DELRAY BEACH, Florida (VN) — One is a Clemson-educated astrophysicist; the other, the defending series champion. On Saturday night, Ben Zawacki and Erica Allar opened the USA Crits series with dramatically different wins in Delray Beach.
When Zawacki came around the backside of the peloton during the inaugural Delray Beach Twilight Criterium, the first person he saw was teammate Thomas Brown.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this,’ and took me right to the front of the field.”
At that point, barring some catastrophe, the 25-year-old Mountain Khakis rider knew that he was assured of a podium place at the first stop on the 2012 USA Crits Championship Series. Zawacki had gotten away from the rest of the peloton with Oscar Clark (UnitedHealthcare of Georgia) and Yosvany Falcon (Wonderful Pistachios) about 40 laps into the evening’s event. The trio quickly put 27 seconds between themselves and the chasing field.
“Once we got that gap we knew that this was the move,” Zawacki said following the race. “We didn’t care about who was getting the race primes; we just got organized and kept the rotation going pretty smoothly for the rest of the night.”
Zawacki, who spent the offseason participating in cyclocross events with his teammates before beginning a stint of winter training in Tucson, is now racing full-time, despite having secured a degree in astrophysics from Clemson University. Mountain Khakis won the series overall last year with Luke Keough, but the team arrived in Delray completely open to support whichever rider was in a position to win.
And as the laps wound down, it was clear that Zawacki was the man. With 13 laps remaining, Zawacki, Clark and Falcon came through the rear of the peloton and began to set themselves up for the finale. Zawacki’s Mountain Khakis teammates, however, weren’t leaving anything to chance.
“We had the numbers out there, so it was just a matter of getting organized and making sure that nothing got out of control,” said Zawacki.
The team massed at the front of the field and easily put away the win with Falcon taking second ahead of Clark in third place. Falcon, however, had racked up enough points over the course of the evening to secure a 13-point lead over Zawacki to claim the first orange jersey as the series’ overall leader.
On the women’s side of the event, being out-gunned meant that Erica Allar (RideClean-Patentit.com) had to opt for a populist strategy to secure her victory. A teary-eyed Allar said at the finish that facing a strong presence from the Optum squad meant that the rest of the women’s field had to band together.
“Essentially we were out-numbered,” said the defending series champion, “so what happens is that the rest of us kind of become one team.”
Allar came to Delray Beach with just one teammate, and as a result had to be extremely wary of the Optum team, which had a strong quartet of riders in the field.
After several failed breakaway attempts throughout the course of the 40-lap race, Emma Grant (Optum) snuck off the front of the field momentarily with six laps to go. Three spins around the 1km course later and it was her teammate Kristen Sanders who was able to achieve some separation. Instantly deemed dangerous, the move was quickly covered by Debbie Milne (Absolute Racing) and Kristen LaSasso (Rose Bandits).
“We caught Kristen going into turn three and then I was just sitting on LaSasso, who just kept on drilling it and drilling it,” said Allar. “I was sitting on her wheel out of the last turn and even though it was a short sprint it was really, really hard.”
Allar, who currently resides in Tucson, Arizona, will take the USA Crits leader’s jersey back to her adopted home town just in time for the second stop on the series calendar, the Athlete Octane Old Pueblo Grand Prix set to take place on March 17th.
“I’m just really excited because it was the first race for our new team and because my dad and sister are here,” she said. “They haven’t seen me race since last year, so this is very special.”