Local fans expected a showdown between the leading general classification teams during stage five but were instead treated to a surprise victory from amateur rider Andrew Crater (Wheel and Sprocket). Crater, a former pro, used his experience to out-pace his day-long breakaway companions Chad Gerlach (Amore & Vita) and Mike Northey (Land Rover-Orbea) to take the win.
"This is one of my biggest wins," said Crater, a former junior national champion, now 31. "I had to sit on through some of the circuits because I was cramping. I was breathing like a freight train on the hill. I had to stay really focused and concentrate most of my energy on my legs. I've been pretty consistent over the years but it's hard to win. This is the only stage that I wanted to do well in."
After a 138-kilometre road race, specatators looked off into the distance and saw Gerlach coming back into town alone. He used his aggressive riding style to get into an early breakaway of 14 riders and then used it again to snap away from a select eight riders at the finish. Amateur riders Crater and Northey, also represented in the early break, bridged across to the lone-star on the last lap. It turning a race of attrition into a three-man sprint to the line.
"The guys all started looking a little slow once it go hilly because we were out there all day," said Gerlach, long-time friend of Crater. "They all kept playing around and I felt really powerful on the hills coming into town so I took off. I gained time, felt good but the finishing circuit climb was tough. I'm a heavy guy so it's hard to get up that hill. I lost it on the third time up that climb and had to really push it on the fourth."
Tom Zirbel (Bissell) continues his lead the overall classification by seven seconds ahead of Rory Sutherland (OUCH p/b Maxxis) and ten seconds ahead of Sebastian Haedo (Colavita-Sutter Home). Tactics have been the name of the game between three top placed teams in the overall classification. The peloton containing all GC contenders finished 17 seconds behind the three podium finishers.
"We're taking it one day at at time and I'm not going to be happy until the jersey is on our shoulders at the end of tomorrow," Zirbel said. "I was happy to be able to climb with those guys when it counted. I've been relying on my team all week and to be honest I didn't take one hard pedal stroke until we got onto the circuits today. I was fresh and able to go with the accelerations on the last lap."
Amateur team Ciclismo Racing brought the remnants of the breakaway back at the base of the first climb on the first of four finishing circuits. The main peloton dwindled on each lap as riders from OUCH p/b Maxxis sent several riders on the attack. There was no separation between Zirbel, Sutherland or Haedo at the top of each climb but the pace was fast enough to bring back all original breakaway riders with the exception of Crater, Gerlach and Northey.
"We wanted to get time and tactically the best way would be to get away from the group," said Sutherland the defending champion. "Each team had a different percpective on how to race today. We tried to send a few guys up the road early. I gave it a good hit over the top of the climb on the circuits. It's difficult and a bit frustrating to have won it the last two years means I'm marked heavily but that's bike racing. You can get annoyed at it but you can never expect people to just let you go. I have to keep trying.
The break of the day
Tyler Stanfield (Kenda Pro Cycling) initiated a move 20 kilometres into the men's 137-kilometre road race. Several groups gradually bridged across until it reached its maximum number of 14 riders. The eager group included Crater, Gerlach and Northey along with Tim Johnson (OUCH p/b Maxxis), Kirk O'Bee and Cody O'Reilly (Bissell), Jeremy Powers (Jelly Belly), Davide Frattini (Colavita-Sutter Home), Ben Raby (Trade Wind Energy), Rob Bush and Pat Lemieux (Texas Road House). Late bridgers included, Also Ino Ilesic (Team Type 1), Nicholas Clayville (Hagens Berman), Ben King (Amore & Vita).
"It was really aggressive at the start and the break just kind of rolled away," Gerach said. "After a while some of the guys weren't working anymore and I didn't want to be the one pulling all day in such a big group. It looked like it was all going to come back together with the original big group but it didn't."
The breakaway grew to a maximum of eight minutes and the highest placed rider was Johnson who became the virtual leader on the road. Close behind was O'Bee, Powers and Frattini. The four were forced to play a tactical game based on the GC position of their leading teammates who sat behind in the peloton. Keeping a close watch on one another, they stratigized their way straight off the back of the break as the aggressive amateur riders continued their race to the finish line.
"I believe that it was a very hard day of racing for those guys off the front today," Sutherland said. "There are more than two or three teams in this race. The GC guy for us was Johnson and that was perfect. But, if we tried to go up the road Bissell would have been stright on to us and Colavita had their tactics too. We are all just trying to get away from each other. But we have to remember that there are other teams that want to race too and that's only fair."
Stanfield earned himself the event's Most Agressive Rider jersey for a second maneuver that resutled in he and Gerlach gaining time on their breakaway companions. Some twenty kilometres later the front group reunited, minus Johnosn, O'Bee, Powers and Frattini.
