It's not often that an amateur US domestic elite team will bring the most accomplished rider to a race, but that's exactly what happened this week at the Nature Valley Grand Prix when Mt. Borah-Minerva lined up for the start with Leon van Bon on their five-rider roster.
The 41-year-old from the Netherlands has won three Grand Tour stages and claimed wins and podium spots in some of the biggest races in the world. But after traveling to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to compete in the Fixed-Gear Classic, a multi-day track event that takes place the week before the stage race, van Bon found himself in a Mt. Borah jersey riding with a group of Cat. 1 racers from the Midwest.
"I really wanted to do one more race in America and maybe combine it with some other races to make it worth going," van Bon told Cyclingnews Friday night after the Uptown Minneapolis criterium. "I heard about this race, and I thought it would be nice to ride here. So I tried to get in, and the Mt. Borah team were so kind to let me into their team."
Mt. Borah had only four riders out of a possible six-rider roster, so when the promoters contacted the team's Midwest-based sponsors about taking on van Bon, they were more than happy to bring him on board.
"We were very intimidated to have someone who is quite frankly a star, someone who is famous that we've seen on TV," said Mt. Borah team director Kyle Wolfe. "He's been polite, helpful, understanding and patient with a small team that has a small budget. It's been very, very nice."
Van Bon started his professional career in 1993 with Word Perfect-Colnago. He moved to Rabobank in 1996 and rode there through 2000. Van Bon moved to the US-based Mercury-Viatel team for the 2001 season before moving back to Europe with Domo- Farm Frites and then Lotto through 2006. He spent another year with Rabobank and then signed with Trek-Marco Polo, an Ethiopian-registered Continental team, in 2008. Van Bon moved to the Dutch AA team for two seasons in 2010 and part of 2011 before going back to Marco Polo through 2012.
The sprint specialist with a track-racing background has raced 12 Grand Tours in his career, winning two stages in the Tour de France and one in the Vuelta. He also has stage wins in Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Suisse, Tour of Germany and Paris-Nice. The Dutch rider claimed two stages in the old Tour DuPont in 1995 and '96, and he won the First Union Invitational in 2001.
Van Bon was the Dutch road race champion in 2005 and was third at the 1997 world championship road race. He also won a silver medal in the men's points race at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. As an accomplished Classics rider, he claimed multiple top-10 finishes in Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Gent Wevelgem, Milan-Sanremo and Amstel Gold.
The veteran rider strained a muscle in his back early in the week and had to abandon during Thursday's 149km Cannon Falls Road Race, but not before he was able to help out his much younger teammates on Mt. Borah with some sage-but-simple advice.
"In the criteriums he was making sure we were in the right position toward the start," Wolfe said. "During the road race he was talking to us about a good spot to attack that the favorites wouldn't already be thinking about. He was talking to us about where to attack and how to attack in the crosswinds. It was just amazing to have a star of his caliber just share.
"He's just a true gentleman and a great ambassador for the sport, especially for the young guys," Wolfe added. "They can see his results, see his resume, see him on video on the computer, and then to have him next to you giving simple advice just goes a long way to give them confidence and motivation."
Before abandoning, van Bon also contributed to the Mt. Borah riders' success in the stage, helping to launch Andrew McCullough into 12th place and fifth in the Best Amateur competition.
"In the opening 70-80km he was there covering moves and helping with the chase that actually set up two of our riders to get up the road," Wolfe said. "It was very, very successful."
But the back pain that has been plaguing Van Bon since the opening time trial on Tuesday eventually knocked him out of the race.
"My back is hurting and it makes my diaphragm cramp when I have to go deep," van Bon said. "It's not ideal for racing. I'm a bit disappointed that I couldn't do better. I knew I wasn't in the greatest form to win over here, but if I could have done a little better I could have taught [the Mt. Borah riders] more in the race. That I feel a little pity about."
Van Bon said he will stay in Minnesota to ride in the charity Menomonie Gran Fondo Saturday morning and then watch the Stillwater criterium on Sunday.
"I want to see it," he said of the final Stillwater stage. "I was there last year, not in the race, but we did a little sightseeing and I came there. And I thought that would be a great place to have a race over here. It would be crazy. Then we came home after sightseeing, and my friend said, 'Yeah we actually race there.' Then I learned it was this race."
After watching the Stillwater spectacle, with its multiple climbs up Chilkoot Hill and its 17-percent grades, van Bon and his wife will continue their US vacation on the East Coast before heading back to the Netherlands, but he hopes his time with Mt. Borah has made an impression on the team's young riders.
"It's hard to do something in three days – and two of the days are crits – but I tried," he said. "We'll talk a little bit and I hope they get a little bit inspired."