By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
When the clouds blew away over night, and the sun came out Saturday morning to dry the nationals cyclo-cross course in Baltimore, it looked as if some of the element of chance would be taken out of the men’s and women’s elite races at Patterson Park. Gone were the slick, muddy conditions that threw Friday’s masters races into chaos. Instead, racers on Saturday were greeted with a sure, tacky surface on a cool but sunny day. But luck would intervene nevertheless. In the women’s race, it denied Ann Grande (Kona-Voicestream) a chance for a last-lap, one-on-one battle with Alison Dunlap (Clif), who captured her fifth consecutive national title. In the men’s race, misfortune cost Tim Johnson (Saturn) what looked like a certain repeat championship, and instead cast Mongoose’s Todd Wells in the unlikely role of national cyclo-cross champion, capping a most unlikely comeback year for the mountain biker.
In the women’s race, Grande’s teammate Gina Hall charged to the early lead, followed by Dunlap, Grande, Rachel Lloyd (Team Spine) and Carmen D’Aluisio (Clif). Hall set off on her hard early pace with aspirations of a top 3 finish, but she would eventually fade and end up fourth. Her efforts, though, set up Grande as she, Hall and Dunlap soon separated themselves from their chasers.
As the second of five laps drew to a close, Dunlap made an expected move, attacking hard on the long pavement finishing section. Only Grande could follow. A few seconds behind came Lloyd and D’Aluisio, with Hall dropping to fifth.
In the past, Dunlap probably would have ridden away at that point in the race, but Grande has been riding better than ever lately, and she traded punches with the four-time national champion on the difficult, technical course, which featured two run-ups and three flat dismount sections, plenty of grassy climbs up the terraced hills of Patterson Park, and lots of tricky transitions between grass and pavement or brick-paved roads. It was a course that didn’t seem to favor either rider, and as they stretched out their lead, it looked like it would come all the way down to the final lap.
But halfway through lap 4, bad luck struck for Grande. On one of the brick sections near the top of the course, her front wheel went flat. Shortly after that, she crashed on one of those road-grass transitions, and Dunlap began to open up a gap. Grande pulled into pit No. 2 for what looked to be just a bike change, but then she stopped for more than two minutes to deal with a contact lens that was jarred loose at some point between the crash and the pit. She was passed by a re-energized D’Aluisio, then Lloyd and then Hall, and Grande’s quest for the title was over.
“I thought there were a couple more laps,” said Grande. “If I knew there was only one more lap, I might have risked [riding without the contact lens]. But I’m really bad without my contacts.”
“I was having fun,” she said of her battle with Dunlap. “I would have liked to see what I could have done.”
Dunlap echoed similar sentiments. “It’s the strongest I’ve ever seen her,” Dunlap said. “I was bummed she crashed, because it was really fun to duke it out with her today.”
But the now-five-time national cyclo-cross champion also realized when her opportunity came. “It’s unfortunate, but you definitely need to take advantage of any advantage you get,” Dunlap said. “She’s so strong, if she gets a good bike change, she can be right back on you.”
Maybe, but we’ll never know.
Just an hour-and-a-half later, however, Tim Johnson (Saturn) found out how hard it is to recover from a mishap like Grande’s, even if you do make a clean recovery. Johnson had built up what looked like an insurmountable lead in the men’s race, only to see it slip away.
The opening lap of the race was led out by Ben Jacques-Mayne (Palo Alto-Bullion Stil) and then taken over by Steve Tilford (Shimano-Moots), while favorites like Johnson, Jonathan Page (Richard Sachs), Jonny Sundt (K2), Mark McCormack (Saturn), Wells, Dale Knapp (Kona-Voicestream), Alex Candelario (Big Shark-Cannondale) and Gullickson jockeyed for position up front.
As the first lap drew to a close, Page made a brief move to the front, but then Johnson made the attack that blew the race apart. He put in a furious effort on the pavement, and quickly bolted to a 10-second lead, with a chase group of Wells, Page, Gullickson, Candelario and Sundt forming behind.
“This course was so technical, and you could only go so fast through most of the parts, and I knew I had good fitness for the riding parts,” said Johnson. “This course was good for riding from the front, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
He did that, adding a couple of seconds to his lead each lap, while behind the chase was down to the Mongoose teammates Gullickson and Wells, trailed by Candelario and then Page and Sundt.
