USA Cycling’s recently adopted race radio ban is largely intended to make road racing more exciting. Whether the missing radios were the cause or not, Saturday’s San Dimas Hospital Road Race saw fireworks early and often, with late, five-rider breakaways stealing wins in both the men’s and women’s contests.
Kelly Benjamin (Colavita-Baci) stormed away from the remnants of a break that formed with three laps remaining in the women’s stage, and Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) stretched a close win out over Cesar Grajales (Bahati Foundation).
Mara Abbott (Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12) and Ben Day (Fly V Australia) maintained their overall leads and will start Sunday’s final stage criterium with 16- and 8-second advantages, respectively.
Hot from the start
The women’s 56-mile affair set the tone for the afternoon with attacks coming early and often in the opening laps. The first significant move came in the second lap when a four-rider group comprised of best young rider Rebecca Much (Tibco), Chloe Hosking (HTC-Columbia), Heather Logan-Sprenger (Colavita-Baci) and Alexis Rhodes (Vera Bradley Foundation) went away. The group built a maximum advantage of 30 seconds and was eventually joined by HTC-Columbia teammates Evelyn Stevens and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg who leapt away from the peloton on the Cannon Avenue climb.
With Stevens sitting in second place in the overall after Friday’s time trial, Peanut Butter & Co. and Colavita riders put full steam into the chase to draw the move back. The gap soon dissolved and Kim Anderson (HTC-Columbia) was next to test the waters, launching a counter attack with Miller and Rhodes on her wheel. Benjamin and then Samplonius bridged to the break and the winning move was made five laps into the eight-lap race.
That might be the win
The breakaway worked well for two laps, quickly building a lead that grew to 1:40. Rhodes was the first to spice things up in the final lap, ripping off an attack that dispatched Miller, who was cramping in the 90+ degree heat.
“Alexis attacked and it was a great attack,” said Benjamin. “She just threw down and we all just looked at each other and no one wanted to do it and she was just riding away. That was really the only time that I got really nervous and thought that might be the win.”
Miller’s former Lip Smackers teammate Samplonius was the next to fall off the pace as Anderson led Benjamin in the chase. Unwilling to throw punches ahead of the final climb, Benjamin sat in Anderson’s slipstream as she fought to come even with Rhodes, finally rotating through to close the final meters to the Vera Bradley rider.
“Kim was really awesome today, but unfortunately for her, she ended up doing the job for Kelly,” Rhodes said afterwards of Anderson’s fitness and Benjamin’s tactics.
As the trio approached the Cannon Avenue wall, Anderson and Rhodes continued to throw punches, with Benjamin scrapping to find their wheels.
“There was a flury of, like, five minutes when it was just the three of us, where Kim and Alex were attacking each other like crazy,” said Benjamin. “I was just going from wheel to wheel — it was really hard. They were throwing down and I didn’t want to be the aggressor before the climb.”
Staying out of the wind for the majority of the day, Benjamin was able to stay on terms with the more skilled climbers as they crested the near-13-percent pitch for the final time.
“They were so tired, I think, from all the attacking and I actually felt pretty good,” said Benjamin. “I didn’t do much work all day because I wasn’t sure if they were going to start throwing down on the climb. I wanted to be smart.”
When Anderson and Rhodes could not dislodge Benjamin on the climb, the Colavita-Baci sprinter held the distinct advantage in a group finish and came over the top of her breakmates for the stage win.
“I think I rode a smart race today and I’m really proud of my effort,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin’s win comes in her first test against the bulk of the women’s U.S. peloton in 2010 and brings her to half of her win total of two from 2009 — her lowest production since her sophomore pro season in 2006.
Abbott’s teammates reduced the gap by nearly 50 seconds in the final two kilometers and the overnight leader finished safely in the group to maintain her overall lead with one stage remaining.
Men roll late, but fast
Sutherland gave notice to the U.S. peloton Saturday as he powered to his first win of 2010. The two-time NRC overall champion took the win ahead of Grajales, Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home), Neil Shirley (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Davide Frattini (Team Type 1), who joined him in a late move on the final climb of Cannon Avenue.
