If there were any questions about whether Cervélo-Lifeforce rider Kristin Armstrong was looking for a three-peat performance at the 2008 Nature Valley Grand Prix, those questions were answered during a windy, rain-lashed criterium in Saint Paul.
Armstrong took off like a bandit from the starting gun at the first stage of the six-stage race, demonstrating the combination of guts and skills it takes to be a World Champion. During her astounding effort against what is a broad and deep pool of women's talent, Armstrong eventually lapped almost the entire women's field. The nearly superhuman performance not only gave Armstrong the stage win, but also put her in the Wheaties Sprint jersey, the Jelly Belly Queen of the Hills jersey and the Nature Valley GP Overall Leader yellow jersey. While she was trouncing her competitors, officials pulled more than half of the women's field and made the decision to let the entire group advance to the road stage in Cannon Falls tomorrow.
Heading into the race, Armstrong took a conservative stance. "The number one goal I have is Beijing in two months, so I need to remember that," she said. "With these conditions out here tonight I just want to be safe and I hope the Peloton has the same feeling about being safe and we work together tonight." But when the gun went off and the rubber hit the road, Armstrong took another tack. "When there's rain and there's a criterium, those two equal 'try to go by yourself,'" said Armstrong. "I knew that it wasn't going to be the safest course and I just wanted to stay safe and the only way you can do that is either stay in front or try to break the field, so I just decided to sit up and go as hard as I could."
And go as hard as she could she did. Team TIBCO put forth an outstanding team effort chasing Armstrong, with Brooke Miller, Joanne Kiesanowski, and Lauren Franges all finishing in the top five and Kiesanowski and Miller taking second and third in the stage respectively. PROMAN Racing's Rachel Lloyd took fourth and also made chase with the TIBCO riders for Armstrong. Franges' efforts earned her the BOOST Best Young Rider jersey for the evening.
TIBCO's effort was part of a bigger goal for the team. "TIBCO has a really strong team here and we are racing for the overall," said Miller. "We have eight strong riders and the reason why we were racing so aggressively and chasing Kristin is because we want to win this race. We don't want to win just stages, we want to win this race."
Race officials made the decision to neutralize the stage results, meaning Armstrong and the TIBCO team gained no time advantage for their dominating efforts. The official's decision was based on rain-soaked conditions making it impossible to score the race fairly at the end.
"If they do [neutralize the time results], I'm going to be really outraged," said TIBCO's Brooke Miller, before the final decision had been made, "…as a sprinter I wouldn't normally spend half a race solo up the race in a break. That's not what my strength is. That burns a lot of matches for me later on in the race. Not to mention, Kristin had a heroic race today. To take that away from her is outrageous. She deserves the time and we deserve the time. Our girls raced really hard today to make sure that we are in good standing for the rest of the race, and for girls that sat in the pack, you know, it's not fair."
While some riders, like Miller, found the decision unfortunate, others supported it.
The Ryan Collegiate All-Stars, a composite team of the six best unsigned collegiate women in the United States went into the evening's race with a different strategy: "To survive," said Amanda Miller of Colorado State University. With the entire team advancing to Thursday's stage in Cannon Falls, they should get a good taste of racing with the pro women's peloton. "I'm really excited to see this sort of a field," said Anna McLoon of Harvard University. "This is about twice the number of riders that I've ever seen and a lot of the best riders in the country are here, so I'm just excited to be able to see what it's like and see what we can do."
Hoping the severe weather abates, the teams now turn their attention to the second stage. "I'm super psyched to be here," said Armstrong. "Hopefully the weather's a little bit better. I feel pretty good. The other teams have to be pretty aggressive. There's a time trial coming up on Friday, so I'll probably recover a little bit tomorrow, see what pans out. It could be windy conditions, it could be rainy again, I just have to wake up and see how I feel."
Team TIBCO is taking a more focused approach. "We want to win it and we want to put some time in the GC," said Brooke Miller with a smile. "We've got a great team and I'm really excited to show what we can do…I'm not typically a gc rider but we've got eight just absolute diesel engines on our team." As the winner of the 2007 Cannon Falls stage, Miller had an extra twinkle in her eye. "Tomorrow is my stage, it's special for me."
Photo courtesy of https://www.minnbikefestival.com