Tom Zirbel relied on his teammates to help him bring home the overall win at the North Star Grand Prix, the team’s fifth win in five years and Zirbel’s second at the midwest’s premier stage race. The notorious Stillwater course covers 24 short laps, each with a short, steep climb on Chilkoot Hill reaching grades over 22%. It was one final challenge in the team’s defense of Zirbel’s lead, overtaken a day earlier in Menomonie.
“The team was great – I didn’t touch the wind one time. They were keeping the corners really fast and controlled and we never took any risks,” said Zirbel. “The move up the road was good for us so it was the lowest stress level you could ask for when defending yellow.”
Zirbel reclaimed the overall he took in stage one in the opening time trial, and 2014 defending champion Ryan Anderson also earned the team its first win at the Uptown Criterium in over seven years of competition at the event. His win means five straight overall victories for Optum p/b KBS at the North Star race. 2011 winner Jesse Anthony and defending champion Ryan Anderson were both there to assist Zirbel in the defense, along with Scott Zwizanski and Will Routley. The team lost Guillaume Boivin to a crash in stage two, but the five remaining riders defended with authority in Stillwater.
See a photo gallery from the beautiful Stillwater course.
“You worry about crashing, mechanicals, and I was cramping yesterday so I wanted to keep it as smooth as possible and the team did a brilliant job,” said Zirbel. “Even when attacks would go they would keep it easy on me and that led to the win today.”
Performance Director Jonas Carney has guided the team to all five of their North Star victories, and he knew his team was comfortable with the task at hand. “We’ve had to defend the jersey here in Stillwater for five or six years in a row, so the guys know it well,” said Carney. “We wanted to keep the team together, stay calm, and give other riders a chance to fight for the stage. We ramped up the speed on the last five laps in order to keep Tom out of trouble, and the team executed to perfection.”
Routley and Anderson finished 4th and 6th on the stage, but metered their efforts for most of the race to assist Zirbel.
“I think it’s the difference between winning and losing a stage – you’re either fully committing or not,” said Carney. “Without fully committing as a team, bringing a strong breakaway back like today in Stillwater or yesterday in Menomonie would be very hard. Our goal for the week was to win the overall and we didn’t want the team to be distracted from that.”
As the hometown race of both title sponsor Optum and its managing company Circuit Sport, Carney knows the riders take extra pride in winning here, and has always emphasized the event to his athletes.
“I attribute our success here to our guys understanding that this is an important race, and that we need to come here and win. I think there is a little bit of extra motivation, which is always fun to see in front of so many of the team’s supporters.”