By James Lockwood
OUCH-Maxxis knew the fourth stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix well, having won the course the previous two years in its former incarnation as Health Net.
Bissell Pro Cyling knew this course well, too, having lost the leader’s jersey last year on the course’s mile-long climb during the four laps of the finishing circuit.
So, each knew what to expect from the 92-mile Mankato Road Race. But what transpired surprised most people, turning the showdown between powerhouse North American teams into the amateur hour – or 3 hours and 30 minutes, as the case may be.
Winning one of the biggest races of his career was Wheel & Sprocket’s Andrew Crater, who, at 31, continues to race on an amateur team despite having a professional background. He, along with Chad Gerlach of Amore & Vita presented by Life Time Fitness-Velo Vie and Mike Nothey of Land Rover-Orbea benefitting the Lance Armstrong Foundation outlasted a breakaway of 14 riders to take the top three places in the stage.
It was a move that was initiated 14 miles into the race, and few thought it would go to the end.
“I didn’t know [if we could last],” Nothey said. “I thought we would get caught in the finishing circuit.”
Instead of being caught, the trio finished 17 seconds ahead of a charging pack that included all of the overall contenders, including the current leader, Bissell Pro Cycling’s Tom Zirbel, and his teammate Peter Latham; OUCH-Maxxis’ Rory Sutherland; Sebastian Haedo of Colavita-Sutter Home presented by Cooking Light; and a host of other riders from Jelly Belly Pro Cycling and Team Type 1.
Zirbel said losing only 17 seconds was good.
“We lucked out,” Zirbel said. “I didn’t think [the break] was going to come back.”
The break that everyone ended up talking about included – at its peak – 14 riders who had built a gap of eight minutes nearly halfway through the race. Zirbell said there seemed little motivation for anyone to initiate a chase, with all five major teams represented, including Jelly Belly’s Jeremy Powers, OUCH-Maxxis’ Tim Johnson, Bissell’s Cody O’Reilly and Kirk O’Bee, Colavita-Sutter Home’s Davide Frattini, and Team Type 1’s Aldo Ino Ilesic.
Not until Fort Collins, Colo., amateur team Ciclismo Racing decided they needed to take charge about 40-miles from the finishing circuit did the gap start to fall. Zirbel tipped his hat to Ciclismo’s work as well as CRCA/Empire Cycling Team presented by Northwave.
“It could have been so much worse,” the Bissell rider said. “The amateur teams went to the front and really brought that break back. We would not have had a chance to catch the break if they hadn’t worked.”
“Today, we really showed we could go up there and tide up front,” said Ciclismo’s Nick Frey, who entered the day leading the points for both the APC Best Young Rider Jersey and the Nature Valley Best Amateur Rider Jersey but lost both on the climb in Mankato.
“We were going really slow about mile 25,” he said. “We assessed who was in the break, and every major team was represented. I thought Colavita might move up for Haedo, but they weren’t willing to sit on the front.
“So, we decided to put two to three guys up front. Then we said, ‘Let’s everyone go to the front.’ We sat up there for 45 miles.”
The assumption was that the guys in the break would not have the energy to finish strong on the two-mile circuit.
“We knew the break was going to be fried going into the finishing circuit,” he said.
As it turned out, they weren’t fried enough.
It wasn’t the group of 14 who were in the break that entered the circuit, though. Instead, it was a more selective group of eight, and of them, it was only O’Bee and Ilesic who remained of the big teams. The group also included Nicholas Clayfield of HagensBermanCycling, Ben Raby of TradeWind Energy/The Trek Stores, and Ty Stanfield of Kenda Pro Cycling presented by Spinergy.
It was Stanfield’s move at the fourh sprint line at mile 64 that created the split and drew out Gerlach, then O’Reilly, Nothey and Crater.
“I was just trying to get something going,” Kenda’s Stanfield said. “The break was going slow. I was hoping to get a little help, and Chad bridged up. Chad was like, ‘Attack the group. Attack the group.’”
It had not been the first move Stanfield had initiated. He and Clayfield had originally missed the move that formed the winning break. Together with local amateur Chris Doig of Flanders/Minnesota Bicycle Racing Club, the three worked over 12 miles to catch the leading 11.
While he ended up being caught by the chase in the finishing circuits, he finished 17 and earned the Freewheel Bike Most Aggressive Jersey, a target of the team’s coming into the stage.
That jersey could have easily gone to Gerlach. While working with Stanfield to push the pace after the sprint line, Gerlach attacked again at the 78-mile mark with Team Type 1’s Ilesic as they moved for the King of the Hill points. By mile 80 – 2.5 miles from the circuit – Gerlach had dropped Ilesic and moved 30 seconds ahead of the field.
“Today, I felt really good,” he said explaining his solo move. “Those guys just all started to look really slow when it got hilly. Once we were coming into town, it was really cool.”
However, he had never seen the hill in the circuit.
“The hill just hurt,” he said. “I really lost it the third time up the climb.”
It was the second time up that the chasing seven – with Gerlach just up the road – started to split. Nothey made his move, riding away from his fading breakway companions, and Crater dug deep to stay on his wheel.
“I couldn’t attack,” Crater said. “That guy was just going. It was all I could do to stay with him.”
“We were going really slow, or at least I thought,” Nothey said, explaining his move.
Nothey said he thought Gerlach had gone out too early – 10 miles from the finish – to be able to stay away. That spurred him on to catch the Amore & Vite/Life Time Fitness rider.
Once the three hooked up, Crater said it took both patience and pain to win the race.
“I knew I could beat [Nothey] in the sprint if I could stay with him,” Crater said.
“I didn’t want to slow way down and they have to jump,” Gerlach said of his tactics in the final lap. “I know that means I gave a lead-out to Crater.”
“I figured if I could jump in the second to the last turn, I could beat them,” the Wheel & Sprocket rider said.
Even then, the win almost slipped away from him, literally. Coming out of the last corner onto the finishing straight, Crater’s back wheel skipped out from underneath him, giving the rider a momentary scare.
“I figure, you are either going to crash, or you are going to win,” he said. “Today, I won.”
And, for another day, Bissell’s Zirbel took home the leader’s jersey.
“We decided to take a risk and say, ‘We believe in Kirk,’” he said. “All I had to do was follow Rory.
“It worked out in our favor. I didn’t have to work all day until the finishing circuit.”
“It was the plan that we didn’t want to ride tempo,” Bissell road director Eric Wohlberg said. “We wanted to just be in a position where we didn’t have to ride.”
While the team didn’t, Cody and Kirk did, and Wolhberg said that made the difference for the team.
“Cody and Kirk did a fantastic job today. They saved the day for us.”
Going into the final, sixth stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix – the Stillwater Criterium featuring the infamous 18-percent-grade Chillkoot Hill – Zirbel maintains his seven-second lead over Sutherland and a 10-second lead over Haedo, while a scrum of 22 riders representing eight teams all are within a minute of the lead.