by Travis McCabe (Elbowz p/b Boneshaker Project)
The Nature Valley Grand Prix was a stage race that Elbowz Racing p/b Boneshaker Project was really targeting this year, bringing our strongest team ever. Last year, we had huge success in Stillwater on the last day with Christian Helming winning the stage and Eric Marcotte finishing second place and securing the best young amateur jersey. This year, we wanted to have more of a presence in the general classification and, if possible, secure another win. Fortunately, we were able to achieve our goals and get a little extra exposure as well. Looking back, we had somebody on the podium every day of racing, whether it was Andres Diaz in the climber’s jersey early on, Logan Hutchings and Joe Schmaltz in the most aggressive rider’s jersey, Eric in the best young amateur Jersey, or with me finishing 2nd in the Uptown Criterium and winning my first NRC road race in Menomonie.
Menomonie was the 5th stage and last road race of the 6 stages of the Nature Valley Grand Prix stage race. Coming into the stage we had Andres Diaz sitting 3rd place, one second behind 2nd place Scott Zwizanski and 38 seconds behind race leader Mike Friedman, both of Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. We also had Eric Marcotte in 4th place, 44 seconds behind Friedman while wearing the best young amateur jersey. We knew Menomonie could be a race that could be a game changer, with steep rolling hills, the threat of rain and wind on a 102-mile course, and we knew the burden was on our team to race aggressively and put pressure onto Optum’s strong and confident team.
In our pre-race meeting, our plan was to have a rider in the early breakaway, work only as much as was needed, and wait for either Marcotte or Diaz to bridge across late in the race and then be prepared to drive the group if it was what we wanted. It would be up to the rest of the team to look after Eric and Andres and to make the race as challenging as possible for Optum. That was the pre-race plan, at least…
Once the race commenced a breakaway was established almost immediately with 8 of us getting off the front, including me. Optum seemed quite content with letting our group go up the road and almost immediately we were all working together to establish a comfortable gap. The main threat in the break was sprint jersey leader Ricardo Van de Velde from Jelly Belly, who was sitting 1:45 behind the leaders, and for much of the day was the virtual leader on the road.
With Ricardo there, I had even more reason to not help as he was in danger of overtaking my teammates for 3rd place. I stuck to the plan, working a little but always saving myself for the critical miles later on. Our gap grew to three minutes where Optum rode on the front of the field to keep us in check and not let us get more time. Some of the guys had different goals in the break, with Chris Barton (Cash Call) going for the KOM’s while Ricardo went for the sprints. A few of the others were just getting worn down from working so hard, and Optum slowly began reeling us in. Elbowz Racing was attacking behind, but couldn’t shake Optum’s defense. Our group was caught with 40km to go and the last KOM just after that was really the last launching point for anyone to get a sizeable gap. My teammates gave it everything they had to get away from Optum, and at one point it was just Tom Zirbel leading the chase singlehandedly. We had them on the ropes. The top of the climb came and there just wasn’t the right mix of riders and strength in the moves to get away from Zirbel and Optum. The descent towards town brought everything together and it looked like another field sprint. I still had a bit left in the tank and I figured once we got into the circuits was the last chance to get a break up the road. I can think of plenty of reasons after the race why I went when I did, but honestly I just had something left and wanted to leave it all out there. I attacked on the first rise leading into the circuits and was followed by three other cyclists. With two other amateurs and Guido Palma from Jamis Hagens Berman, the break felt promising and within one lap we were out of sight of the Optum train.
With four of us working together, all looking for a chance to break the Optum stranglehold, we established a 25-second gap at most. The finishing circuits have so many twists and turns we knew we had a chance to hold the gap to the line as long as everyone fully committed. With 2 of the 4 laps left in the 2-mile circuit we were down to just two of us, me and Palma, then Serghei Tvetcov bridged across. Palma was fading by the time Tvetcov bridged and I knew it would only be a matter of time until it was the two of us. Within half a lap we lost the Palma and the other rider who tried to come across with Tvetcov, but they were just dangling, sitting only 8-10 seconds behind us and always in sight. Since I had been in the breakaway for nearly 70 miles I was intimidated by the strength of Tvetcov, especially since he wore the yellow Nature Valley leader’s jersey for the first two days after an impressive time trial performance. We had one lap to go before crossing the finish line and almost immediately the cat and mouse tactics began. I was pretty confident that I could outsprint Tvetcov, but I was afraid of him attacking early and dropping me before I could sprint. Knowing that 2 riders were right behind us, we kept rolling but we had our eyes on one another. Soon, Tvetcov attacked. I followed and put in a little counter, but it wasn’t enough to break Tvetcov. It also forced me in front of him coming into the 2nd to last corner, giving him ideal positioning to attack, which he did. Out of the last corner, he made his move and had a 5 meter gap on me. I was trying to hold him close enough for him not to get any more distance and right at that brief moment he paused and looked right to see me. Out of instinct I knew it might be the only chance for me to win, so I attacked up his left side, which gave me enough time to get a small gap into the last corner. I held speed into the corner, put my head down, and sprinted for the line 150 meters away. I didn’t look back until 20 meters to go and saw Tvetcov with his head down. At that point, I knew I had finally broken down the door and won my first NRC race!
This entire season has been such a fantastic year and it feels great to finally get the win I have been dreaming of all year. I have been banging on the door and it feels great to finally have knocked it down! I really have so many people to thank for all of their support and congratulations from this year. It really is a great feeling, knowing that I have such a great support group of friends and family who are rooting me on and helping feed my dreams. Thank you, Justin Peschka, my phenomenal coach who has been able to keep me on form throughout the year and keep me focused on my goals. I want to thank all my teammates in the race, and also the ones behind the race giving us support. It’s not often you can have a director (Heath Blackgrove) who can go and win the amateur Stillwater Criterium after driving in a car for the past 4 days! Thank you also to Mat Stephens, who came out to help as mechanic/soigneur. When we were cleaning up after the race, he was still outside cleaning our bikes and bottles, making sure we were ready to fully focus on the race and take on the pros. Also, once again thank you Ben Spies, Elbowz p/b Boneshaker, and everyone else behind the scenes for giving us the opportunity to race and represent such a great program. I know Ben was watching the races back home and is super excited by our accomplishments thus far!
After the weekend Elbowz p/b Boneshaker Project finished 2nd and 3rd in G.C. We won the top amateur jersey with Marcotte. We took the “most aggressive rider” jersey 2 times with Logan Hutchings and Joe Schmaltz. Andres Diaz wore the climber’s jersey for two days, and I was able to finish 2nd and 1st in two stages. Another very successful week of racing!