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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NVGP FINAL!

Sunday was the final day of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the infamous Stillwater Criterium. At 1.4 miles some promoters might consider this a very long circuit race and not give free laps…..MELON CITY…..but fortunately they DID give free laps which helped my race immensely.

We packed up all out belongings from our very awesome host housing/race support/local guide/general cool guy Kevin Schaeffer and headed out to Stillwater, which is a half hour east of the twin cities and on the way home.

First of all, the NatureValley race likes to pride itself on owning America’s HARDEST criterium of all time end all be all, they think of it like the final sword duel in Highlander. It is by far NOT the hardest crit, which is a pretty hard metric to measure.

The course starts off at the bottom of THE hill, which is a less than quarter mile pitch that ramps up around 20%. The course then hangs quick left followed by a right hander to ascend further up a false flat. Two more right-handers send the riders down the long descent towards the start with a few turns but nothing technical.

If you’re curious why it isn’t the hardest crit let me give some examples. First example: Snake Alley, MUCH harder course with a very technical climb and technical downhill. Second: The Joe Martin final crit, much bigger hill (but not technical), and very dangerous/technical downhill.

That being said, this crit had probably the most and loudest spectators of any race I’ve personally been in. People lined the hill several deep, creeping into the road, making you feel like your riding in Le Tour as you grind up the hill in your 39×25. It was an amazing experience.

As with any technical crit, the most of the bumping came as riders lined up at the start line while the announcers called up 20 some riders. I somehow managed to roll up to the start from the wrong direction and was in the last row, which turned out to be the best thing since sliced bread.

The announcer counted down, and the race was off with enough nervous riding to cause a crash in the first 10 meters, which is exactly what happened. Two riders ahead of me, two guys tangled and went down, I did a sort of summersault and ended up on top of two other guys. I couldn’t get myself untangled from my bike and other riders until someone simply picked me up around my middle and pulled me off the pile. After checking the bike I lined up along the barricades with the 20 some riders taking their free lap preparing to jump back in.

When the field came around the ref waved us in, AT THE FRONT! By the time I got up to speed, which is pretty slow on a 20% grade, I was a mere 30 riders back. I wouldn’t say it was smooth sailing from then on, but being in the field ahead of the vortex of riders dropping off the back helped immensely, I was able to recover on the descent and even move up in the corners. I saw Paul and Ryan both several times looking good in the field.

However my good luck was not to last long, with 5 to go Jamis got to the front and really started turning the screws on the false flat after the hill, which was normally pretty tame earlier in the race. Because of this the next time up the hill I was gapped and that was pretty much all she wrote. I rode in with a few other amateur guys, and did the final trip up the hill in the big ring…just for good measure (the finish was at the top of the hill).

The course did do quite a number on the field though. Of the 130 some riders that started the race, 15 or so did not make the time cut (completing 5 laps without being lapped by field) and less than 50 managed to complete the full 20 laps. I managed to slot in 34th, a mere 2 minutes behind the leaders, which catapulted me from the 80’s in the GC to 53rd!

P

aul lost the Amateur jersey to Chris Winn of team Rio Grand, who had a great ride, and Dan was the only other Panther to finish the 20 laps.

After grabbing some showers at the local sports club and some Mexican food we headed back to our neck of the woods.





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NVGP #3 (actually stage 4 and 6)

Last night was a late night, which will sometimes happen when your
race doesn’t start untill 7:45 in the evening and wraps up after the
sun goes down.

Yesterday we had a ‘day-out’ in Minneapolis. We woke up to tour QBP.

If you’ve never worked at a bike shop let me fill you in, most likely
everything you’ve ever bought from a bike shop comes through the
distributor QBP. So we set up a tour of their state of the art and
environmentally friendly warehouse. The two guys I was with, Dan and
Noah, who are both major bike shop geeks, and were really digging the
whole distribution process blah blah blah. They do ship out 8,000
orders per day which is pretty impressive and only have something like
40 some errors per 100,000 line items. I was just digging all the gobs
of sweet bike components everywhere, plus the QBP wheel lacing guy and
tensioning machine, which was pretty sweet also. Tom Boonen apparently owes his rainbow stripes to the distribution practices of QBP.


The pro wheel lacer guy that laces all the wheels you buy from Quality, he did a demo for us, took him about 30 seconds to do a 32 spoke 3x pattern.
Team of wheel true-ers.
Want a Powertap?

Next on the agenda was the Mall of America…not all that impressive,
just saying.


