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Riders' safety first priority for organisers
Race officials cancelled the pro-elite men and women's Cannon Falls Road Race after the National Weather Service announced tornado warnings and severe thunderstorm between 5:00pm and 9:00pm Central Standard Time (CST) on Thursday in the Saint Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota and the surrounding areas.
The Doppler radar forecast showed a tornado, high winds and severe thunderstorms for nearby cities of Mankato, Saint Cloud, Brainerd and Albert Lea, all with in 20km of Saint Paul-Minneapolis. The weather watch was issued at 6:00pm CST, approximately one hour after the start of the pro-elite men's race and before the start of the corresponding women's race held in Cannon Falls. It was reported that a tornado touched down approximately eight kilometres from the event site.
Alison Starnes (Tibco-To the Top) and Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies) were leading the women and men's overall classification, respectively. Both riders won the opening nine kilometre Saint Paul River Front time trial yesterday morning and held onto their respective race leads during the stage two criterium held in Downtown Saint Paul that same evening.
The stage three road race was scheduled to take the peloton through Goodhue County and finish on a series of four circuits in Cannon Falls. The men's race started at 5:00pm CST under windy conditions that progressed to dark skies, hail and high winds roughly one hour into the 104km race.
Race officials issued an announcement over RadioTour canceling the men's race and subsequently turned the peloton around to ride back to the start-finish line in Cannon Falls. However, the exclusion of race radio this year made it difficult for directeur sportifs to effectively communicate with their respective riders regarding the race officials' decision to cancel the race.
"We don't have radios so a police officer came up to us and told us the race was being called off because of a tornado," said overall leader Zwizanski. "The whole sky was black. There were a couple of breakaways up the road and we had to go tell them. We all rode back to Cannon Falls.
"At first they wanted us to race back, in a couple of minutes of indecision," he added. "They were thinking we could race back and have it not count for GC. But we were thinking that if we were stopping the race for a tornado warning we shouldn't race back in the tornado warning."
The women's peloton had received the announcement on the start line at 5:30pm CST and didn't start their 104km road race. "The officials told us that they spotted a tornado and full size hail, strong winds and that we needed to seek shelter so we got the hell out of there," said women's race leader Starnes. "We never started. The weather was getting really bad."
"The race officials said 'safety first' and I think that if there was a storm system coming in then it was a very good decision," she added. "They put a lot of time and money into this event and want it to continue as much as we do but if the weather is not cooperating then I am sure it was a good decision on their part."
The racing will resume with the stage four Uptown Minneapolis Criterium on Friday evening. Stage five's Mankato Road Race was replaced by the new Menomonie Road Race to be held over the border in Wisconsin. The new addition will travel over a predominantly rolling course and will finish with four flat circuits.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix will conclude at the sixth and final stage the Stillwater Circuit Race on Sunday. The technical course will begin at the base of Chilkoot Hill. It is only a couple of hundred metres in length but steep enough to tear the legs apart on each lap.
"I do think this has affected the race in a lot of ways because today would have been a very decisive day," Starnes added. "I agree with the officials decision but with the winds and the course layout I think it would have been a very difficult and decisive race today so it is disappointing that we didn't get to do it."