June 19, 2008
Ah Minnesota, home of Target, "oh, don't you knows" and the Nature Valley Grand Prix. This was the third time that I've come to Minnesota to take part in this bike race and I love it. Here's a quick little history lesson, complete with informative and distracting links.
My first year racing on a "big girl racing team" was in 2005, as I had just joined Ford-Basis mid-season. For those of you really bored at work, you can follow this link to the archives of my family's bike shop web page, where they've kept all my cycling-diary entries from that first year.
In 2006, while racing on Victory Brewing, I came close to getting my first professional win in the Minneapolis downtown criterium. After all of our leaders going into the race either crashed out or got taken out with a stomach bug, I got the gift of a lifetime: a call-up. Having struggled to see the front of the field the year before, I knew how important this gift was and I vowed to stay in the top-10 the entire race. Going into the last lap I took advantage of a slight hesitation in the group and jumped really early, coming out of the last corner first. Some people have asked, "What do your race directors tell you in the radio in crucial race situations?" Our director, Mike Tamayo, must have been as surprised as anyone to see me coming down the final stretch in first. He gave me some advice that I'm sure is currently helping the Healthnet boys achieve their current level of success, "Go Kat, GO! GO Kat, GO!" I could feel the field coming up behind me and I remember watching in cycling videos that sprinters sometimes throw their bikes. I tried that, about one metre too late. Laura Van Gilder caught me right at the line. As we waited for the official results, I tried to reason with her, offering up that she had had plenty of career wins and wouldn't it be nice to see a young up-and-comer get her first "W"? She smiled politely at me. No luck... Here's a photo from that night.
In 2007 I had the chance to race with the US National team in two races in Europe while the NVGP was going on. Instead of hearing cute Midwest accents, I heard Spanish and Italian, I learned how to say "occhio" and saw a number of amazing mullets. Go here to read up on those adventures.
This brings me to the 2008 addition. Team Aaron's had six strong riders for the race and we were ready to go for an overall race win. We stayed with some great host families, one of them being in my top three host families ever - the Johnson's. They have two precious daughters that kept us styled and entertained for the week. Apparently unaware of the power of bed-head, Lucia and Anna seemed shocked every morning when I would emerge from my bedroom with hair that was part Mohawk, park peacock. I convinced them that it would lie down after I had my coffee, so they did their best to direct me to the java first thing each morning.
The racing was tough – as always. It was a big field and fairly strong. With the exception of the first night's criterium in the rain, we got extremely lucky with the weather all week. The big focus for the week was the time trial, which with the addition of a one-kilometre power-climb at the end would surely play a big role in GC. Our team showed how strong we are by placing third, fourth, fifth, seventh and 15th on the day. Bring on the team time trials! After that ride I was sitting second in GC behind the amazing Kristin Armstrong.
Going into Mankato we hoped to put some pressure on Kristin before the tough finishing circuits. While she was forced to do some work, she still rode away from everyone. The rest of us were left trying to grab the remaining podium spots and time bonus seconds. I sprinted for third on the day, growing my huge cushion over third place from one to sevent seconds going into Stillwater.
The final day is the "criterium" in Stillwater. Its one of the toughest races we do in the USA. The combination of the 20 percent hill and the fact that it is the last day of the stage race means that everyone hurts as they claw their way up each lap. I found myself a little too far back going into the climb on lap two and the group at the front including Anne Samplonius (third in GC) separated from the field, leaving me to close the gap. I chased hard for what felt like an eternity. My team-mate Felicia Gomez, who looks good in polka dots, sat on the back of that front group until I was close enough and she eventually dropped back to tow me up safely. From then on I felt pretty good about being able to maintain my GC position. Kristin Armstrong rode away from everyone, making it look way too easy. I apparently forgot I could shift going into the hill the last time and found myself in way too big a gear. It was comical by the time I got to the top, and I "rolled" in for fifth on the stage.
After the race we were all tired, but extremely excited for our celebratory pizza dinner at the Johnson's. They have a wood-fired pizza oven out back and an amazing wine cellar in the basement full of wines that I don't know enough about. After viewing the prize list in one of our race bibles, Bill felt sorry for us and let us pick out anything we wanted from the cellar. With my incredibly refined palette, I noted that each bottle was "good" (some were "really good") and I did my best to help drain five bottles that evening.
Up next is a criterium in Austin, followed by some much-needed weeks of home-time before heading back over the pond with the National team.