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NRC chase hots up at Nature Valley Grand Prix

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Carmen Small (Specialized-Lululemon) at the front to help keep things together

Carmen Small (Specialized-Lululemon) at the front to help keep things together (Image credit: Jonathan Devich/
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Tom Zirbel (Optum) sits on the front of the break

Tom Zirbel (Optum) sits on the front of the break (Image credit: Jonathan Devich/
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Chad Haga (Optum) has a good aero position on the bike.

Chad Haga (Optum) has a good aero position on the bike. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Joelle Numainville (Optum Pro Cycling)

Joelle Numainville (Optum Pro Cycling) (Image credit: Marco Quezada)

Reigning US professional time trial champions Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Carmen Small (Specialized-lululemon) will compete in their new stars-and-stripes jerseys for the first time this week when the 15th Nature Valley Grand Prix starts Wednesday morning in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Both Zirbel and Small, riding last year for the Minnesota-based Optum Pro Cycling team, won the opening time trial at the 2012 Nature Valley race and eventually took the overall titles four days later. The two new US time trial champions will be joined in Wednesday's opening time trial start house by newly-minted road race champions Jade Wilcoxson (Optum Pro Cycling) and Freddie Rodriguez (Jelly Belly), representing all four new US pro champions.

The 20 men's teams and 13 women's teams that organizers announced for this fifth stop of the eight-race USA Cycling National Race Calendar series also include former winners of stages in two Grand Tours.

Highlighting the 196-rider men's field are Continental teams Jamis-Hagens Berman, Jelly Belly and Zirbel's Optum Pro Cycling team. Optum's Jesse Anthony took the overall here in 2011 and is the only rider in the peloton other than Zirbel to have previously won the race.

The men’s peloton will also have to contend with two-time Tour de France stage winner Leon van Bon, riding for Mt. Borah-Minerva Designs, and Vuelta a Espana stage winner J.J. Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman), recent winner of the Airforce Cycling Classic Crystal Cup in Arlington, Virginia.

Leading the women's 125-rider field are UCI teams TIBCO-To the Top, Optum Pro Cycling and Specialized-lululemon, Small's 2013 team. TIBCO's Shelley Olds is the only other former Nature Valley Grand Prix winner in the women's field. Olds, a 2012 Olympian, won the 2010 overall in Minnesota. Exergy-Twenty 16, which figured prominently in last year's women's race, won't be in Minnesota this week.

Neither of the current National Race Calendar individual leaders, Francisco Mancebo (5-hour Energy/Kenda) or Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), will be at the NRC's fifth stop. Mancebo's 5-hour Energy team will be competing in Canada's Tour de Beauce, a UCI 2.2 race, instead. Bissell Pro Cycling and Hincapie Development Team also chose the Quebec race over Nature Valley this year. Jamis-Hagens Berman is splitting its squad and sending riders to both races. Only three of the eight US-based Continental men's teams will be at the Minnesota race.

Men's NRC leader Mancebo currently leads Optum's Chad Haga in the individual competition of that series. Haga could score a maximum of 200 points with a win at Nature Valley and significantly close the gap to the 5-hour Energy rider. Powers currently leads TIBCO's Claudia Haeusler by 82 points and Joelle Numainville by 210 in the women's individual NRC competition. Both will be at the Minnesota race this year.

The pro men will be racing for a total prize purse of $25,000, while the women's prizes total $15,000. Proceeds from the Nature Valley Grand Prix are donated to Children’s Lighthouse of Minnesota, a pediatric hospice project.

More miles added to Cannon Falls stage

The racing starts Wednesday morning with a 12.4 km individual time trial in St. Paul. This opening race against the clock is run Eddy Merckx-style, meaning riders must use standard road bike equipment rather than the typical aerodynamic time trial fare.

The fairly straight-forward out-and-back course features a short power climb to help riders open up their legs for the rest of the week. Both Small and Zirbel won this opening stage last year. Small held the lead through the entire race, while Zirbel lost it and then gained it back before the end.

The race remains in St. Paul for Wednesday evening's 64km downtown criterium. The men will cover 40 laps of the 1.4 km six-corner course around Landmark Center, while the women circle the course 28 times. Carloz Alzate, riding for Team Exergy, and Theresa Cliff-Ryan, riding for Exergy-Twenty12, took the wins there last year, while Kenda's John Murphy won enough intermediate time bonuses to take the overall lead from Zirbel.

Stage 3 will take riders to Cannon Falls for a 149.6 km road race. Last year's scheduled stage in Cannon Falls was cancelled because of extreme weather in the area, but the 30 km that organizers have added to the route this year should more than make up for it. The race finishes with four 3.4 km loops around town.

Friday's stage 4 brings riders back to Minneapolis for the uptown criterium on a 1.4 km L-shaped course in the heart of one of the city's most popular entertainment districts. Once again, the men will cover 40 laps, while the women race 28. Cliff-Ryan took her second stage win here last year. Jelly Belly's Brad Huff took the men's win ahead of Alejando Borrajo (Jamis) and Frank Pipp (Bissell).

Riders head across the border to Wisconsin for the stage 5 Menomonie Road Race on Saturday. Murphy missed the winning move last year during this stage and surrendered the leader's jersey for the final time to Zirbel. The men will race 162 km through the rolling Wisconsin countryside, while the women will tackle 132 km. Each race ends with four laps of a tricky 4.5 km 14-corner finishing circuit in town. Barrajo got his stage win here last year ahead of Jelly Belly's Christian Kriek. In the women's race, Specialized-lululemon's Emilia Fahlin took the stage win ahead teammate Loren Rowney and Small.

The stage race concludes Sunday with the infamously difficult and possibly inappropriately labeled Stillwater Criterium. The 12-corner 2.2 km course seems straightforward enough until you see the 20 percent grades of Chilkoot Hill, a three-block climb that will sap the legs of the hardiest sprinters. The race starts at the bottom of the climb and finishes at the top after 20 laps for the men. The women will circle the course 13 times. Megan Guarnier, riding for TIBCO, took the women's win in Stillwater last year. Elbowz Racing's Christian Helmig and Eric Marcotte overtook solo escapee Tyler Wren (Jamis-Hagens Berman) about 50 meters from the finish line to go first and second, respectively, last year.

Because of the opening time trial's relatively short length, the time gaps going into the rest of the week are often small, and time bonuses can play a crucial role in deciding the overall. Bumps of 12, eight and six seconds will go to the top three at the finish of each stage except the time trial and Stillwater crit. The St. Paul and Minneapolis criteriums also each have two intermediate time bonus sprints of five, three and one second.

Pat Malach

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.

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