The Ups and Downs at Nature Valley

This year’s schedule for me has been nearly a mirror image as my 2010 season with the notable exception of Battenkill earlier in the year. Based on all the other racing I’ve done this year compared to 2010 (Joe Martin, Quad Cities, etc) I had decided to take off and head out to Nature Valley to really put my form to the test.

As racers we usually refer to Nature Valley as a crit stage race, which was made even more true this year by the total cancellation of the Cannon Falls Road Race (I raced 20 miles of it in 2010 before it was Tornado-ed out). We were sending a smaller squad than last time with only 4 riders, however the notable lack of UHC from the peleton and a team cap of only 6 riders as opposed to the usual 8 meant the race was much more open.

The first day of racing consisted of a morning time trial and evening crit. TT’s are never really my thing but NVGP does it right and outlaws TT bikes in favor of mass start bikes. This really levels the playing field for us Amateurs who don’t have full support and extra bikes up the wazoo. This alone made me a little more inclined to try hard in the TT. I’ve also been doing these “threshold workouts” that apparently make make time trails end faster…or so I hear. The TT course was just a 7.7 mile ordeal on a parkway running along the Mississippi. I finished 72nd which put me smack dab in the middle of the 142 man field, a pretty solid result as far as I’m concerned.

The nights’ crit was in Downtown St. Paul in the ritzy theater district (I think). As with any NRC race, especially the biggest non-UCI event in the country, the crits start out blazing fast. With Tom Zirbel in the yellow jersey Kelly Benefits didn’t even wait for attacks to take up the pace setting reins for the day. This seemed a little odd and it immediately back fired on them with John Murphy from Kenda taking several time bonus sprints and the Yellow Jersey. Because Kelly was just chilling on the front the entire time not too many attacks went and I even reached for some glory attacking solo off the front for 3 laps. I got a 20 second lead right away and was hoping they’d leave me out to dry a bit so I could bask in my “no-TV present TV time glory”. Unfortunately I was brought back and returned to the business of fighting wheels. Thinking back to 2010 though I was definitely riding better, at the front, able to move into top 10 positions (aka being able to see the front of the field). Last time, every crit, I was stuck in the tail gun vortex of continuously trying to move up and burning matches while being passed by every other dude trying to do the same, all the while closing gaps of guys blowing up. There is no easy place to sit past 20th wheel in an NRC crit.

The cannon falls road race was canceled the next day due to some pretty nasty weather. We were bummed since it was looking to be a tough day with 20+ mph winds and what not. So instead we spent the day with Kenda defending their leaders jersey in a bakery on Main Street.

After a good little rest day mid-stage race every was pretty antsy and fresh going into the UpTown Minneapolis Crit. The Uptown crit is a relatively straight forward crit, 6 corners, TONS of spectators and fast. I mean really fast. I got a mediocre starting spot and from the gun it was pretty obvious that everyone was fresh. Kenda was having a difficult time controlling the race from the looks of it. A dangerous breakaway got off the front with last years winner: Jesse Anthony from Optimum (looking for some revenge after loosing the yellow Wednesday).

My own race was going ok for a few laps until I clipped a pedal in the last corner which was super lumpy. This combined with a large bump in the pavement caused some serious rear wheel air-ing. When my wheel came down it ripped the tubular off the rim. This is the point where people usually crash. By some act of God or amazing handling skills on my part I managed to stay on the rim while cornering at about 25 mph. I actually held it upright for a while drifting out the rear wheel on the rim for some time before I lost enough momentum and my wheel went out. Once on the ground I was facing the charging peleton and had to watch in horror as every rider in the field came around the last corner single file, crapped their pants at me sitting in the middle of the road, then correct their line.

After a trip to the pit I hopped back into the race. I spent some serious energy getting back to the front of the race. I made it up to the top fourth of the field where Kenda was in all out chase mode to get the breakaway. This meant full gas for the rest of the race. There was no moving up from that point onward just full gas till the finish.

I mean fast, my Normalized Power for the crit was 410 watts. That’s also 309 watts average with zeros for the entire race. I’m not that keen on actual power numbers since they kinda mean different things for different people but for me that’s like….DAMN.

Ok on to the Queen stage in Menomonie. On tap was a super hilly day with a wide open GC. Of course the rain was rolling in just as we started the 100 mile race. In 2010 I was keen on getting in the “early breakaway” little did I know things didn’t quite operate like that so I spent a lot of matches following stupid attacks before the first decisive KOM that finally caused the breakaway to split off (wow a decisive part of the course causing a breakaway? it’s almost like NRC racing is just like any other race). I learned my lesson I thought.