With Wells bunny-hopping all the barriers while Gullickson dismounted each time, and with Wells having just a little better fitness, the two teammates didn’t find the rhythm to work well together in the chase. Gaps would open up coming out of the barriers, and Wells had to wait back for Gullickson on several occasions. Meanwhile, Johnson’s lead grew to almost 30 seconds with just three laps to go.
But then, the sight of Johnson riding slow and cautiously, with his leg out around every corner could mean only one thing: Like Grande in the earlier race, Johnson had flatted, with two-and-a-half laps to go.
By the time he hit the pit for a bike change, his lead was down to a mere eight seconds. And when Wells hit the barriers full tilt, cleanly bunny hopping over the double set – two at the beginning and two at the end of the pit area – it was time for him to leave Gullickson and chase down Johnson on his own.
Johnson clung to his lead as he passed through the start-finish with two laps to go, but on the first set of barriers Wells, never getting off his bike, caught the defending champion. From there, Wells made time through each set of obstacles, and he charged hard on the rest of the course.
“Todd was hammering, obviously,” said Johnson. “I can’t take anything away from him. He was hauling ass. It was impressive.”
Wells had a clean last lap, soloing away to 14-second victory, with Johnson second and Gullickson in third, smiling for his teammate the entire last lap.
It was an unlikely victory for Wells, the former under-23 mountain biking hotshot who took several years off to go to college, only to return to the circuit this year, quitting his job at IBM and winning VeloNews’ comeback rider of the year award for his mountain-bike season.
He was called upon to help teammate Gullickson during the ’cross season, but in the end, it was Wells who ended up bringing home the stars-and-stripes.
“I’ve never won any big pro race until today,” he said, “and this is as good a one as any.”
Earlier in the day, Jesse Anthony (Saturn Development Cycling Team) put in one of the most impressive rides in the junior race. Riding in the 15-16 class, Anthony made his way through the entire 17-18 field, which started a minute ahead of him. That was due partly to a tactical ride at the front of the 17-18 race, with several riders – including Mike House (GoMart), Aaron Menenberg (Ti Cycles), Brent Bookwalter (Devo) and Aaron Bradford (Rad Racing) – playing a game of cat-and-mouse.
Once Anthony caught though, he went to the front of the lead group and pushed the pace, eventually drawing out House. Together, those two powered away from the rest, each on his way to his own national title.
“I wasn’t allowed to race the 17-18 race, because you can’t upgrade for nationals,” said Anthony, who sprinted away from House before the finish. “My goal was just to catch them and do exactly what I did.”
Along the way, he also carried House to a title of his own. “[Anthony] just sat at the front and helped us out. He helped us all out,” said House.
In the junior women’s race, Magen Long (Bicycle Store) rode alone to a convincing solo win, 1:55 ahead of runner-up Thais da Silva, and earlier in the morning, Scott Wade (Gearworks) rode to the men’s 40-44 title ahead of Frank Hibbitts (Rainbow Racing).
