Anthony, Neben line up to defend Nature Valley Grand Prix titles

The Nature Valley Grand Prix enters its 14th year with six stages of racing over five days in central Minnesota and western Wisconsin, June 13-17. The stage race is part USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar (NRC) for both men and women and the respective fields face a mix of three criteriums, two road races, and a time trial.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix men’s race has been dominated by Team UnitedHealthcare and its predecessors (HealthNet and Ouch). Since 2005, they’ve won the yellow jersey five out of seven years with near misses in 2007 and 2011. Last year they won five of the six stages but lost the yellow jersey to Jesse Anthony, who won the 2011 men's edition, during the Menomonie Road Race

With Team UnitedHealthcare unable to compete due to its UCI Pro Continental status, the 2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix is wide open on the men’s side. One favorite has to be defending champion Jesse Anthony of Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies whose team is based in Minneapolis and has made it clear another overall victory is a priority. They’ll face stiff competition, however, from other UCI Continental squads such as Bissell, Competitive Cyclist, Team Exergy, Jelly Belly Cycling and Kenda Pro Cycling. With the men’s team size reduced from eight to six riders, it will be difficult for any team to dominate the 2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix and the racing should be active and aggressive from stage one.

The favorite for the women’s race has to be defending champion Amber Neben, who will be supported by a strong Specialized-lululemon team that includes Swedish national champion Emilia Fahlin. Kristin Armstrong (Exergy Twenty12) would have given her a run for her money, but she broke her collarbone at the Exergy Tour and will skip the race. Still, Armstrong’s teammate Alison Tetrick, a graduate of the Nature Valley Pro Chase talent identification program who wore the leader’s jersey for three stages in 2010, is also among the contenders. TIBCO’s Megan Guarnier and several riders from Optum Pro Cycling, the team currently ranked at the top of the NRC standing, are also likely to be in the mix.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix is expected to shake up the women’s NRC standings. Alison Powers (NOW & Novartis for MS) may very well lose her lead by not attending. The top spot will likely be taken by Amber Neben (Specialized-lululemon), the Nature Valley Grand Prix defending champion, who is currently ranked 2nd on the NRC. Neben’s focus, however, is expected to shift to Europe, so her lead will be short-lived. Likely contenders for the top spot on the NRC at the end of the season include current 3rd and 4th place riders Carmen Small and Jade Wilcoxson (both Optum Pro Cycling).

Wilcoxson’s story is particularly compelling. She was an unknown rider last year when she was selected by the Nature Valley Pro Chase for a trip to the 2011 Nature Valley Grand Prix. Her results at Nature Valley earned her the Nature Valley Top Amateur jersey, bringing her to the attention of the pro team managers. She now sits 4th on the NRC standings with a shot at the overall title.

The stages

Stage 1: Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial (Wednesday (morning) – The opening time trial course is radically different from the traditional six mile course that began with five pancake-flat miles culminating in a stiff, 1km climb at the end. The new course. is a rolling out-and-back route along the Mississippi River on East River Road that includes the same amount of climbing as the traditional course. The distance has increased from 6 to 7.7 miles, which may favor the time trial specialists. The Nature Valley Grand Prix continues its ban on time trial bikes and equipment, but the strongest time trialists are still expected to do well.

Stage 2: Downtown Saint Paul Criterium (Wednesday evening) – Riders won’t be done for the day after the Wednesday morning time trial. They will race again that evening in the entertainment district of Downtown Saint Paul. This is a flat, fast, five-corner course that features brick sections around Rice Park and some of the most beautiful architecture in the Midwest. Time bonus sprints can shake up the GC and proved crucial to Shelley Olds’ final victory in 2010.

Stage 3: Cannon Falls Road Race (Thursday) – Gravel roads, courtesy of road construction, are likely to play a pivotal role in the 2012 Cannon Falls Road Race. The new 2.2-mile section of gravel comes at mile 23 in a race that’s been lengthened from 67 to 73 miles. The transition will be particularly challenging because the corner is sharper than 90 degrees and goes straight into a King/Queen of the Hills climb. Gravel roads have played crucial roles in past editions of the Cannon Falls Road Race with teams fighting for position before the transition and then trying to shatter the field as navigate the treacherous dirt road. Wind is often a factor in the wide-open farmland of the Cannon Falls Road Race and even a gentle breeze can tear the pack apart.

Stage 4: Minneapolis Uptown Criterium (Friday) – The Uptown Criterium is the marquee event of the Nature Valley Grand Prix and attracts what many observers consider to be the largest criterium crowd in the country. Uptown is a hip, trendy entertainment district that abuts dense, upscale residential neighborhoods. The flat, six-corner course and a pumped-up crowd traditionally make for high speeds.

Stage 5: Menomonie Road Race (Saturday) – The Nature Valley Grand Prix returns to the hill country of Wisconsin in and around Menomonie. This is a brutal course with twists and turns that can allow a breakaway to get out of sight and out of mind. The first major climb comes just 12 miles into races that are 81 miles for the women and 101 miles for the men. A great deal of time can be gained out in the country, but there will be a chance to make some of the time up on the four laps of the relatively flat three-mile finishing circuits. Game-changing breakaways occurred in both races last year with Neben seizing the yellow jersey from Armstrong in the women’s race while Anthony did the same to Robert Forster (Team UnitedHealthcare) in the men’s race.

Stage 6: Stillwater Criterium – The Stillwater Criterium on Sunday used to be the game-changer, but now it shares that honor with the Menomonie Road Race. It is by far the most challenging stage, as riders who have survived the first five stages face a brutal criterium parcours featuring the infamous for Chilkoot Hill - the 20 percent grade wall the peloton climbs each lap with the stage finish at the top. It's typically a war of attrition with only about 30 percent of the riders completing the full distance.

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