After Wednesday’s opening day of racing at the North Star Grand Prix, time trial specialists Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Alison Powers (UnitedHealthcare) held court at the six-stage race, held in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Racers faced a short time trial in the morning, followed by an evening criterium in downtown St. Paul.
Zirbel looking to win again in Minnesota
The only rider to crack the 10-minute mark, Zirbel clocked a time of 9:51 on the five-mile course along East River Parkway. Mac Brennan of Bissell-ABG-Giant was second, at 13 seconds down, less than one second faster than third place Eric Marcotte of Team SmartStop.
“I felt good. The last few days I was like ‘oh this could be good’, when you have that feeling in your legs when you have more to give, so I’m happy that I went as well as I felt,” Zirbel commented.
Wednesday evening, the Jamis-Hagens Berman team finished first and second at the St. Paul Downtown Criterium; Ian Crane sprinted to the win ahead of teammate J.J. Haedo in front of an enthusiastic crowd that lined the finish straight. Travis McCabe of Team SmartStop rounded out the podium.
After Optum worked hard to reel in a breakaway, the Jamis-Hagens Berman leadout train took over the front of the field on the penultimate lap.
“We wanted Optum to do most of the work and then take over at the end, which we were able to do,” Crane said. “We had numbers, we had four of us up there. We wanted to be able to hit it hard and hit it all the way to the line. We had Luis Amaran and Ben Jacques-Maynes, who did about four or five guys’ worth of work, and then they dropped me off on the second-to-last straightaway, halfway down before the last corner. I went through the corner hot and J.J. didn’t come around, it works out well. I think both of us are capable in the sprint, the plan itself was to try and set J.J. up but I was a little bit higher up in the TT, so the bonus was good for me,” Crane explained.
Though seven riders escaped off the front for almost 20 laps in the second half of the race, Zirbel was not concerned about the gap that grew to 23 seconds. “I was happy about to let them win the race by 15 seconds, honestly, but we have some fast guys right behind me and it would be nice if they didn’t get time bonuses,” he said. “Once the break went, the guys rode so well, I had such an easy ride, riding fifth wheel for 20 laps, it just made my life so much easier and stress free. It got a little dicey there the last couple of laps but I was in such good position and hadn’t used any energy so I was able to stay up there. The team did amazing.”
Zirbel, the 2012 overall winner, took a 13-second lead in the general classification. He and his Optum team which is headquartered in Minneapolis, hope to defend their three consecutive titles. “Every year there is a lot of pressure because we want to perform well for our sponsors. We really appreciate what they do for us so the least we could do is win this race.”
UnitedHealthcare takes two in women’s racing
Powers (UnitedHealthcare) posted the only sub-11 minute time in the women’s field to win the opening TT, with Brianna Walle (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Tayler Wiles (Specialized-Lululemon) rounding out the podium at 14 and 21 seconds back, respectively.
Powers, who currently holds all three U.S. national titles in the time trial, road race, and criterium, was able to showcase her ability to hit and sustain high speeds on the flat, five-mile out-and-back course that ran alongside the Mississippi River.
“I do prefer shorter races,” said Powers. “Longer ones can be a little boring, and it’s hard to stay patient.”
UnitedHealthcare kept the fast, crash-filled criterium controlled, allowing Coryn Rivera to maintain her position in the last few turns until she and Carmen Small (Specialized-lululemon) dueled down the finishing straight to Rivera’s photo finish victory.
Lizzie Williams (Vanderkitten) captured third on the stage ahead of many of the dominant teams, leveraging her years of experience to position herself at the front of the race with tenacity. Williams is making her comeback to cycling after taking 10 years off the bike.
Once the race started it ebbed and flowed predictably, surging at the time bonus or sprint points competitions and staying steady in between.
Olivia Dillon (Colavita-Fine Cooking) took a solo flyer at the first sprint points competition ten laps into the race to claim the maximum points, staying away for five laps until she was brought back as teams vied for time bonuses. Several laps later, Dillon again broke away from the pack for the next sprint points competition with eight laps to go, securing her place as the day’s Penn Cycle Most Aggressive Rider.
Rivera tied Dillon for top sprint points by winning the stage, tipping the tie to her favor.
“I saw Carmen attack wide into the last corner,” said Williams. “Coryn followed her, and I was maybe a bike wheel behind those two so I took their line and stayed the same distance for the sprint. ”
Williams, who is from Melbourne, Australia and riding as a guest rider for Vanderkitten, is on her eighth month back on the bike, with the North Star Grand Prix being her third international race.
“I raced with [UnitedHealthcare] at Tulsa so I know how they work. I know that I have to be up there in the top 10, preferably on their wheel,” she said. “It’s just about holding your line and holding your wheel without being bullied off it.”