On a day when timing was everything, Jason McCartney and Kristin Armstrong picked the most important moments to shine. Each took impressive wins at the 2004 Pool Gel USCF National Road Championships, and now both are headed to Athens come August to represent America in the Summer Olympics after winning the Team USA Selection races on Saturday in Redlands, California. Armstrong also picked up a national-championship jersey for her efforts.
The genesis of Armstrong’s win came on the third of six laps during the 116.8km women’s race. Taking instructions from T-Mobile team manager Jim Miller to “go, go, go,” the 30-year-old broke off the front of a lead group of 13. Initially she was joined by Christine Thorburn (Webcor) and T-Mobile teammate Dede Barry, but Barry quickly fell back.
Besides having Armstrong up the road, T-Mobile had six riders — Barry, Amber Neben, Kimberly Bruckner, Kim Anderson, Lynn Gaggioli and Mari Holden — in the main chase, giving them a ridiculous numbers advantage.
Armstrong’s attack would be just one of many the U.S. national team would launch, but it turned out that hers would be the only one needed. In the ensuing laps, Miller ordered riders to bridge to Armstrong and Thorburn, thus increasing his team’s odds. Barry and Neben went during the early portions of the fourth lap, and Anderson tried later on that same trip around the 11.3-mile circuit. But with the likes of Katrina Grove (Rona) and Tina Pic (Genesis Scuba) working hard to keep T-Mobile at bay, none of the moves succeeded.
Up front, meanwhile, Thorburn and Armstrong were working well together, and their advantage was steadily increasing. It was at 1:30 at the midpoint of lap 4, and all the way up to 2:18 by the start of the fifth lap.
“When I heard that it had gotten above three minutes, I just wanted to start crying,” admitted Armstrong, knowing then that it was her race to lose. “I knew I had to keep it together, though. I just had to think about the last couple climbs.”
On the final lap, with the chase completely resigned to race for third place, Armstrong and Thorburn would stay together nearly the entire way, before Armstrong finally broke free in last 400 meters to take the win, crossing the line in 3:26:12.
“I didn’t have much in my legs after Thursday,” said Thorburn, who won the time trial national title that day, securing her own Olympic team spot. “At first I didn’t think the break would stick, but once it got over a minute and a half, I figured we were in pretty good shape because T-Mobile was back there blocking and going second wheel on anyone who tried to chase us down.”
The win ended an up-and-down week for star-stacked T-Mobile squad, which was under big pressure after coming up short in the time trial.
“We really didn’t care who won today,” explained Armstrong. “It just had to be someone in magenta and flames. There was a lot of stress this week, but I think Thursday really brought us together.”
While the women’s race was a fairly straightforward affair, the men’s event had more twists and turns than a trip through an amusement park fun house.
After a quick starter loop to get their heart rates up, the men rolled up Ford Street for the first of 10 laps in the 189.6km race. After a couple of inconsequential early-lap moves, the threesome of Doug Ollerenshaw (Jelly Belly-Aramark), Chris Baldwin (Navigators) and Will Frischkorn (Colavita Olive Oil) rolled off the front.
It seemed almost silly at the time, what with so much racing yet to come. But the hard efforts of the three breakaways, mixed with a peloton that seemed initially uninterested, allowed the move’s advantage to quickly swell. It was 2:12 at the start of the second lap, 3:55 at the start of three and 5:25 a lap later.
Back in the main field, the Webcor team of Chris Horner looked to be in charge of things, his green-clad riders setting an easy tempo at the front.
“That’s our job, you bet,” said Webcor director Jay Gump from the front seat of his team car during the early portions of the race. “We’re the biggest, strongest team here, and we have one simple goal.”
That goal was to control the race, and then get Horner to Athens by way of a win in Redlands. But this day would prove far trickier than March’s stage race here, where Horner simply dominated on his way to the Classic win.
The initial Webcor plan was to not let the break exceed five minutes, but their advantage had eclipsed that mark by the start of lap 5, and was all the way up to six minutes during the sixth lap, three hours into what would be a five-plus-hour race.
Finally, on the seventh trip of the steep Wabash Avenue climb, the real race began to take shape. The first big move off the front went there, with the likes of Fred Rodriguez (Acqua & Sapone), Health Net’s John Lieswyn and Jason McCartney, Kirk O’Bee (Navigators) Justin England (Webcor) and Antonio Cruz (U.S. Postal-Berry Floor) all jumping on board a group that numbered eight riders.