"It was a very interesting day and never expected what happened to happen," said Zirbel. "We got ourselves into a situation with Kirk and Cody up the road. We decided to gamble and go with it and see what other teams would go to the front first. We held out and luckily it came back. We were able to bring down three minutes in the circuits alone."
Behind the break, leading teams Bissell, OUCH p/b Maxxis and Colavita-Sutter Home had their own valid reasons not to organize a chase that would reduce the time to the lead group. In the end it was the strong eight-men amateur team Ciclismo Racing who reduced the gap down to catch the tail end of the breakaway riders entering the finishing circuits in Mankato.
"Nothing was going on in the back," said a slightly-disappointed Sutherland. "Bissell made a choice to not control the race and not take responsoibiltiy. But at the end of the day they still had the jersey so it may not have been a bad decision - but it was an interesting choice."
The sixth and final stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix continues tomorrow at the Stillwater Criterium, featuring the infamous 18 percent grades of Chillkoot Hill.
Webcor builds its lifeline
Armstrong narrowly holds on
Australian all-rounder Alexis Rhodes put the Webcor-Builder's team back on the map at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. After seemingly crashing out of contention for general classification honours two stages prior, Rhodes took the race into her own hands and soloed to the stage five victory ahead of Dotsie Bausch (Jazz Apple) and US national road champion, Brooke Miller (TIBCO).
Her impressive performace landed her in second place in the overall classification along with the event's best young rider and best overall climber's jerseys.
"The stage win is all I really wanted and the fact that I'm back in the GC is great," said Rhodes, who joined Webcor-Builders after a two-year stint with Columbia-Highroad. "We've had a pretty bad week so I just wanted to do something. I worked the break hard enough to establish it but made sure I wasn't fried coming into the circuits."
Rhodes rode away from a mid-race breakaway of six riders that included Bausch and Miller along with Olivia Dillon (Nature Valley Cycling Team), Nicole Evans (Value Act Capital) and Kelly Benjamin (Colavita-Sutter Home). The peloton lead by race leader Kristin Armstrong reduced the gap to Rhodes from four minutes down to just over two minutes at the line.
"This is just a great day for Webcor," said the squad's directeur sportif Laura Charmaeda. "To go from doing so well to crashing out like that and then to come back and fight. How great is that. To keep their attitude together. They could have felt like packing up and going home but they didn't, they went for it."
Kristin Armstrong maintained her overall lead after a hard-faught day of racing... or time trialing as the case may be. A crash during stage two eliminated five of the Webcor-Builders' GC riders but Rhodes' solo win combined with a 15-second time bonus put her back into second place 11 seconds behind Armstrong. Alison Powers (Team Type 1) slid into third place 12 seconds back.
"There were times out there that I was thinking this is good practice for my time trial at the world championships," said Armstrong who has no teammates to help with domestic duties. "So I have to thank the peloton out there today for letting me do a lot of work - Thank you!"
Some 40 kilometers into the professional women's 138-kilometre road race, Kathryn Mattis (Webcor-Builders) escaped on a solo breakaway. She was later joined by Julie Beveridge (TIBCO), Jessica Phillips (Lip Smackers) and Veronica Leal (Team Type 1). The break grew to nearly three mintues before Armstrong decided that it was too threatening to let go.
"The group of four were caught just as we were turning left into some crosswinds," said Charmaeda. "That's when I said, ‘Girls, make it hurt now,' because that's when you can effectively launch an attack. That's when Alexis got away."
Rhodes, Bausch, Miller and Benjamin quickly gained two minutes on the field. They were later joined by chasers Dillon and Evans. As the lead grew to nearly four mintues, Evans became the virtual leader on the road.
Back in the peloton, Armstrong particularily looked for help from Powers, runner up on GC, to help with the chase. However, that did not happen. With out having the luxury of teammates, it was up to her to reduce the time margin. She received little help from the other members of the field and thus found herself back at the front, dragging the field by their toungues over the four finishing circuit climbs to desperately reduce the gap to Rhodes.
"I had to take control into my owns hands and bring back the break," said Armstrong. "I had to do a lot of work today. I had to pick and choose what breaks to cover and the last break I was okay with. I knew I had a little wiggle room with the climbing at the end. I also figured that because Team Type 1 was not represented that they would do some work. They did no work today. At the end of the day it all comes back around because now they're sitting in third place and not second anymore."
The tight battle for the Nature Valley Grand Prix title continues tomorrow at the stage six circuit race in Stillwater. The riders will face the tough Chillkoot Hill of 22 percent grade each lap. "There's not faking that climb," said Armstrong. "You either get up it or you don't"
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.