UnitedHealthcare proved once more that it is the unstoppable force in American criterium racing on Saturday, taking the top two places at the 10th annual Presbyterian Invitational Criterium.
Hilton Clarke, leader of the National Criterium Calendar (NCC) and USA Crits series, once again had his team’s support during the 40 laps of racing in downtown Charlotte, N.C.
“When we’re six strong together, us guys, we know each other well … and the guys did such a great job from five to go,” said Clarke after taking his second textbook sprint victory ahead of what remained of a decimated field.
“They just kept me out of the wind, and all I had to do was the last 100 meters. [We’re] really strong at the moment so I’m really happy to finish it off.”
Clarke got his last bit of assistance from teammate Luke Keough, brother of 2011 Presbyterian champion Jake Keough. With Clarke taking the top step for the second year running, the podium was virtually a mirror representation of what it was in 2012. The younger Keough held on for second place and Demis Aleman (Jamis-Hagens Berman) took third.
The UnitedHealthcare win was born once again from a patented blend of patience and strength, working with riders like Kyle Wamsley (Jamis) and Shane Kline (Team SmartStop-Mountain Khakis) to reel back breaks like the strong initial showing from Michael Weicht (CashCall Cycling).
But following a mid-race preme, a huge well-represented group of 16 riders made up the most significant separation of the race. Along with three UnitedHealthcare riders (Alzate, White, Menzies) were Mike Sherer (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies); David Santos and Fabrizio Von Nacher (CashCallCycling); veteran Frank Pipp (Bissell); Chad Burdzilauskus (Texas Roadhouse); Ruben Companioni (Jamis); Alder Martz, Joe Lewis and Oscar Clark (Hincapie Devo); Bobby Lea (SmartStop); and Sergio Hernandez and Emile Abraham (Predator Cycling).
Despite all that firepower, the unique eight-corner, barbell-shaped course didn’t allow the break much leash. The break never took more than 40 seconds on the field, and when the laps began to wind down, so did the spirit of cooperation.
With eight laps remaining, Lewis launched Hincapie’s hopes for a win. The 24-year-old Australian ran away from his former companions, time trialing his way around the course.
But with the crowds cheering Lewis on, a familiar sight formed at the front of the peloton. Six blue UnitedHealthcare jerseys came to the fore and slowly but steadily began eroding Lewis’ lead.
All told he would bag six laps of glory and some ready cash before giving way to exhaustion and letting the rest of the riders roll past him. Then one by one, UnitedHealthcare riders set a pace that no one else bothered to challenge until coming out of the race’s final turn.
Keough brought Clarke within striking distance and that was all it took. Behind them, Aleman benefited from an assist by teammate Companioni to edge out Predator’s Hernandez.
Clarke’s win leaves him comfortably atop both the NCC and the USA Crits series going into next week’s major race, the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Ala.
“I’m really happy to lead the USA CRITS Series. I’ve never done that before and it’s exciting for me,” Clarke said before taking to the podium to collect his $12,500 check. “It’s a really tough series, so we have to take one at a time. I’ve got some of the stuff but it’s hard to keep this form running all season. We’ll take it while we can, but who knows what happens in a month’s time?”
No breaks and a surprise winner
The women’s side of the event ran as the polar opposite to the men’s race. There were no significant breaks, apart from a brief, three-lap sojourn from Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), Lauren Tamayo (Exergy Twenty16), Laura Van Gilder (Mellow Mushroom), Sam Schneider (Team Tibco), and Joelle Numainville (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies). And the 20-lap contest wound up producing a surprising victor.
Lauren Stephens (FCS|Zngine-Mr. Restore), a Texas-based algebra teacher who’s only been racing for four years, surfed some key wheels during the finale to sneak past the veteran Van Gilder and 2011 Presbyterian Invitational winner Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Fearless Femme-Pure Energy).
“Our team’s strategy was to be up at the front with three laps to go … sitting top 10,” Stephens said. “We knew it was a long sprint, which is good for me. I was patient, and was able to come around the other sprinters with about 50 meters to go.”
Looking at Stephens’ track record, she was more than primed for this win. Not only did she have two top-10 placings in the previous two USA Crits races in Tucson and Delray, but she performed similarly well at Redlands this year. She also was coming off of a win at the Dallas Racing Spring Criterium in Murphy, Texas. Now her focus shifts to even loftier goals.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the national road race in Chattanooga,” said Stephens. “And Cascade. I really enjoy stage racing.”
Stephens’ win in Charlotte moved her to second place in the series standings, 60 points behind Erica Allar (Care4Cycling-Solomon). Joanie Caron (Primal) now sits in third place overall.