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Nature Valley Grand Prix

One of the most important US domestic stage races, the Nature Valley Grand Prix kicks off this Wednesday, June 14, in Minnesota. The five-day event has been reconfigured for 2006 in an attempt to increase the drama of the battle for overall honours. The stages this year will be become progressively more vertical as the week wears on, changing the type of rider who will be in contention for the overall winner.

The men's field includes strong squads from Health Net, Jelly Belly, Toyota United, Navigators Insurance, and Kodak Gallery - Sierra Nevada. The women's field is equally strong, with squads from Colavita / Cooking Light, TEAm Lipton, Webcor-Platinum and Victory Brewing.

Organisers say the 2006 fields are the strongest yet in terms of individual riders as well as overall quality. The men's field will include current and former US national champions Dave McCook (Jelly Belly), Tim Johnson (Health Net), Phil Zajicek (Navigators Insurance), Frank Pipp (TargetTraining) and Ben Jacques-Maynes (Kodak Gallery - Sierra Nevada) along with three-time Canadian national champion Gord Fraser (Health Net) and two-time Mexican national champion Jose Garcia (Toyota United). The women's field is equally strong, including Olympic gold medalist Sarah Ulmer (Jazz Apple) and current and former US national champions Tina Pic (Colavita / Cooking Light), Christine Thorburn (Webcor-Platinum), Laura Van Gilder and Kristin Armstrong (TEAm Lipton).

The NVGP starts on Wednesday June 14 with the Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial, a new 4.5 mile event along the Mississippi River. This is a relatively flat, out-and-back course with a gradual climb as the riders approach the turnaround.

The first road stage is likely to be one for the sprinters as the 60-mile Cannon Falls Road Race on June 15 rolls through the Minnesota countryside. There is little shelter on much of this course and winds may play a major factor, but with no major climbs organisers are predicting a field sprint finale.

The midway point of the race is the Minneapolis Downtown Classic, in the heart of the entertainment district. This is definitely one for the sprinters, with a flat, fast L-shaped course. Technical corners and high speeds can favor small breakaways and the leader's jersey has changed hands here in the past.

The penultimate stage, June 17's Mankato Road Race starts in Mankato and then winds through Blue Earth County, with 80 miles of relatively flat riding in wide-open country where wind could be a major factor. The race goes vertical when the riders return to Mankato, entering a challenging 2.3-mile finishing circuit. This circuit includes Main Street Hill, a stair-stepping 0.6 mile climb that averages 14 percent. With four laps on this tough circuit, the Mankato Road Race will establish the riders to beat for the overall title.

The final stage is nominally a criterium, but the 's 1-5 mile circuit features two climbs, including Chilkoot Hill, the climb to the finish that averages 18 percent. This is likely to be the decisive stage as the brutal course rips the field apart on the last day.

Stages

Stage 1 - June 14: Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial, 4.5 miles
Stage 2 - June 15: Cannon Falls Road Race, 60 miles
Stage 3 - June 16: Minneapolis Downtown Classic, 60/40 minutes
Stage 4 - June 17: Mankato Road Race
Stage 5 - June 18: Stillwater Criterium

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