The newly introduced 12.5km time trial in Big Bear Lake has switched up the natural order of events at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. Where in previous years climbers would come to the forefront of the overall standings immediately in the short, uphill prologue, the opening stage at nearly 7000ft of altitude instead favored powerful riders who were acclimated to the thin air.
Chad Haga (Optum Pro Cycling) and Alison Powers (Now and Novartis for MS), both residents of Colorado, prevailed in the stage: Haga beat his own teammate Tom Zirbel to take top honours, but the men's standings are still fairly tight. Haga has 10 seconds over third placed David Williams - but his 5 Hour Energy team has four riders within 30 seconds of the lead, and Optum has come only with a team of six riders because the rest of the squad is racing in Spain.
"The race is hard to defend with eight guys," Zirbel said. "With only six we are going to have to be creative."
There is still plenty of incentive for the other teams to fight to overthrow the current leaders: The race will head back down to the valley for three stages - a long circuit race with a sharp climb, a fast criterium and a shorter circuit with a technical, hilly course - and in both the men's and women's races there are a maximum of 42 seconds worth of time bonuses still up for grabs for riders able to sprint for intermediate bonuses and the stage finish.
"The time bonuses make the lead difficult to defend," Zirbel said. "Our only hope is that there are several other teams who want to win the overall, and we can get some help to chase down dangerous breakaways."
One of the teams that will look to make up the lost ground will be Jamis-Hagens Berman. Ben Jacques-Maynes, who won the time trials at the Valley of the Sun and Merco Classic stage races this season, was disappointed in coming fifth, 15 seconds down, blaming his struggles with the altitude for breaking his winning streak. But he's not giving up the prospect of adding a first Redlands Bicycle Classic victory to his palmares.
"There are three very different races in the next three days. The climbers who would normally be ahead on the uphill time trial and would be happy to defend are now out of it," Jacques-Maynes said. "The Sunset loop will be very different. I foresee a lot more aggression."
The Optum team will also have to contend with 5 Hour Energy/Kenda: 2011 winner Francisco Mancebo is only 19 seconds in arrears, and the team has four riders within 30 seconds of the lead in the overall classification.
That situation is similar to the women's race, and race leader Alison Powers is also expecting the same kind of aggression in the women's race, even though the time gaps in her field are quite a bit larger. She has two teammates in the top 10 overall: Lex Albrecht is 55 seconds back, and Robin Farina is at 1:03. "I've got an amazing team of all different strengths and knowledge. I really hope we can win this. I lost last year by one second, and to win this year would be very gratifying and rewarding for me and all the team."
But Now & Novartis will have to face the challenge of several experienced and talented riders and their teams: Optum has three riders in the top 10: Brianna Walle is at 49 seconds, former NRC overall champion Janel Holcomb is at 58 seconds, and Denise Ramsden is at 1:10.
Amber Neben, racing for her Dare to Be foundation composite team, sits at 6th, 56 seconds back, and former Giro Donne winner Mara Abbott's Exergy-Twenty16 team has four riders in the top 15 while Abbott herself came in at 1:35 after having troubles clipping in on the start ramp.
"The time trial changed the whole course of the race," said Holcomb. "It's going to be really exciting - there is more potential for the race to shuffle."