Last on our tour we stopped off at one of the local shops in Minneapolis called
1on1. This shop was really sweet. Its half coffee shop, half bike
shop, and the lower half is a bike scrap yard. It’s hard to describe
the amount off cool, old, beat up crap that was in their basement.
Noah walked away with a pair of Ambrosio tubular rims, and we had a
coffee at their shop to celebrate our find.
Welcome to One-on-One!Old school suicide shifter where you had to reach down behind you to your seat tube pull a lever in order to shift.

The basement of old goods.
No idea what kind of shifter this is but it requires two cables to pull the derailleur up and down the dual railing.

Finally we did have to race. Friday was the Minneapolis Uptown
criterium. Uptown is the trendy neighborhood of Minneapolis, complete
with hipster gangs rolling around. The atmosphere at this race was
very cool, the entire 6 corner mile long course was completely lined
with people, even 10 deep along the finishing straight. It was a huge
event.

I did not make the same mistake I had made in the first crit, I got to
the start early and started mid pack. That coupled with a pretty wide
open course helped my own start. I even managed to keep the front of
the pack within sight during the first half of the race. Considering
how my previous crit went, this was quite an accomplishment. One of my
fellow collegiate racers, Rob Bush of Marion University, was
completely tearing it up at the front, attacking for pretty much the
majority of the crit.

I got a little too comfortable at the front and drifted back to the
vortex of the second half of the field; where any attempt to move up
would drain you to the point that you’d get passed by a ton of people
trying to recover.

I finished the race at the back again, but it was a good experience
and a lot of fun with the huge crowds.
This dude built a vehicle that is powered by doing an elliptical machine type motion, he was riding around at the race.
The Minneapolis skyline while riding the pedestrian only ‘Million Dollar Bridge’, fortunately this one didn’t fall into the river while we were going across it.


Saturday was the big road race that was supposed to shake everything
up and split the fields to pieces. The day started in Menomonie
Wisconson, and did a large 85 mile loop around the county, hitting
four categorized climbs with a few more thrown in that were big enough
to hurt pretty good.

The plan for the day was to attack from the gun to try to get into the
breakaway to get some representation in the race. I did my best to
follow moves from the bigger teams, but the race started with a tail
wind and was really fast so it was difficult for a move to get away. I
followed a handful of attacks, finally in the run into the first big
climb I got away with an 8 person group with a bunch of teams
represented. However what could have been a promising breakaway was
killed by one of the Jelly Belly riders and an Austrailian form UHC
complaining to each other about who was pulling more, while another
amateur from Hagens Bergman, and Jake Rytlewski, and I were doing a
good portion of the pulling.

Even though this was one of the hardest 15 minutes I’ve ridden in a
few months, a few Jamis riders bridged up to our move and that pretty
much killed any chance we had of staying away.

Thankfully we were caught right before the first KOH point, so I had
plenty of recovery time. When we got over the climb I nearly got
dropped after getting slowed up by a crash in the feed zone. I caught
back on and was pretty much completely fried by mile 35, it was going
to be a long day. Three more big KOH points were ahead, along with a
handful more of medium sized climbs. All the climbs that they found
out in Wisconson seemed to ride the same, start of pretty easy at
about 5% for the first half mile to mile, then ramp up to nearly 20%
by the end.

From then on in it was the normal shennaningans of a 150 person Pro/1
field. The final climb before the finish was followed by some false
flat and cross winds, which really gave a chance for the big guns to
actually start racing. It was pretty hard for a while, but the field
all came back together when we went into the finishing circuits.
The finishing circuits were in town at 3 miles a piece, with 18 turns
per circuit! The circuit hit up just about every single street in this
little town, including the worlds most uneven and bumpy street.

Because of my earlier fiascos off the front earlier in the race I was
popped pretty quickly in the circuits.

Tomorrow is the Stillwater criterium, supposedly the hardest crit in
the nation. I’ll find out tomorrow if this is just a way to scare
racers and make the race sound cool.

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NVGP #2…the weather gods hate us!

