By Mark Zalewski North American Editor in Downers Grove, Illinois
Health Net-Maxxis' Kirk O'Bee pulled on his second stars and stripes jersey over the weekend as the national criterium champion. With the win he joins Kevin Monahan as a two-time crit champ, but it did not come easy as buckets of rain poured over the course all weekend, making the usually simple tasks like turning into a delicate operation.
"It definitely added another element," O'Bee said regarding the rain. "I've never done that course with so much rain."
O'Bee's first win in 2001 came during a tough year for the American. Not long after winning in Downers Grove it was revealed that his testosterone/epitestosterone level at the USPRO road championships was elevated. Though no exogenous testosterone was found in his system, he accepted a one year ban in 2002 and his result at the road championships was erased. However, this did not affect his criterium title, and since then he returned to racing with many top results, including second place and the KOM title at the 2005 Ronde van Drenthe.
With a team stacked with sprinters, both American and foreign, Health Net had a lot of cards to play. Frank Pipp won here as a amateur three years ago and recently won the Charlotte Invitational criterium. Karl Menzies has been flying since his overall and three stage wins at the Tour de Toona. However, O'Bee exuded confidence and his team matched it.
"The plan to start off was to race for me and to race for win," he said. "I was confident and the team was confident. Later in the race our game plan was the same. It was more important to be at the front in the final few laps to stay out of trouble - evident by all the crashes that happened."
The only downside to the win was that it was a few millimeters short of being an outright win. As was the case in 2001, O'Bee was not the first rider across the line, but the first American. "I was upset I lost the race overall and it overshadowed winning the jersey," he admitted. "I wanted to improve upon the last time. It was Harm Jansen last time - he attacked with a couple to go and there were a lot of Americans in the break and we all looked at each other. It almost worked out this time."
But the rain played a significant factor in the decision calculus late in the race. "For me it's how it played out. I knew with Gilbert sprinting it was better to play it safe. I would have done it differently had I been going up against another American."
The situation might be different in the future with the often rumored switch to an American-only format. But O'Bee feels that would take away from the racing. "I think it's fine the way it is. If you take out the international factor it will take away from the race. It has such a long history and it's only a big deal in the States.
Looking to the future, O'Bee said that he has not yet signed with a team in 2008, hoping that this jersey will open up the contract doors. "Hopefully, but we'll see," he said. "I'm trying to figure something out. But the table is completely open!"