Going Home and Going Big at Nature Valley Prix
By Eric Marcotte (Elbowz Racing)
Minneapolis was my stomping grounds for nearly five years, and it’s been nearly that long since I’ve been back. I cannot express how much I miss the place and was glad to be back in the area to race the Nature Valley Grand Prix and see a lot of old friends.
The race started Wednesday morning with a Time Trial along the Mississippi River. The course was an undulating out and back course, with little elevation change and only a slight wind to contend with on the way back.
|I was the first rider to go, and the goal was to not get passed by the one minute man behind me, Luis Amaran. He had proven to be on form the weekend before in Tulsa Tough.Goal achieved, and since I was the first rider off, I had set the fastest time of the day, for only about 20-30 seconds, then Amaran came in right behind me and took it. At the end of the day, our team had five riders within 10 seconds of each other, around 30 to 40 seconds back of the leader, Tom Zirbel (Kelly/Optum Health).The Second stage of the day was an evening criterium in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota with the Xcel Energy Center as the backdrop. It was a flat and fast five corner course, with a couple of open sections to move around on, then some cobbles and bricks to shake up the smoothness of the course and put riders on their toes.
Kelly/Optum Health looked to control the race and keep Zirbel out of trouble. It seemed as though the rest of the peloton was happy with this as well. Early on I took a flyer off the front hoping to excite some gamblers, not looking for overall stage race glory, but rather a stage win. It was soon gobbled up in a couple laps. In subsequent sprint and time bonus laps, I also had a couple digs in hopes the field would split and a group could get away. Not to be, so safety and live to fight another day set in my mind, I held position near the top 10-15, not fighting for wheels, and rolling in to keep the same time. The rest of the team did the same, so we all sat in that same area, 30-40 seconds back overall, with plenty of cards to play in the next day’s road race. In the leaders jersey was after the crit was John Murphy (Kenda/5-Hour Energy) with a one second lead after picking up time bonuses along the way.
Thursday was a 75+ mile rolling road race, with five technical finishing circuits, however the late afternoon start, and predictably unpredictable weather of the Midwest, saw the officials (mostly police) call the race off. There was some intense rain and lightening, so it was probably the best call. It is a bummer, as our mechanics have to work their butts off to get everything sorted in situations like that, so the highs and lows of the day are incredible for them to.
Friday was an evening criterium in Uptown Minneapolis, just blocks from where I used to live. The day was long before the race, so Sully, my good friend Pat Lemieux (Kenda/5-Hour Energy) and I set out and enjoyed a ride through Minneapolis on to St. Paul along the river, up the Smith St. Bridge, and then back through Summit Ave. I love that ride, and everything along it. Then a quick shower, bite to eat, nap, and we are good to go for the evening.
The criterium was flat and fast as well, offering six corners and little place to move around. The goal was to move near the front and hold position there, and near the finish, if feeling well, give it a go. Early on there was a move off the front for some of the sprint points and time bonuses. The move had enough riders from each of the teams, and guys not going for the overall, rather for the Sprinters Jersey, namely Carlos Alzate (Exergy). Alzate is always going particularly well, and I was bummed I missed the move, being just a bit too far back when it happened.
Near the end of the race, the teams were lining it up for their sprinters: Bissell, Exergy, Kenda, Jelly Belly, and Optum Health. It was lined out pretty good, and hard to move up. I did not feel the need to fight for wheels, so I set out on a solo flyer with five laps to go; knowing fully, unless someone came with me, it was a futile attempt. It was still fun as I had many friends watching and cheering me on as I went. I was caught with about a lap and a half to go, and able to muster some strength to get back in to the peloton and not lose any time overall. Brad Huff (Jelly Belly) lit up the sprint and proved he was on form.
Saturday, was the 100+ mile day in the rolling terrain of Menominee, WI. I loved this race. It was a race of strength and speed, mixed in with rain and poker and GC protection. There was a lot of attrition in the race as we hit the KOM hills that pitch up really good, then open up to crosswinds over the top and a dwindling peloton going all out. I love that hard nose racing. Unfortunately, we lost one of our heavy hitters, Joe Schmalz, to a mechanical at a critical moment, and we were without him for the rest of the race.
Little breaks would go, and then come back. With about 30 miles to go, a break of around 8 went away with our teammate Heath Blackgrove represented. Christian Helmig and I felt pretty good about the group and how Heath was going overall, so we covered moves going up to the break and tried to conserve energy for the finishing circuits in case it was pulled back.
It was not. As we came into the four final finishing circuits, with something like 17 corners each lap, the break had a gap of about 1:15. An unorganized chase from teams not in the break had the gap slip out to 1:50+, then finally down to about 1:10 as we crossed the line.
Heath finished fourth in the break, and sat sixth place overall, and with the Stillwater Criterium ahead, anything could happen. We could likely end up with a top three overall for our team.
The Stillwater Criterium is epic to say the least. And this particular day saw us start with dry roads, leading into the last half of the race with slippery wet roads as the weather changed on us. The Chilkoot Hill we climb I’ve heard has 20+ percent grade, but that’s not the hard part. It’s following the climb, when you have to keep it on the gas for another 600 meters at three to five percent following that effort, which really starts to hurt.
Our goal was to protect Heath and keep him up front for the overall. Fortunately he and Joe Schmalz had a call up, so they were up front right away. Sully, Mat, Christian and I had to make our way from the back to the front as quick as possible. Not easy to do on this course. You can pay for that later.
Two laps in, I found myself at the front. Right near Heath, Christian, and Sully. Perfect. Then I believe a sprint lap came, and the race was strung out for a couple laps. It settled down again, and I looked at the attrition and saw just Christian. It was down to survival mode now. We saw riders on the sides of the road each lap getting off the pace.
Halfway through the race, the rain started. It makes for interesting racing. We were given the heads up that it would come, so we had already let some tire pressure out, down to 90 or so, and I felt confident through the corners.
With five to go, there were little surges and Christian and I knew we needed to be near the front. We had them all covered. Coming into the bell lap, Tyler Wren (Jamis-Sutter Home ) and Chris Uberti (Panther) had a 10 second gap at the top of Chilkoot Hill. I decided to hit out to bridge the gap. As I crested the Chilkoot, I glanced back to see if the peloton was hot on my heels. They weren’t. It was just Christian, my teammate seconds behind me, with no one on his wheel. Perfect I thought. I let up on the gas and waited until he got on my wheel. I figured we would work together and he’d launch me on the climb for a shot at the win.
Just as that thought crossed my mind, Tyler Wren impressively attacked Uberti at the very top of the course, and I knew if I hesitated for even a moment, my chances could be gone. So, I gave everything I had to save Christian for that one final dig up Chilkoot Hill. I was seeing double by the time we hit the base of the climb, and about a third of the way up we nearly made contact with Wren. Then, Christian launched his sprint from behind and I knew we would get the win. I was completely exhausted, but did one quick look back to see that it may be possible to get on the podium myself. I dug as deep as possible, with my tongue hanging to the ground, and came around Wren for second on the stage, going 1-2 on the day!
It seriously was the most incredible feeling to have that happen, with all my friends in attendance, in that dramatic fashion. Plus, knowing I helped set up the win for my teammate made me so excited and happy. What a moment. Incredible.
Many things have to go right and there are so many people involved in making that happen. It’s not just us on the bikes. It’s the sponsors, the director, the mechanics, the wives, girlfriends, families, and fans. I’m just happy to be a part of this and hope to inspire others to achieve their goals.