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Nature Valley riders weigh in on merits of ‘Merckx-style’ TT

  • By Ted Burns
  • Published Jun. 13, 2013
Tom Zirbel was unable to repeat his national championship ride, finishing second. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Longtime Nature Valley Grand Prix (NVGP) race director David LaPorte is continuously experimenting with different programs and race rules to make his event accessible for both fans and racers.

The race’s innovation streak has led to popular programs, like the Kowalksi’s Market Collegiate All Stars and the Nature Valley Pro Chase, which have become major goals for amateur riders.

One race directive that has met with mixed reviews among riders and directors is the race’s ‘Merckx-style’ time trial, which adheres to USA Cycling rule 1M1(h), banning time trial-specific equipment.

Rule 1M1(h) reads: “Time trial events may restrict the competitors to mass-start bicycles in one or more classes, provided that the restriction is stated in the race announcement and technical guide. This includes time trials in stage races.”

Under the ruling, both aero bars and disc wheels are forbidden, while the helmets and frames used in the time trial must be used in all subsequent stages.

It is a disappointing rule for TT specialists, such as national champion Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), who would like to demonstrate their talent on the best equipment.

“It’s fun to do something different, but we invest a lot in our time trial bikes so I would like to have the fastest equipment out here,” said Zirbel after placing second in the St. Paul Riverfront Time Trial on Tuesday. “This is one of the biggest races in the country so you should expect to use your best equipment.”

Managers of pro cycling teams spend a lot of time putting together equipment sponsorships, and it can be frustrating when their aerodynamic advantages cannot be showcased.

“From a team point of view we do a lot of work to get sponsors for all of our equipment, and that includes time trial equipment,” said Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategy women’s team director Rachel Heal. “When we go to events like this where we are not allowed to use it, our sponsors who provide the equipment suffer.”

For small teams and individual riders, traveling with one bike, let alone two, is a costly endeavor. Airline handling fees can range anywhere from $50 to $150 each way. Rates can climb even higher if a rider is charged an overweight or oversized cargo fee. Larger teams get around airline fees by having drivers, often times the hardworking team mechanic, who drive the team vehicle from race to race. Without a team car, riders traveling long distances must seek their own, often costly, arrangements.

Vanderkitten director Jono Coulter has worked on different sized teams, as both rider and staff, and is sympathetic with plight of smaller teams.

“We believe it makes it an even playing field for the smaller teams that cannot bring their equipment across the country in the middle of the year,” said Coulter whose squad is based out of Northern California and races a full schedule across the U.S. “We would bring our aero bikes if required, but it definitely does make it easier for us at this race.”

John Barron takes time off of his day job in printing to direct the Kowalksi’s Market Collegiate All Stars. A big part of Barron’s job is to coordinate with riders, who are all full-time students, and manage a small staff that is taking vacation days to support the team.

Taking the time trial bikes out of the equation relieves a lot of pressure on Barron’s staff. “For us it’s better the way it is [at Nature Valley], which is no aero bikes, because we have a limited budget,” said Barron. “We have a rented passenger van and if each racer has two bikes, it’s twelve bikes, and that’s a strain on the mechanic and crew.”

Though many amateur racers do own TT bikes, the cost of traveling with them can be daunting. The top amateur jersey holder, Katie Hall, bought a TT bike the weekend before she arrived but was happy to leave it at home. “I just purchased a time trial bike two days ago,” said Hall after her first NRC Crit. “[Not bringing it] made traveling a million times easier, and for that I’m pretty thankful.”

The winner of the St. Paul Downtown Criterium most aggressive rider jersey, Jared Barrilleaux (Cal Giant-Specialized), rode professionally for Jittery Joe’s and now fulfills a mentor role on California Giant. Barrilleaux also owns a TT bike, but was excited at the purity of a Merckx-style event.

“It was great to get out of the specific time trial position that a lot of people train in,” said Barrilleaux. “You can get into breakaway mode, get as aero as you can be on your road bike, and just go with little else to think about other than just pushing your limits.”

Even without aero equipment, results did not vary much from expected. National TT champions Carmen Small (Specialized-lululemon) and Zirbel still landed on the podium at Tuesday’s St. Paul Riverfront Time Trial without the aid of their aero setups.

Professional road champion Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda) speculated the Merckx-style time trial might be a true test of the best rider. “It evens everybody’s level out. It’s really about who has more power,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a perfect event to see who really is the strongest and not the most aero.”

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