Leah Kirchmann: Fast times at Nature Valley

The exciting thing about bike racing is that it can be so unpredictable, which is why both racers and spectators love  in the blink of an eye; it really is a chess game on wheels.

Last week, my team Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies lined up for the Nature Valley Grand Prix held in and around the city of Minneapolis. This race was a big focus for the team because Minneapolis is the headquarters for many of our major team sponsors including: Optum, HED wheels, Park Tools, and Lazer helmets.

The team showed up confident with a powerhouse squad, which included other Bridge the Gap supported cyclists Denise Ramsden and Joelle Numainville, as well as newly crowned US National road racing champion Jade Wilcoxson, along with teammates Brie Walle, Amber Gaffney, Janel Holcomb, and Lauren Hall.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix consisted of six stages, including a “Merckx” style time trial, two road races and three criteriums.

Our team was a dominant force in the stage one 12 km time trial, with all eight of us placing in the top 15. Most impressive was my teammate Brie who rode half the race in her small chain ring following a mechanical and she still managed to finish third, also claiming the Queen of the Mountains jersey.

The stage two St. Paul Criterium took place later in the day. Thankfully the thunderstorms we rode through earlier in the day cleared and we were left with dry pavement. There were time bonuses on the line at two intermediate sprints and at the finish line. A strong team lead out saw Optum claim the top two spots on the podium with Lauren and Jade! With time bonuses, Jade jumped ahead to take the race lead by a few seconds.

With Jade in the yellow jersey, the 150 km Cannon Falls road race was a long day of defending the lead.  Amber and I rode tempo while letting several small breaks go up the road, not allowing too big of a gap. We brought back the final breakaway on a gravel section before heading onto the final technical finishing circuits. Our team then adopted a more aggressive approach, and finally put Jade in an ideal position to launch a perfectly timed attack up a small riser on the circuit, where she got a gap and held it all the way to the finish for another stage win!

With two stage wins as a result of dedicated teamwork, we were confident going into stage three, the Uptown Criterium. I had mixed emotions starting this race, as this was where I broke my collarbone last year.  Determined to replace those memories with better ones, I stayed away from the barriers and rode hard for the team. Instead of adopting a defensive approach and riding on the front all day, we decided to instead race aggressively and force the other riders to work. The other teams couldn’t risk letting any Optum rider to get away because we were all high up on the overall GC and could take over the lead. Denise was the last solo rider to be brought back with about four laps to go. Things became a bit disorganized as the final laps counted down; however, our team magically came together for the last lap, and a near perfect Optum lead out saw Jade sprint to her second stage win!

The Menomonie road race was another long 130 km day of defending the lead on a difficult and hilly course. No idea how I managed to race with a broken collarbone last year. Jade went into this stage with a very small lead. We needed to ensure that the next two ranked competitors did not win the 12-second finish bonus without Jade also on the podium. We were prepared to give away a stage win if it meant retaining the Yellow jersey. It was a long day of different breakaway combinations and riding on the front. Lauren Stephens of Tibco had the move of the day, riding the final circuit laps solo, while the team made sure her final gap did not grow too large that it would put her ahead of Jade in the overall. Shelley Olds of Tibco won the sprint for second, which placed her one-second behind Jade in the GC.

The final sixth stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix is a crowd-pleaser. The women race the Stillwater criterium circuit 13 times up the infamous Chilcoot Hill, which averages an 18% grade. The race starts at the bottom of the climb and the finish is at the top, it’s brutal!

The peloton quickly shattered after a couple of laps up Chilcoot. I held onto the lead group for about five laps, but tired legs put me in a small chase group. With six Optum riders still in the lead group, I had confidence in my teammates. However, the race did not end on a good note. Unfortunately, Jade crashed hard on the final corner just before the finishing climb and broke her wrist. In standard race rules, a rider crashing in the last 3 km of a race should receive the same time as the pack they were riding with at the time; however, there were gaps that opened on the final climb, so the “pack” was determined to be the only two riders that happened to finish with the same time. This ruling meant Jade would lose the lead the GC by 2 seconds. The day was a cruel reminder of how unpredictable bike racing can be and how quickly things can go wrong

Even though we didn’t win the overall GC, Optum still showed that we are one of the most dominant and cohesive teams currently racing the NRC. All week we were committed to a goal, and gave absolutely everything we could to see our team succeed. That dedication paid off with three stage wins and multiple jerseys throughout the race. My teammate Amber was even selected to wear the Carla Swart sportsmanship jersey in the final race. This jersey is awarded by vote to the rider who has sacrificed the most in support of her teammates through out the week- Amber definitely deserved this one! Even when you lose, there is satisfaction in knowing you gave everything you had in an attempt to reach a common goal.

This past week demonstrated how unpredictable bike racing really is. Even after a week of flawless racing, one mistake on the last corner of a five-day stage race can cost you the win. Hopefully race conditions swing in our favour as the team lines up soon to race BC Superweek and the Gastown Grand Prix!

 

Leah

 

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