Tuesday, September 1, 2015

North Star Grand Prix - St. Paul Criterium

The first time I did the North Star Grand Prix (then called Nature Valley) I was a 24 old 'kid' and new to NRC stage racing here in the US. Back then, while racing for Mercy Cycling, I attacked often, raced aggressive and did my best to help my teammates in their GC ambitions. Now this Summer, almost 10 years after first trip up to green and bike-friendly Minnesota, coming back with my Elbowz team not much had changed really. Except that I'm a little older, and maybe learned a few things on how to race a NRC race successfully.

My teammate Michael Sheehan had gotten on the podium in the short, morning prologue TT Stage 1, we had two more guys (Kevin & Colin) in the Top10, and had two classification jerseys in the team. It was a great start for the US and gave me definitely some motivation for the evening Stage 2 Criterium in downtown St. Paul.
The crits during NRC stage races are usually following the same script: The defending team (yellow jersey) rides the front, let's an early break go for a bit, the GC riders just want to get through it with spending as little as possible energy, and a few amateurs are shooting for glory and go broke in a most likely unsuccessfull break-away. With that in mind, and the fact that I'm most likely not standing on the GC podium at the end of the race come Sunday I had a bit of a "free role" for this Crit. I liked that idea since -  even at age 33 - I still like to "race" and be part of the race and make things happen for our "Elbros".

With a short, 1km, and technical course through downtown St. Paul and only 40 laps on the board I knew this was going to be a short but hard Crit. Riding in the front would make this technical Crit so much easier. From the start I moved up and rode along side Michael who had the KOM jersey and was going to be our man for the finish. Our guest rider Carmen Small (!) was at the front of he race, too and I felt pretty comfortable with the course and noticed we weren't really going all that fast. After the first time bonus sprint I sensed a lull moment where the GC team (Optum) was getting ready to "settle down" so a Colombian ChampSys-NoTubes rider (Bryan Gomez) and I attacked and together with my fellow Texas friend Andrew Dahlheim we suddenly were 3 guys off the front by just a couple of seconds. I told them now or never and we kicked it hard for a couple of laps before settling in for smooth rotations and riding fast but yet still within my limits. Too often, too many times did I blew up in the last 5 laps of a "what-looked-to-be-a-successful-breakaway" so I kept that in mind while listening to our team boss Ben Spies who stood past the finish line with our crew and gave me splits: 15seconds...20sec, 25sec, 35sec, almost 45sec at one point.

It looked promising: I was able to get two time bonus sprints while the ChampSys rider took the Sprint points and I got 2nd both times. We didn't fight for it really, I just knew that I can't have everything and needed to keep the focus on the time and the finish. The finish came up really soon since we only did 1:15min laps on the 1K course. The ChampSys rider and I did the most share of the work and he could corner very well and sure looked like he's got a good sprint in him. Same for Andrew, 9 out of 10 times he'd smoke me in a sprint. So, what to do?
The time gaps got smaller and smaller and the words of my boss Ben louder and louder: "15 SECONDS". Optum was chasing now full on; besides Zirbel (their guy in yellow) they had two fast sprinters here, too and their sponsor is based in Minneapolis / St. Paul. So the gap was coming down and I noticed we needed to go faster in order to make it. It's a cat & mouse play... You try to save your matches for the last few laps so you can put out the high Watts at the end, when it counts while attempting to "fool" the chase a little bit. Both Andrew and ChampSys rider didn't seem to be able to go much faster and once I heard the screams of "8 SECONDS" I knew I needed to make a decision: do I keep riding with them, maybe stay away and get and NRC podium (my first) with the possibility to get caught. OR, do I try to get away solo and do a lap or two at full throttle/all-out and have the chance at winning... again, with the possibility of getting caught. Well, I chose the latter.

Two laps to go and we had looked back and saw the orange train of Optum chasing hard. Out of instinct, with a lap and a quarter to go I went for it and sprinted from the back of Andrew & Bryan as hard as I can to the other side of the road, then diving into the slight uphill Start/Finish straight and went for it. To my surprise, neither of my two break away companions were on my wheel. I don't remember much, my legs were going well and any kind of pain was suppressed by the adrenaline/rush I felt riding off the front now. I was just hoping I wouldn't clip a pedal on some of that bumpy downtown tarmac going now full speed through the turns. Before the final right turn to the finish I checked to see if I'm gonna make it and saw I still had 50 meters or so. As I sprinted out of the last turn I had enough time to look back making sure I could actually raise my hands and not "pull a Zabel"...
photo: Matthew Moses / Moses Images
Crossing the line, just one or two bike length ahead of the two cagy Optum sprinters (Guillaume Boivin and Ryan Anderson) was exciting to say the least. My teammate Michael was first to come up behind me (after a great 7th place for himself) and riding that cool-down lap together with my teammates and sharing this win with them meant so much to me. Yes, I've won a few races in the past 15-20 years and been on the podium several times but this one sure was special since I've been trying at the NRC level for a while and finally: it all came together. These days, I find myself often racing for my teammates simply because they're often in a better position to win - they won't even let me win a Driveway anymore ;-)

The one person who I like to thank most is Ben Spies, owner and founder of our team. Not only is he giving me the opportunity to race bikes at this level and support me 100% but having a former World Superbike Champ and MotoGP race winner on the sidelines of a bicycle race and encourage you is a incredible motivation when trying to succeed. His competitive spirit is definitely transferring to all of us riders and makes us work even harder as a team.

Elbowz Out,

PS: Find my NSGP St. Paul Criterium power2max power file here on TrainingPeaks

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