” Zirbel commented. He felt the out-and-back course was fairly straightforward. “They made a nice big turnaround for us and took out that hill so no excuses for me.”
Shooting for a top 10 result, Brennan was surprised to finish second on the stage. “Last weekend I did a race in Michigan, I had a similar distance prologue and won that, so I was feeling pretty good coming in but second was definitely a surprise especially with this caliber of field. Normally, I would be not happy with second but to be second to Tom Zirbel is always good so I was happy with it.”
Marcotte, the reigning US National Road Race Champion, appreciated the shorter time trial distance in this year’s race. “They took about two miles out of it from last year and I think that allows myself and Travis [McCabe] to stay closer to what Zirbel can do because he’s such a stud on the TT scene. Hopefully keeping it within striking distance and grabbing a few time bonuses in the next couple of days we can slowly get closer and closer and maybe get a chance to win.”
Fifth place on the stage and 20 seconds down, Ben Wolfe of the California Giant Berry Farms/Specialized team nabbed the white TRIA Orthopedic Center Best Young Rider jersey. The 20-year old will be looking to defend his jersey. “I’m usually not good at prologue efforts like this, usually I’m better at longer time trials so I expected that I could ride hard but I didn’t expect at this level of a race for the first race at this level this year I would be able to do what I did but I just rode hard and finished well.”
Coulton Hartrich of the SeaSucker / Guttenplan Coaching team, grabbed the green North Star Top Amateur jersey with a 10th place finish, 29 seconds down from the winner.
Zirbel, the 2012 overall winner, holds a 13-second lead in the general classification. He and his Optum team which is headquartered in Minneapolis, are looking to defend their three consecutive titles. “Every year there is a lot of pressure because we want to perform well for our sponsors, we really appreciate what they do for us so the least we could do is win this race.” he said with a laugh. The magic recipe to winning the North Star Grand Prix is to “stack the time trial” according to Zirbel. “You can’t control this race start to finish and we didn’t bring sprinters, there’s all this time bonus available so it’s all going to come down to the road races probably. We just have to have the highest in the break.”
“They brought their A squad for sure and I think we would too if it was our hometown race.” Marcotte said of the Optum squad. Marcotte, who won the overall Best Amateur in 2012, has to take into account the fact that his squad is split across two races this week. “We’re going to have to use our head and be really smart with the efforts that we do. Honestly it’s probably better that we didn’t take the lead today because it would be hard to manage the level of competition here.”
Brennan is looking to play off the rivalry between Optum and SmartStop in the next few stages. “The plan is to let Optum and SmartStop duke it out for a few stages and maintain and see where things are at for the last few stages, the road race and Stillwater where there could be an opportunity to move up.”
Racing continues on Wednesday evening with the Downtown Saint Paul Criterium, contested on a 1.4-km course in the Rice Park district.