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2008 Nature Valley Grand Prix draws strong fields

The Nature Valley Grand Prix, from June 11 to June 15 will feature a mix of urban criteriums, road races with finishing circuits and a time trial. Both the men's and women's races boast stacked fields this year.

The men's race was an invitational this year while the women's field filled with 147 women for the first time two weeks ago. Ivan Stevic will be defending his 2007 win and will be backed by a strong team, but he'll face a Health Net team which won five of the six stages last year, but could not take the jersey away from Stevic.

In the women's field, 2007 powerhouse Kristin Armstrong will also be returning, but she will have only one of her Cervelo-Lifeforce team mates for support. While she's still a favorite, the stacked women's field will be breathing down her neck.

Race 1: June 11, Downtown Saint Paul Criterium: This is a six-corner course in the artists' quarter of Saint Paul. The riders will pick up speed with a gradual decline on the backside and then fight to keep momentum in the gentle drag up to the finish. In 2007, the first year for this stage, Catherine Cheately (Cheerwine) took the sprint from a breakaway that had maintained a narrow lead over the chasing pack while Ivan Stevic, the eventual GC winner, claimed a field sprint.

Race 2: June 12, Cannon Falls Road Race: This 67-mile road race through gently rolling but wide open farmland countryside finishes with six laps on a circuit that includes a stiff but short climb to the line. A gentle wind can tear the pack apart. In 2006, a 17-man breakaway gained more than five minutes on the next group of a shattered pack, taking all of the other riders out of contention for the overall win. A short stretch of gravel road on the way into town adds another wild card to this stage. Winners in 2007 included Kirk O'Bee (HealthNet), who went on to win the USPro Criterium jersey later that year, and Brooke Miller (TIBCO).

Race 3: June 13, Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial: A stiff, 0.7 mile climb has been added to the end of last year's flat time trial course, which now totals six miles. The finish at the top of the Mississippi River bluffs has a breathtaking view of downtown Saint Paul, but the riders will have little breath left after the tough 10%-grade climb to get there. Time gained or lost in this time trial has often proven to be the decisive margin of victory in the final standings. With the first two stages favoring sprinters, the yellow jersey can be expected to change hands at this stage. Kristin Armstrong (Lipton) claimed the win and the jersey in 2007, while Nathan O'Neil (HealthNet) won the men's race but Stevic reclaimed the jersey from O'Bee.

Race 4: June 13, Minneapolis Downtown Classic: The most popular stage draws crowds to this criterium-style course in the heart of the entertainment district of Minneapolis. The pancake-flat, six corner course and pumped-up crowd make for very high speeds. Riders will attack throughout the race in the hope of establishing a breakaway, but the races often end in field sprints. O'Bee took the men's win in 2007, but could not take the jersey from Stevic, who finished second. Laura Van Gilder (Cheerwine) won for the women.

Race 5: June 14, Mankato Road Race: The Queen Stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the Mankato Road Race totals 95 miles, with the first 85 played out in wide open farm lands where cross winds can devastate the pack. But the real selector awaits the riders when they return to the street of Mankato. The 2.5 mile finishing circuit includes the leg-breaking Main Street Hill, a three-quarter mile monster with an uneven grade that averages 14% but is steepest at the top. Riders must complete the hill four times. Even if the pack is intact when it arrives on the circuit, it will shatter on the Main Street climb and the race will be won, likely with significant time gaps, by a small lead group. Kristin Armstrong crushed her opposition with a solo win in last year while Rory Sutherland (HealthNet) won the sprint from a small lead group.

Race 6: June 15, Stillwater Criterium: Riders who have survived the first five stages will face a criterium course famous for Chilkoot Hill, the 20%-grade beast that climbs to the finish line. But this epic climb is followed by a false flat and then First Street Hill on the backside of the course, where most of the attacks take place because riders have had no chance to recover from Chilkoot. A four-corner, white knuckled descent brings the riders back to the foot of Chilkoot for the next lap. The race is usually a war of attrition, with only about 30% of the field of riders completing the full distance and most of the rest receiving pro-rated times. Armstrong won her third stage her last year, ahead of Mara Abbott after Abbott tried to attack her on the final climb, while Frank Pipp racked up HealthNet's fifth stage win but Stevic kept the yellow jersey.

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