A pair of little-known riders — Belgian Brecht Dhaene and Italian Elana Cecchini — scored big upsets Saturday at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic criteriums in North Carolina.
Dhaene (Astellas Cycling Team) finished just ahead of the chasing field after riding in a three-man breakaway for more than half of the 90-minute men’s race.
“Coming out of the last corner, my left leg was completely cramping,” Dhaene said. “But I knew if I could make it in pole position into the last corner, I was going to win. So I embraced the pain and went as hard as I could the last 50 meters. I was on the brink of explosion. Everything was falling apart.”
Dhaene, David Cueli (UnitedHealthcare of Georgia-The 706 Project) and Rémi Pelletier-Roy (Garneau-Quebecor) teamed up to build a lead that yo-yoed between 20 and 25 seconds the final half hour. Their advantage was still 13 seconds with two laps left as first Team SmartStop, then UnitedHealthcare and finally Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies led the pursuit.
Cueli was first to be caught on the second-to-last corner of the six-turn course and Pelletier-Roy was absorbed in the short chute leading to the final turn. But Dhaene, who said he was simply covering a move he thought would not survive to the finish, held on to win ahead of a pair of Americans, Luke Keough (UnitedHealthcare) and Daniel Holloway (Athlete Octane).
“I love all the turns, it’s something we really like in Belgium,” Dhaene said. “I knew I was not able to win in the sprint, so I tried to attack and it worked out just fine. I really wanted to have a win in the next couple of races because I knew my shape was good. So that’s what made me do it.”
Pelletier-Roy, who held on to finish fourth, and Cueli had previously showed their strength on the first stop of the USA CRITS Series, the Delray Beach Twilight Criterium. There, they teamed together to finish first and second, respectively.
Holloway, the 2010 U.S. national criterium champion, said the field might have relied too much on UnitedHealthcare to lead the chase.
“We’ve seen it time and time again where the race gives a small group like that 20 or 30 seconds and then ‘the blue train’ (UnitedHealthcare) comes to the front and reels it back,” he said. “I think the course was just tough enough to suit a strong group staying away. We got awfully close. He didn’t win it by much. We were hot on his heels.”
In the women’s race, Cecchini (Estado de México-Faren Kuota) upset a field of criterium specialists to win by a bike length ahead of New Zealand’s Joanne Kiesanowski (Team Tibco) and U.S. national criterium champion Alison Powers (UnitedHealthcare). Shelley Olds, the winner of Friday’s Winston-Salem Cycling Classic road race, was fourth.
Cecchini, who finished fifth on Friday, said the 60-minute race was her first criterium.
“I do a lot of track during the winter, so it’s like a track race,” she said. “I knew that Shelley Olds was the favorite and also Alison Powers. So I stayed in the first position and saw that UnitedHealthcare was doing a good train. So I stayed in their wheel. I went into the last corner first because I knew there were faster riders than me.”
Powers, whose UnitedHealthcare team had taken the front with two laps to go, said Cecchini may not have been well-known before the race, but she pulled a veteran move.
“She passed me in the last corner — that’s impressive,” Powers said. “I don’t usually get passed in the corners. We were hoping to have Hannah (Barnes) on my wheel, so that would prevent anyone from coming around. And if someone did come around, it would be Hannah. Unfortunately, Hannah wasn’t there.”
Thanks to a fast pace, breakaway moves were at a premium during the 60-minute race. The most promising move featured five riders that slipped the rapidly diminishing peloton with 11 laps to go. But the quintet enjoyed only two laps of freedom and never led by more than 10 seconds.