I stayed put the first part of the race…which was FAST. I made it through the first hour and a half keeping things calm and staying up front. We hit the second KOM which was the first big climb and shit got cra (as yeezy would say).  I don’t think I’ve ever gone harder on my bike than that period of time. Anyone who thinks they can ride harder in training than racing is full of it. My arms were cramping up from pulling on the bars so hard during the climb (along with everything else in a state of total pain)…and this was only the first KOM.
I thought that I had made it past the hard part of the race and went on the attack to bridge up to a 10-ish man group that was looking really promising. This turned out to be my un-doing. I was making up some ground, but so was the field on me. I got brought back just as I saw the sign for 1 km to KOM…uh oh.

I blew up hard, looking at my power file I was doing less than 200 watts at the top of the climb. By the time I had recovered enough to actually chase I was solidly in the groupetto. We gave some chase and kept the field in sight for a number of miles but it was no use. Since there was no clear leader the racing up front was still fast and aggressive. Ryan A and I made it into the circuits just in time to see the field, which was about 30 riders at that point, round the last corner with 3 laps to go. We lost 20 minutes.

On to the final day of racing. Stillwater was definitely one of my favorite crits. The Chillkot hill which defines the race is a super steep pitch up to the finishing line that has a solid wall of fans. For 30 seconds every race you really feel like you’re riding in Le Tour swerving through hoards of screaming fans. With my GC time totally shot from the day before I was planning on doing some breaking away for the day. My hopes for this plan were dashed when dudes started lining up for the start 30 MINUTES before the race got underway. Let me be clear, people don’t line up this early for any other crit (even other NVGP crits which are a hell of a lot harder to move up on than Stillwater). So I rolled around a bit and started DFL (Dead —- Last), along with some other hitters like Marcotte, Dominguez, J-Pow…etc. The gun went off and within 3 laps I had made it to the top 20 riders (mission accomplished).

By that point all 3 Panthers were riding up there and a move with Olheiser from Competitive Cyclist was off the front, we had the same presenting sponsor so I figured that was close enough of a teammate and decided to sit in.

The laps wore on and eventually with 5 or 6 to go it started to rain, not bad at first but things really started to come down. I may not be the strongest rider in the field but one thing I can do well is ride fast in the rain (In my rainy glory I once lapped a collegiate field that contained Rob Bush and Adam Leibovitz solo by out-cornering everyone).

When the lap counter read 2 to go the field was pretty small and it was clear Kelly was just defending their lead…plus it was pouring. Once we got onto the second climb of the course I went on the attack hoping to stick it to the Pro teams if nothing else (you get tired of being shoved off wheels for a week for not wearing a Pro jersey). I put in a good 30 second dig to get over the climb and onto the descent. Looking back I saw only Tyler Wren from Jamis behind me then a whole lotta space…surely this wouldn’t last. I flicked my elbow for some help but all I got was “I need to recover” (I can’t hate too much though he was off the front a fair amount earlier plus gave me a shout-out in NVGP race report). I thought I could only benefit by burying myself so I did and took the last lap up Chillkot hill full gas in the big ring.

Literally a wall of sound here, one of the coolest experiences I’ve had on a bike.

Finishing Climb: order soon to be reversed

Over the top of the climb I was starting to hurt, but we amazingly had a HUGE gap. Wren attacked me on the back side of the courese. I looked back to see where I was relative to the field. Of all the pro teams out there I saw not one but TWO Elbowz guys coming up fast. I let off the gas just a bit until they passed by and I jumped onto their wheel. Wren was still only a few seconds off the front, with Marcotte leading Helmeg down the hill followed by me.

I had a good wheel to follow but got gapped a little when I downshifted to my little ring. I had a front row seat to watch both Helmeg and Marcotte pass Wren to go 1-2. I struggled pretty hard to make it onto the podium but but didn’t quite have the legs and finished a few meters back.

Behind Ryan A also placed in the top ten at 7th, not too bad for an amateur team out of Ohio.

Overall I’m super happy with how it went. Sure I might have sat in for a lap longer and MAYBE would’ve done better, but being off the front in the last few laps of the of the biggest non-UCI race in the US is pretty damn cool, 4th place to boot ain’t bad either.

A good set of photos from the NVGP where I lifted most of mine from.

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