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Big changes in store for Nature Valley Grand Prix

Defending Nature Valley champ Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo Test Team) sails to victory.

Defending Nature Valley champ Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo Test Team) sails to victory.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix has made several drastic changes to its six-stage event  this year, including a restriction to normal road bikes for the time trial and several course revisions. 

The shifts are expected to change the overall tactics of the race while making it fair for all participants in the event, which is set to take place from June 16-20 around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota

Executive Director David LaPorte said the Nature Valley Grand Prix has opted to invoke a new USA Cycling rule that allows race organizers to specify that "massed-start legal" bicycles are required for time trials. The rule will be enforced for the 9.6 km St. Paul Riverfront time trial on June 16.

"The decision was made partly to simplify logistics for the teams and partly out of fairness," LaPorte said in a recent press release. "We have a time cut in the time trial to ensure that no one loafs to stay fresh for the criterium that night. But in the past, we have had some strong riders cut primarily because they did not have time trial bikes. We have also had some riders in the past who haven't competed because of the expense of bringing two bikes, particularly with the outrageous charges the airlines are imposing."

The Nature Valley Grand Prix will work with USA Cycling officials to spell out the specific restrictions regarding aero equipment (wheels, helmets, etc.), which will ultimately appear in the race bible.

LaPorte said he will poll all women's and men's teams after the race – as he has done in previous years – to get an idea of whether the new rule should be retained for 2011.

The opening time trial is among the toughest for its flat and fast start along Lilydale Road followed by a steep finale up the Ohio Street hill to the finish line. Last year's winners of the event were current UCI World Time Trial Champion, Kristin Armstrong and Tom Zirbel, each won their respective events using a time trial bike.

"Personally, I don't understand why they would do that because the race is on the NRC calendar and it's a big race, one of the biggest races in America," said time trial specialist Phil Zajicek of the Fly V Australia team. "All the biggest Pro teams in America are racing there. I don't think there has been an issue in the past of riders not having the proper equipment for the Pro men's field."

"I think without the time trial bike there will be a lot bigger time gaps," he added. "I think you'll see some guys who aren't necessarily time trial specialist be on a little more even playing ground and some guys do better than they would have otherwise."

Last year's overall race was won by Rory Sutherland of the UnitedHealthcare p/b Maxxis team, then called OUCH. His squad's directeur, Mike Tamayo voiced his concerns regarding the time trial bike ban by stating that, "I think it's absurd. It's a time trial and therefore you should be allowed to use time trial bikes. It's another opposing of rules that is not needed. Teams have always had time trial bikes there."

"If your concern is that having time trial bikes puts a big gap in the race and doesn't make it exciting, last year's race was won in the last three laps of the final stage between Tom Zirbel and Rory Sutherland, both of whom had time trial bikes," he added. "So, if you are looking for nail-biting situations, how much more nail-biting can you get than that?"

Danny Van Haute, director of the Jelly Belly Cycling p/b Kenda professional men's team, said the decision to prohibit time trial bikes will level the playing field. "Not everyone can buy time trial equipment and if the pro teams have this equipment, it's not fair to the riders who don't," he said. "I'll bet the results will be the same with time trial bikes as they would be without."

On the women's side, US National Time Trial Champion Jessica Phillips (Colavita-Baci p/b Cooking Light) believes the time trial bike is a decisive piece of equipment for this particular course, however, she is understanding of the organization's reason for excluding the piece of aerodynamic equipment.

"My feeling is that any time trial where we get to use time trial bikes is always nice, and we have Nationals right after so that would be a good prep," Phillips said. "I think the time trial bike makes the race and obviously you come into the hill faster if you are on a time trial bike."

"But, the bottom line is that it is completely understandable," she added. "It is really hard, even impossible, for women that aren't on big teams to get that kind of equipment let alone travel with it. I don't think it's that big of a deal really, it's understandable."

The women's race is a valuable event on the Women's Prestige Cycling Series. The series started at the Redlands Bicycle Classic and will resume at the Tour of the Gila next week. The Nature Valley Grand Prix marks round three and the series will conclude at the Cascade Cycling Classic.

"I'm really happy that David LaPorte puts on a big race and puts so much effort and energy into the women's race," Phillips said. "Women's racing is hard because you want to have teams and be professional but at the same time you want to have bigger fields."

"I'm always so happy when people year after year keep putting on great races especially for women," she added. "There are not that many fully supported women's teams, so if you are on a smaller team or trying to make it onto a bigger team, it is really hard without a time trial bike and even if you have one it is really hard to travel with it for just one day. I think in order to grow women's cycling, it's fine to make that rule."

Team Vera Bradley Foundation Director Lisa Hunt said it is disappointing for her team's bicycle sponsor not to be able to showcase its time trial bikes. "However, in the interest of being fair and equitable for all parties involved, I support the decision," she said. "Clearly, our strongest time trial riders will be strong on a road bike or a time trial bike. So it's not like we are at a disadvantage."

Course changes keep Nature Valley Grand Prix fresh and exciting

Course-wise, the Downtown Saint Paul Criterium is moving from Lowertown to the heart of the entertainment district, according to LaPorte. Last year's criterium winners were Sebastian Haedo and Kristy Broun.

"Once five o'clock in the evening rolls around everything shuts down and we never really had too many spectators," Tamayo said. "My understanding is that the race has been moved to a certain part of town that has more night life. There should be more of a turn out as far as spectators and crowds go and that makes complete sense to me."

Another major change saw the elimination of the Mankato Road Race, replaced by the new Menomonie Road Race to be held over the border in Wisconsin. The former location traditionally ran as stage five of the six-stage event. It was flat and notoriously windy road race that ended with a steep climb through the neighborhood of Mankato. Last year, Sebastian Haedo and Kristin Armstrong in their respective fields in Mankato.

"The big one from a sports perspective is that the Saturday road race is moving into Wisconsin," LaPorte said. "The previous race out of Mankato, Minnesota, was pancake flat for the first 80 miles with a brutal hill on the finishing circuit, but the race was almost done by then. The Menomonie Road Race will have major hills throughout the course. It'll totally change the math."