TUCSON, Arizona (VN) — “For early March, that race was ridiculously fast on the front end.”
Announcer Chad Andrews was reflecting on Saturday night’s Old Pueblo Grand Prix criterium, the first race in the 2013 USA Crits and National Criterium Calendar, at which Luke Keough (UnitedHealthcare) and Leah Kirchmann (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) seized victories with fairly hardnosed precision.
“At times, this was nothing short of a dogfight,” Andrews said. “Teams were essentially beating the hell out of each other all night. It’s not what I expected right out of the gate.”
Keough, who finished second in the 2012 national rankings — behind Hilton Clarke, now one of his teammates —said the race “started off fast, with everyone wanting to prove themselves.”
“It made for exciting racing,” he added. “It definitely wasn’t handed to us.”
Keough wasn’t kidding. A mid-race crash put the new UnitedHealthcare member on the deck, leaving him “super sore.”
“But when the guys ride so strong, the only option is to lay everything down for them in return,” Keough added. “Particularly with a dangerous break up the road.”
The “danger” Keough was referring to was the trio of Gord Fraser (Body by Vi-VeloVie), Luis Amaran (Jamis-Hagens Berman-Sutter Home), and Chad Beyer (Champion System). They escaped the field midway through the event, but never took more than 24 seconds’ advantage.
“The guys had been riding for so long,” Keough said about the finale. “Everyone left it all out there. Hilton led me through the last few corners and I hit out at 150 meters … full gas to the line.”
That was enough for Keough to pip Demis Aleman (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Rahsaan Bahati (Sharecare Cycling-Wheelandsprocket.com).
“Amazing,” Keough said. “The team has been super supportive. They know the nerves [associated with] coming onto to the big team and they backed me.”
For Kirchmann and her Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies teammates, the strategy going into Tucson was to neutralize all comers, particularly 2012 NCC champion Erica Allar.
Allar was peppered with repeated attacks from all sides early on. Tactically, the Optum women were fine with the race shaking out either via a breakaway or a bunch sprint, and before long the team cracked Allar’s resolve and Kirchmann went away solo.
“We wanted to have an aggressive race and that was our plan from the start,” Kirchmann said.
The Canadian rider quickly got 22 seconds on the field and never looked back.
“It’s a bit of a mental battle and I was just trying to stay focused,” Kirchmann said. “I knew my team was back there working for me. I was just trying to stay focused and trying to keep my effort steady.”
And that’s precisely what she did. Kirchmann never surrendered and Allar and the rest of the field seemed powerless to do much about it — by the end of the race, she had nearly lapped the field.
In the bunch sprint for the remaining spots on the podium, Allar nabbed second place with Joanie Caron (Primal Pro Women-BH) claiming third.