The 12-lap, 84-mile race set out 10 minutes behind schedule, but the peloton soon made that time up as riders lit up the front of the race with attacks from the start. Karl Menzies (UnitedHealthcare) and Nathan O’Neill (Bahati Foundation) joined the first move to make any headway on the second lap. The four-man break grew its advantage to nearly 30 seconds, but the peloton neutralized the move before the lap 3 Hot Spot sprint, where time bonuses of 10, 6 and 3 seconds were on offer.
The field stayed intact for less than a lap, however, and when Adam Switters (Yahoo!) attacked before the Cannon Avenue climb, Lucas Euser (Spidertech-Planet Energy) and Brad White (UnitedHealthcare) joined him. Destined to be in the day’s break, O’Neill jumped across when the group had a five-second gap and the field sat up on the wall.
Day’s Fly V Australia team patrolled the front of the peloton from the start and was content to allow the breakaway to hover at 40-50 seconds for seven laps. In his first road race back from a 24-month suspension that resulted from a positive in-competition test for appetite suppressant Phentermine, O’Neill largely drove the break. “I really wanted to turn the screws,” he said. “It was a good way to blow some cobwebs out. There’s a lot of dust and knock in there under the hood — it wasn’t quite balanced properly, she’s running quite rough in there.”
The gap began to shrink with four laps remaining as Fly V Australia splintered the peloton into at least three groups on the road. What was left of the 50-rider peloton was together when they arrived at Cannon Avenue with three-to-go. Jorge Alverado (Bahati Foundation) and Daniel Ramsey (Williams Cycling-Sc Velo) had a go in the penultimate lap, but it was the UnitedHealthcare train — minus top GC rider Chris Baldwin, who crashed out on the previous lap — that lined it out across the dam road heading into the final trip up the wall.
Sutherland hit the ejector button at the base of the climb and drew out Amaran, Frattini, Grajales and Shirley. The group rolled over the climb together and worked smoothly to build a 15-second advantage.
“It’s my job on the last lap to try and break it up a bit,” Sutherland said. “We had good guys and everybody was committed to either making time or winning a stage.”
With one kilometer to go and a win from the breakaway seemingly in hand, the leaders began rolling turns off the front of the group and Grajales gave a go at a solo flyer.
“When we looked back, we couldn’t see the group, so we had a good gap. (My breakmates) started to play a little bit and we got a little bit disorganized, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to try from here. ‘”
Grajales nearly caught the others out — Amaran launched a chase, followed by Sutherland, but the Colombian had a sizeable gap at 500 meters. Sutherland came over a fading Amaran late, however, and passed Grajales 50 meters from the finish to nab the win.
“I actually didn’t think I was going to catch Cesar and Luis when they were away ahead of the last three guys in the break,” Sutherland said. “I’m very happy with getting our first major win of the year and getting it off to a good start.”
The peloton bore down on the leaders in the closing meters, so much so that Frattini was given the same time as the front of the peloton, which had splintered into groups.
Day finished comfortably in the front, 30-man group that crossed the line four seconds behind Sutherland to hold his overall lead, due in part to the six-second time bonus he gained on the lap 9 intermediate sprint.
Sutherland summed up the thoughts of many of his contemporaries on their first major race without race radios in years.
“You need to take the initiative and race like we all did before we had radios, when we were all racing in clubs to get to where we are today,” Sutherland said. “We all got somewhere by racing on just initiative. It just means turning your brain back on and going on feeling a little bit more than someone in your ear. I don’t think it really changes outcomes, but it’s just a different way to approach it.”
The three-stage race closes Sunday with the Incycle/Cannondale Old Town Grand Prix criterium. The six-corner, 1.2-mile course will deliver high speeds and the tightly spaced general classifications should bring on extremely active racing. The men will race for 90 minutes, while the women will hit out for 55.
Intermediate and finish time bonuses could decide the overall and the Fly V Australia and Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12 teams of overall leaders Day and Abbott will work hard to control any threatening activity. “The race has been won and lost and held on this course, so it’s an interesting course and things can happen,” said Sutherland, although he claimed to be resigned to missing out on the overall win.
Last year’s stage winners Teutenberg and Jonathan Cantwell (Fly V Australia) are both looking strong and will take the start as favorites.