The Menomonie Road Race is the most difficult and decisive day of racing at the North Star Grand Prix, and this year’s edition did not disappoint. The Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies team, a handful of seconds out of the overall lead, worked to slowly dismantle the peloton, eventually dislodging the yellow jersey Ben Hill (Donkey Label Racing), who put up a fierce fight on the tough 101 mile course in the Wisconsin countryside.
“It took our whole team to take back the yellow jersey. Hill has been very strong all week, and we had to throw everything we had into the pot to finally crack him,” said Zirbel. “We tried to be very aggressive, and a lot of the other teams keyed off us, which we expected. The course is so selective and there were a lot of guys out there who wanted to race today, which was pretty refreshing. Once the right combination got up the road, we were able to put a serious dent in the race.”
See our photo essay of stage five’s lush rolling countryside, humid forests, and a bit of good ‘ol Wisconsin americana.
The concerted team effort to reclaim yellow began with an extended effort by Will Routley, covering dozens of miles at the front of the racing to ensure no one was comfortable before things got tough. With a small group jumping up the road shortly after the race left town, the Orange & Black began a slow, steady march to eventually overtake it. The course’s extended sequence of short, steep climbs provided numerous launching pads, and after Routley’s pacemaking, Scott Zwizanski, Tom Zirbel, Ryan Anderson, and Jesse Anthony began a rapid-fire sequence of attacks. Eventually, Zirbel escaped, bridging up to a lead group where he was the highest ranked rider on general classification, a group that did not include Hill.
“The strategy was to start attacking when the climbs started around 38 miles into the race, and use our superior numbers to eventually get one of our GC guys away from Ben Hill,” said Performance Director Jonas Carney. “They guys were great, throwing in nonstop attacks, and I know they are exhausted from their effort. We ended up losing four guys in the top eight overall to take the lead on GC, but that’s bike racing and that’s what we wanted.”
The team must defend yellow on the race’s notorious final stage, the Stillwater Criterium, if they hope to take home an unprecedented five straight overall victories at their hometown race.
“I’m never confident in Stillwater,” said Carney. “It’s a really hard course, and it’s a dangerous course with fast downhill corners, and we only have one GC guy now in Zirbel. Anything can happen, so I don’t want to count our chickens before they are hatched, but the team loves the race and are all-in for Tom.”