Bissell’s Paul Mach and Jeremy Vennell roared into the windswept Columbia River Gorge and took the top two spots on the podium of the inaugural Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic in its very first stage.
There was more drama in the women’s competition. Heather Albert (Riverstone Women’s Racing Team) battled Robin Secrist (Veloforma) and Patricia Bailey (Wines of Washington) throughout the three-day, four-stage race, which ran April 3-5. Bailey won three stages, but in the end the difference proved to be Secrist’s victory in the stage-2 time trial.
Stage 1: Columbia Hills Road Race
Men covered four laps of the 18.6-mile Columbia Hills Road Race course, which featured a long gradual climb in a treeless landscape, squarely into the famous Gorge winds.
A break that formed on the first lap eventually grew to as many as 15 riders before attacks whittled it down to five. Mach and Vennell had been taking turns riding away from the break, and halfway through the third lap Mach finally cut the cord, soloing away to win the stage more than 10 minutes ahead of the field.
Vennell, the New Zealand time trial national champion, followed his teammate’s example on the last lap and rode in alone for second at 2:36. Sam Johnson and Nick Clayville, from the powerful regional team Hagens Berman out of Seattle, Washington, finished third and fourth, respectively, 3:36 behind. Evan Elken (Land Rover-Orbea) finished fifth at 3:57.
“The third time up the climb I attacked, and Jeremy just kind of sat on,” Mach said of his final escape. “I was just going to wait and see what happened. If they caught me Jeremy would be fresh. Plan B was looking pretty good. So I just went for it.”
Vennell said the race was a tale of two courses.
“On one side you’re doing 50,” he said of the tailwind side of the circuit. “On the other you’re doing 10.”
In the women’s opener, a seven-rider break formed on the big climb going into the headwind and quickly started putting time into the chase group throughout the three-lap, 60-mile race.
Bailey, Secrist and Albert escaped the break near the finish, and the three riders worked together until Albert attacked with about 400 meters to go. Bailey was able to come around her for the win and hold off a hard-charging Secrist. The trio put nearly a minute into Erin Ford (O) and Kelly Woznicki (Hagens Berman) and nearly four minutes on the rest of the field.
Stage 2: Crash Canyon Time Trial
The Hagens Berman team came out swinging Saturday morning in an 8-mile, out-and-back time trial dubbed “Crash Canyon” for the carnage reaped when the 2007 Mt. Hood Cycling Classic sent a large pack down the twisting, narrow farm road.
The Washington riders claimed two of the top three spots in the time trial after falling prey to the Bissell one-two punch the day before. Adrian Hegyvary set the best time of the day (17:04) with Patrick Stanko third in 17:44. Vennell was sandwiched in between the two at 17:12.
Despite Hagens Berman’s success, Mach remained comfortably atop the GC after finishing seventh in the time trial. Vennell remained second at 1:44, with Clayville third at 3:31.
Secrist, meanwhile, used her winning time trial to take the overall lead in the women’s race. Her time of 19:44 gave her a 31-second lead over Albert, who finished in 20:15. Bailey was third in 20:43, 59 seconds down on GC.
Stage 3: Cherry City Criterium
The winds ceased and the sun warmed things up for Saturday evening’s Cherry City Criterium, a four-corner, 1km crit in downtown The Dalles. The men’s race was shortened from 50 minutes to 35 after a crash on the last lap of the women’s race delayed the start.
After being shut out in the first two stages of the race, Land Rover-Orbea tuned the team game to perfection, launching Roman Van Uden across the line ahead of the Hagens Berman’s lead-out train and Bissell’s pros. Steven Beardsley (Gentle Lovers) hitched a ride on the Hagens Berman train to take second with Joshua Liberales (Ten Speed Drive) third.
“It was really a full team effort for the last few laps,” Van Uden said. “Evan (Elken) was my last man out there. He took me through the last two corners and I came right off his wheel. Steven Beardsley was right there, but he had some issues taking the last corner too tight and skipped out his wheel. Even he said afterward you had to be second wheel coming out of that last corner to win the race. And that’s where I was.”
The women’s winner was first out of that final corner — stage 1 winner Bailey collected her second stage victory ahead of Albert with Secrist third.
In a race typified by attacks that were quickly swallowed up by the motivated field, Bailey knew she’d have to be first out of the last corner to win a field sprint.
“In the earlier races, no one changed position coming out of the last corner,” Bailey said. “So I decided to (attack) on the back side of the course into the wind. Team Group Health girls did a great job of keeping the pace up, and that was really, really helpful.”
But her victory was marred by a terrifying last-corner crash that sent four riders to the local hospital.
Stage 4: Columbia Gorge Road Race
The finale was all about control for Bissell. With the nearest competition more than three-and-a-half minutes down and the field nearly 10 minutes back, the quartet of pros had just a couple of riders to mark.
The 82-mile race sent riders grinding up a long, exposed climb up into the Columbia hills, then down a hair-raising descent through downtown Mosier that saw speeds in excess of 50 mph. A technical descent through the Rowena Loops on the Historic Columbia River Highway followed. Temps passed 70 and the winds subsided for the second day in a row.
Stage 2 time trial winner Hegyvary, 9:35 behind Mach, soloed away on the second of three laps to take the stage win. Mach rode away from a small chase group and attempted to bridge up to the leader, but fell a bit short, finishing just five seconds behind. Land Rover-Orbea’s Elken took third, pipping Vennell at the line.
“I was inching closer and closer and closer,” said Mach. “But I just ran out of pavement.”
Vennell, meanwhile, said he wanted to chase down Hegyvary, but the team decided to wait.
“I was keen to bring him back,” Vennell said. “But we had a bit of a discussion and let him slip away almost up to three minutes there. We wanted to keep it under control and only have to bring back a minute or so. Three minutes is a bit uncomfortable. We would have liked to get a stage win. You don’t want to get too greedy. But winning’s always nice.”
The race had little effect at the top of the GC. Mach won the overall in 7:46:35 with Vennell second at 4:38 and Clayville third at 6:25.
Secrist was playing defense, too. Bailey scored her third win of the Cherry Blossom by out-sprinting a group of seven, finishing in front of Albert and Secrist. But while she and Albert battled throughout the race for the crucial seconds to overturn Secrist’s overall lead, both fell short. Secrist only needed to finish near her fellow riders to take the overall, and the lead group approached the line together.
“That was some real racing out there today,” Secrist said of the 55-mile women’s race. “It was really hard. That is quite a climb and some technical descents. Heather Albert is an amazing technical rider, so we had to work really hard to try and keep her in sight. She was getting a lot of distance, and we had to chase back on.”
Despite Bailey’s hat-trick weekend, Secrist’s winning time trial was the difference in the overall — the rider from Kirkland, Washington, finished with an overall time of 6:41:30. Runner-up Albert was 31 seconds down with Bailey third at 59 seconds.
“I even had a good time trial,” Bailey said. “Robin (Secrist) had a better one.”