That move would soon be followed by a six-man chase, including Horner’s Webcor teammate Steve Larsen, Danny Pate (Health Net-Maxxis), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Sierra Nevada) and Adam Bergman (Jelly Belly-Aramark).
The two groups would come together on the eighth lap, and the increased pace was finally cutting into the advantage of the threesome up the road, who saw their advantage chopped to three minutes. This was also the moment when Horner got back in the race, leaping away from the peloton on the eighth trip up the Wabash climb.
“I had to put in three really big hits to get across,” he said. “But I had Justin and Steve up the road, so I knew if I made it I’d have some help.”
Indeed, England would drop back to help his team leader, and just past the Redlands Country Club on lap eight, the race’s final four meaningful group had taken shape. There was the lead group of three; then the twosome of Lieswyn and Andrew Bajadali (Ofoto); Rodriguez and O’Bee; and finally a group of nine, with Horner, Larsen, Cruz and Postal teammate David Zabriskie, Health Net’s McCartney, Bergman, Jacob Rossenbarger (Jittery Joe’s), Evan Elken (Broadmark Capital), Chris Walker (Labor Power). Elken and Power, it should be noted, were among the three riders who broke away in Wednesday’s elite amateur race, which was won by Walker.
At two laps to go, the pair of two-rider chase groups had come together and trailed the leaders by 0:48, while what was now the de facto peloton was at 1:25. Not everyone was looking good, though, including McCartney, who was seen slapping at his cramping left leg.
“It turned out that my rear brake was rubbing,” McCartney said. “One of the other guys pointed it out, so I stopped and fixed it, and chased back on. I started feeling a little better after that.”
Finally, near the end of the ninth lap, the race was all back together, with 15 riders now in the lead group. Early breakaway leader Baldwin would quickly fade, though, reducing the front field to 14.
That cohesion would be short-lived, however, and it wasn’t long before McCartney was attacking on the soft climb up Sand Canyon Road. Knowing the difficulty the Health Net rider had been in earlier, no one seemed particularly concerned, and McCartney had a 36-second advantage over lone chaser Ollerenshaw as the bell sounded for the final lap. The field was down 1:15.
“I think everybody was just watching each other,” McCartney said afterward. “I told [teammate Lieswyn] I was going to attack for him, but when they let me go I just started giving it everything.”
The final lap would see last-gasp efforts from several chase-group permutations, but they had all waited too long, allowing McCartney to escape for the improbable win.
Afterward, McCartney’s elation stood in stark contrast to Horner’s irritation; the Webcor leader felt he’d been marked right out of the race.
“Everybody was just racing against me,” he said. “I mean, Postal had two guys, but they just let him go. Everyone was just too paranoid.”
Cruz answered for the boys in blue, saying simply: “It’s hard when you’re just racing for one spot. Both [David and I] were caught behind the eight ball. It’s just kind of turned into a negative race at the end.”
Negative except for McCartney, who would now be able to deliver an amazing wedding present to his father, John, who was scheduled to get married a day later in New York state.
“Once I got to the front it was easy,” said McCartney. “I just went all out, because there was nothing I could do if they caught me, so I had nothing to lose.”
POOL GEL USCF NATIONAL ROAD CHAMPIONSHIPS;
REDLANDS, CA. JUNE 16-19;
MEN’S TEAM USA SELECTION ROAD RACE;
1. Jason McCartney, Health Net-Maxxis, 189.6km in 5:09:57; 2. Adam Bergman, Jelly Belly-Aramark, at 1:01; 3. David Zabriskie, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, at 1:05; 4. Fred Rodriguez, Acqua & Sapone; 5. Antonio Cruz, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor; 6. Doug Ollerenshaw, Jelly Belly-Aramark; 7. John Lieswyn, Health Net-Maxxis; 8. Evan Elken, Broadmark Capital; 9. Andrew Bajadali, OFOTO; 10. Chris Walker, Labor Power, all s.t.
ELITE WOMEN’S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP;
1. Kristin Armstrong, T-Mobile, 116.8km in 3:26:12; 2. Christine Thorburn, Webcor, s.t.; 3. Tina Pic, Genesis Scuba, at 2:05; 4. Lynn Gaggioli, T-Mobile; 5. Katrina Grove, Rona; 6. Kim Anderson, T-Mobile; 7. Katheryn Curi, Equipe Cyclist Rona; 8. Mari Holden, T-Mobile; 9. Dede Barry, T-Mobile; 10. Kimberly Bruckner, T-Mobile