By James Lockwood
In a stage race where "epic" is an apropos word used to describe weather conditions, Thursday's second stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix - the Cannon Falls Road Race - provided a bit of a surprise.
It was sunny, in the 70s, with little crosswinds.
"We were waiting for the crosswinds to come, but they never did," said Healthnet-Maxxis' Kirk O'Bee.
"We were actually hoping for a lot of crosswinds," his director sportif, Mike Tamayo, said.
Without those winds, Healthnet-Maxxis did what any team with a national criterium champion would do. They sat in on the 60-mile jaunt through the rolling farm country of east-central Minnesota until the finishing circuits, led four of five finishing laps through the 2-mile circuit, and delivered O'Bee to the win he was denied in the first stage of Nature Valley.
"Normally you wouldn't start [leading] from eight-and-a-half miles out, but our guys were strong," Tamayo said.
O'Bee tipped his hat to his team for the pace they pushed.
"They did it perfectly," O'Bee said. "Without those guys, I wouldn't have won."
It was a humble statement from a rider who made this a repeat win from 2007. However, as O'Bee told the story, he was not the rider who was supposed to win.
"I was actually trying to help John," O'Bee said, referring to his teammate, John Murphy, who took third on the stage. "He was in front of me coming out of the last corner. I came around him and was hoping he would get on my wheel."
With 500 meters from that corner into the uphill finish, it was a daring move for O'Bee, who made it stick to the end.
"I didn't think I was going to make it," he admitted.
Just a little longer, he might not have. At least, that is the story Alex Candelario of Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast told.
"If I had another 10 feet, I would have caught him," said Candelario, who finished second on the race.
Still, his placing was a bit of surprise, as he said he was not planning to sprint but lead out his teammate, Martin Gilbert. When Gilbert was not on his wheel coming out of the last corner, Candelario said he was told to open it up and go for the win.
But O'Bee had experience on the course. "Tactically, it was similar to last year," O'Bee said. "The course is so tight, you have to get up front. It is hard to come around."
And his team had motivation after race officials called off the first stage of the nature Valley Grand Prix with O'Bee leading.
"[Wednesday's decision] acted as a great motivator for the guys," Tamayo said.
O'Bee stopped short of calling Thursday's second stage win vindication for Wednesday's cut-short effort, but he said he was upset after the first stage, an emotion he didn't seem to be showing after the second stage. "Who knows what would have happened if they had restarted the race. Maybe I wouldn't have won," he said.
It was a sentiment Candelario shared, as his team was charging hard in Wednesday's stage chasing O'Bee down when the race was stopped. He said the team was disappointed with the call to stop the race, and there was little to compliment on the action on Thursday, too, outside of his placing.
"It was just not hard enough," Candelario said about Thursday's action. "It was pretty negative racing. It was such a short race, it was difficult to split things apart. "
Not that Kelly Benefit Strategies didn't try. They played at the front of the peloton most of the race and featured in the best break of the day, a solo effort by Jonny Sundt for 12 miles that was never more than a minute from the field.
Only a few other attacks were made, and the field stayed together most of the day. Jelly Belly's director sportif, Danny Van Haute, chalked up the lack of action to spent riders coming out of a 250-kilometer effort in 100-degree heat in Philadelphia.
"I think Philly took a little more out of everyone than they thought it had," he said.
His rider, Nick Reistad, who took the Sports Beans King of the Mountains jersey on the stage, called the racing nervous with everyone packed tight for the whole stage.
"No team was willing to take the helm," he said.
That is until Healthnet hit the circuit.
And with the win on Thursday, Tamayo said they plan to keep control of the race and the leader's jersey going into Friday's third and fourth stages, the 6-mile Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial in the morning and the Downtown Minneapolis Classic criterium in the evening.
"We're confident," he said. "We're here to win."
Photo courtesy of https://www.minnbikefestival.com