Stage two of the Nature Valley Grand Prix was supposed to be a 66 mile road race starting and ending in the town of Cannon Falls south of Minneapolis.
Our day started out pretty lazy. The host housing that we had with Ken Schaffer is really sweet, and his place has a pool. So…being that the race started at 5 pm a few teammates and I, Noah Singer and Dan Campbell, decided to spend our free time working on our tans and lounging by the pool for most of the day. I know; the life of a bike racer is tough. We even had to wait an hour before the pool was open, and were left only with a hot tub for the time being.
The nice weather was pretty short lived; on the drive to Cannon Falls the skies turned dark and the winds kicked up to 20 mph out of the south. At the start everyone was talking of the impending gutter riding and field split.
The course was laid out in a lollipop, out and back with a loop at the end. The first few miles were into the wind and were very sketchy and nervous. The pack was about 15 riders wide at the front, and everyone was jockeying for position for when we had to make the left hand turn and start hitting the cross wind. I managed to stay pretty close to the front, and when the left hand turn came it was gutter city. It was a very windy race; gusts were pushing riders around who were sitting mid-pack, usually a place very sheltered.
A few attacks and rolling hills later I followed a move and found myself off the front of the pack at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, with a gap! Along with a few other amateurs and a Kenda rider, we built up a decent gap and made the left hand turn into the tail wind section of the loop.
Then one of the moto refs rolled up along side our group: “We’re turning around due to weather.” This seemed pretty unfair, the one time I managed to get off the front of the biggest race of the year, and the weather gods seem to intervene. But sure enough when we turned around to look, the entire pack was sitting idle at the intersection we had just turned at.
Rolling back to the pack, we found out the race had been completely canceled. There was a general sense of confusion about what to do as 150 cyclists, along with their caravan, sat idle in the middle of the road. Finally it was decided to turn the race into a large group ride back into town. All the while the South American’s and Canadians were looking at the low hanging dark clouds looming closer and closer and getting vocally worried.
So the pack slowly managed to start rolling back with the winds to Cannon Falls. However, the next thing we knew it every team van was rolling up to the field and the P-R-O’s were darting out of our massive group ride to hide in the shelter of the team vans. This reduced the size of our field by half, leaving only the amateur racers to pace back into the storm behind police escort.
When we reached the finish town, every part of the Nature Valley Grand Prix had been already disassembled and packed up, as if we had missed the race. We met up and piled back into the cars for Minneapolis.
The one bright side of finishing the race early was that we got to watch the NBA finals.
So another crit in downtown Minneapolis is scheduled for tomorrow, hopefully we’ll have some better luck there.
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Nature Valley Grand Prix, Pt. 1

Today was the start of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, which if you don’t know is only the most coolest bike race in all of America.

We got into Minneapolis on Tuesday and were able to take a ride around, visiting some local sites like the campus of the University of Minnesota, and a local training crit that was home to the famous ‘Ninja Prime’s”. A Ninja Prime involves a guitarist at the start line, who will jam out on the guitar every once in a while, whoever is at the front of the field when the guitarist plays wins a prime. Also, if you have never been to the ‘twin cities’ they really are just two cities next to each other, which means really a lot of urban sprawl, enough to rival Chicago. So basically so far I have no idea why Bicycling named this as the no. 1 city for cycling; there’s a lot of traffic everywhere, a lot of urban sprawl….however there does seem to be a lot of cyclist here.

The race opened up with an individual time trial, that ran along one of the rivers through town then climbed out of the river valley for a little under a mile. The climb wasn’t too tough, but hard enough that after 5 miles of flat TT effort you had to drop it into the little ring. I tried to pace myself and think I did a little too good of a job and got caught by Jake Rytlewski (who started 30 seconds behind me) right after the turn around. In the end I finished with a time of 14’22”, which was good enough for 80’s, respectable enough. More importantly, Paul Martin, who is our team director, came in at 21st in the time trial which put him in the lead for the best Amateur jersey.

The second stage was a downtown criterium in the eastern of the twin cities. The course was a 6 corner affair at just over a mile. However nearly all the pavement on the corners were in terrible condition, and the final corner was one of two hairpins…on brick. Needless to say it was going to be a rough race. I missed the boat getting to the start on time, so had to start in the back. Once the race got underway Kelly Benefits, who had the lead with Zwizanski, set tempo at the front and kept the race pretty constant. In the back of the field, where I was sitting, it was yo-yo city. Every hairpin turn was an exercise of burning through brake pad to about 20 mph then sprinting all out up to around 35 mph before the next corner. Every move up I made was followed by 10 guys diving past in a corner while I was recovering.

At 11 to go there was a sprint, and from then on we were on the gas. The lead out trains started setting up and racing got fast enough to start opening up gaps in the field. On the last lap I was about 15 riders behind a gap that opened up. Paul stayed in the lead of the Amateur competition and Ryan Knapp was our best finisher at 29th today.

Tomorrow is a RR in Cannon Falls, MN. Only 60 some miles, however the Weather channel is telling us 20 mph winds with gusts up to 35, plus thunderstorms with hail. Should be a fun day.

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