1. Todd Wells, Mongoose-Hyundai, in 1:00:39; 2. Tim Johnson, Saturn, at 0:14; 3. Marc Gullickson, Mongoose-Hyundai, at 0:38; 4. Jonathan Page, Richard Sachs, at 1:16; 5. Alex Candelario, Big Shark-Cannondale, at 1:40; 6. Steve Tilford, Shimano-Moots, s.t.; 7. Jonny Sundt, K2 Bike, at 1:58; 8. Dale Knapp, Kona-Voicestream, at 2:54; 9. Justin Robinson, Palo Alto-Bullion Stil, at 3:05; 10. Mark McCormack, Saturn, at 3;10; 11. Travis Brown, Trek-VW, s.t.; 12. Johannes Huseby, Independent Fabrication-CCB, at 3:22; 13. Ben Jacques-Mayne, Palo Alto-Bullion Stil, at 3:31; 14. Jeremiah Bishop, Trek VW East Coast Factory Team, at 3:55; 15. Frank Mapel, Yeti-Pearl Izumi, at 4:14; 16. Justin Morgan, Clif, at 4:44; 17. Andy Jacques-Mayne, Clif, at 5:12; 18. Ben Turner, 7UP-Colorado Cyclist, at 5:20; 19. Barry Wicks, Bike Gallery, at 5:27; 20. Kirt Fitzpatrick, Peerless-HNECC, at 5:29.;
1. Alison Dunlap, Clif Bar, in 44:40; 2. Carmen D’Aluisio, Clif Bar, at 0:15; 3. Rachel Lloyd, Spine-Santa Cruz, at 0:28; 4. Gina Hall, Kona-Voicestream, at 1:18; 5. Ann Grande, Kona-Voicestream, s.t.; 6. Mary McConneloug, Jamba Juice-Gunnar Cycles, at 1:50; 7. Christine Vardaros, Jamba Juice, at 2:06; 8. Jen Dial, Independent Fabrication, at 2:20; 9. Melissa Thomas, Rocky Mounts-Bike Source, at 2:38; 10. Emily Thorne, CyclocrossWorld.com-Empella, at 2:49; 11. Jodi Groesbeck, Putney-West Hill, at 3:32; 12. Heather Szabo, Rocky Mounts-IMBA, at 3:52; 13. Kathryn Roszko, BikeReg.com, at 4:17; 14. Stella Carey, Kelly Bike Company, at 4:28; 15. Rhonda Mazza, Team S&M, at 4:55; 16. Anna Milkowski, Gearworks-SRP, at 5:30; 17. Christine Iltis, New Moon Media, at 6:01; 18. Elizabeth Coleman, SoBe-HeadShok, at 6:14; 19. Jennifer Maxwell, Cane Creek, at 6:27; 20. Margell Abel, Veritas, at 6:27.;
Under 23 women;
1. Alicia Genest, Richard Sachs, in 51:01; 2. Courtney Bollman, Mercy Cycling Team, at 2:07; 3. Megan Elliott, Iowa City Cycling Club, at 2:26; 4. Jessica Peil, Snow Valley, at 2:44; 5. Sheila Vibert, UNH, at 3:41.;
1. Scott Wade, Gearworks-SRP, in 45:36; 2. Frank Hibbitts, Rainbow Racing, at 0:26; 3. Stephen Knight Williams, KHSnm.com, at 1:08; 4. Robert Bisson, at 1:22; 5. Randy Daniels, TiCycles Avanti Racing, s.t.;
Junior men 17-18;
1. Mike House, GoMart, in 45:39; 2. Aaron Menenberg, Ti Cycles, at 0:10; 3. Brent Bookwalter, Devo, at 0:12; 4. Aaron Bradford, Rad Racing, at 0:33; 5. Jeremy Powers, Devo, at 0:42.;
Junior men 15-16;
1. Jesse Anthony, Saturn Development, in 43:38; 2. Zak Grabowski, Red Rocks Velo, at 2:14; 3. Mike Rabe, NECSA-Mike Fraysse’s Sports, at 2:35; 4. Joey Thompson, Wooden Wheels, at 2:44; 5. Konrad LeBas, CCB International, at 3:03.;
Junior women 15-18;
1. Magen Long, The Bicycle Store, in 45:37; 2. Thais da Silva, Club Wissahickon, at 1:55; 3. Sarah Uhl, Wheelworks, at 3:40; 4. Laura Hanlon, Fuji, at 5:43; 5. Catherine Dudley, UNH, at 8:03.;
Junior men 13-14;
1. collin Carbaugh, Rad Racing, in 48:52; 2. Chris Stockburber, Monsoon Racing, at 0:38; 3. Taylor Lane, Zia Velo, at 0:40; 4. Derek Laan, Gopher Wheelmen, at 4:46; 5. Charles Marzot, Corner Cycle, at 5:39.;
Junior men 10-12;
1. Alex Coelho, Fort Collins Racing Club, in 24:37; 2. James Wittwer, CRC-Extreme Sports, at 3:00; 3. Fulton Paisley, MVC-Blue Wheel, at 3:30; 4. Kyle foley, Laurel, at 13:13.;
Junior women 10-14;
1. Lauren Trull, James River Velosport, in 25:01; 2. Danielle Haulman, Lakewood Racing, at 6:02; 3. Allerton Johnson, at 8:55.;
1. Mark Abramson, Boston Cyclocross Association, in 44:37; 2. Dean Dealy, KHS, at 0:16; 3. Craig Virr, RSP Racing, at 0:25; 4. Jon Alegranti, Pro Peloton, at 0:36; 5. Andrew Shaw, National Capital Velo, at 1:08.