by Serge Tsvetkov (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda)
This was my first time racing Nature Valley. When my team director told me after Redlands that I would race Nature Valley, I thought that would be great for me because the first stage is a time trial and important for GC contenders. I rode the TT course with my teammates the day before the stage and it didn’t look really technical, but that all changed when race day came. It was raining and chilly. As we warmed up under the tent, the rain came down harder and faster as my start time approached.
When I started, those turns, which I thought in my warm up wouldn’t be technical, became really slow and sketchy. When I finished, I saw that my time was 16:02. I knew that last year’s winning time was 15:56. I thought, “ok, I hope I will finish in the top five.” After I left, I saw that Chad Haga’s time was 16:15, which was impressive, Tom Zirbel and Chad Haga usually finish close to each other. When I headed to the team car, Danny called me to tell me to get ready for the podium. I was happy, but didn’t know then that I had won the stage, I heard that on the way. I wasn’t expecting to get such a good result and my first NRC victory.
My team decided at the team meeting that afternoon to defend the yellow jersey. That evening was the St. Paul Criterium where there were time bonus sprints. My team did a great job leading me out for the two time bonuses. I placed second in both, which put me 6 seconds ahead of Zirbel. His teammate, Mike Friedman gained 8 seconds, placed 2nd on the stage, and moved into 2nd place in GC, 6 seconds behind me.
The third stage, Cannon Falls Road Race, was chaotic. At the 1st KOM, a breakaway formed that included 3 riders from Optum. They quickly worked hard to gain a 1-minute advantage over the group. I was with my teammate Morgan Schmitt and we tried to control the situation. After the Optum guys started to attack me, I decided to bring the most dangerous Optum guys back to the group because my teammates could help me hold off attacks later. Once back in the group, more attacks started from other teams. My teammates started to follow moves and soon they were all up front. Brad Huff and I tried to bridge me up to the breakaway ahead, but it was too late. At that moment, we decided to go for a stage win because several of my teammates were ahead. In my group, we rode easy and I started to recover from the first part of the race and focused on racing for the victory.
On the next night, with the pressure of defending the yellow jersey gone, we were free to make some moves. We got so close to the podium with Brad and Ricardo finishing 4th and 5th on the stage. I started Saturday’s road race in Menomonie thinking that it was a good course for me. Optum controlled the race to defend the yellow jersey,but when we get to the circuit I asked Freddie if I should bridge up to the breakaway or stay with him and lead him out for the sprint. He encouraged me to bridge up, so I did and soon found myself in the breakaway with 4 guys. With 2 laps to go I tried to attack but had to settle for holding the wheel of Travis from Elbowz Racing. I knew he was a good sprinter, so I attacked again but he was strong enough to hold my wheel. He counterattacked on the last corner, got a gap that I couldn’t close, an I finished in second.
Day 5 brought on the final stage, the legendary Stillwater Crit with its 22% 0.4 km climb on each of 20 laps. Our strategy was to ride smart on the stage, take some sprint points so that Ricardo could secure the points jersey, and set Freddie up for the finish. Optum controlled the race from the start, chasing down attacks from teams with GC contenders. With four laps to go, I found a moment to attack on Chilcott Hill. I had a 10-second advantage, but that wasn’t enough and I was caught with 1 to go. Freddie finished strong, just missing the podium with a 4th place finish on the stage.
So, Nature Valley is in the books with a great start to the second half of the season for Team Jelly Belly p/b Kenda. In the end, we spent 2 days in yellow, won two stages, and came home with the sprint jersey. It was pretty exciting to see someone from the team on the podium every day and this was good preparation for the team for the next block of racing leading up to USA Pro Challenge.