HOOD RIVER, Oregon (VN) ─ After four days of racing around the Columbia River Gorge and surrounding mountains, the duel between Olympians Kristin Armstrong and Clara Hughes came down to the last 500 meters of the 2011 Mt. Hood Cycling Classic.

Armstrong takes the win and locks up the overall at Mt. Hood. | Pat Malach photo

The two riders started the stage tied in the overall competition, both 13 seconds behind Armstrong’s Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty-12 teammate Alison Starnes. But Sunday’s “queen” stage Three Summits Road Race on the flanks of Mount Hood was a truly epic climbing and descending bonanza that eventually separated Armstrong and Hughes from the rest of the field by several minutes.

Metromint’s Molly Van Houweling and Keller Rohrback’s Tricia Bailey started the fireworks early with a breakaway that eventually gained 2:40 on the quickly disintegrating field. But by the time the race had reached the top of the third Summit Armstrong and Hughes had swallowed up the riders in front and were on their own.

Armstrong held a better hand and exploited the advantage of having Starnes in the leader’s jersey and teammate Kristin McGrath chasing behind. She made Hughes (Pactimo Cycling Team) do all the work on the front as the pair headed toward the finish at Cooper Spur Ski Area. Hughes said she understood and respected Armstrong’s tactics.

“She’s experienced, and she’s an awesome racer, there’s no way she’s going to pull with me,” Hughes realized as the two got away and built a workable advantage. “I respect that, and so I essentially gave her a 50 km leadout to the finish. I thought that if I sat up, then Kristin McGrath would catch us and it would be really frustrating.”

Hughes did gain a slight advantage over Armstrong as the pair descended through the twisting one-lane forest service roads and onto the valley floor about 20 km from the finish. But Armstrong regained contact and continued to follow Hughes, attacking in the last 500 meters of the steeply pitched mostly gravel road leading to the finish in the ski area’s parking lot. Armstrong said she considered attacking earlier but thought better of it.

“She’s just so strong right now,” she said of Hughes. “I didn’t kid myself and pretend that I’m going to make five attacks on her and try to ride away. When you want to give 110 percent, you want to put everything in one basket, because you don’t want to do five efforts at 90 percent. So I knew that whole time I’d just sit on her and be patient. I had ridden the finishing climb before the race, and normally I don’t like to wait until the end, but I knew it was steep and it was dirt. And I like the dirt, and I like steepness.”

Armstrong had plenty of time to think about the plan as the pair rode to the finish. But her well-thought-out plan almost came to an end in some of the dusty gravel approaching the end.

“I got in the soft dirt and thought I was going to bite it,” Armstrong said. “(Hughes) told me later she thought I was going to go down, too.”

But she didn’t. Instead she gained 16 seconds on her Canadian rival at the finish. Starnes came in more than eight minutes later for sixth on the day, ceding the overall win to her team captain and second to Hughes.

McGrath crossed the line 2:55 after Armstrong. Rhae Shaw (Keller Rohrback) finished fourth, 3:57 back. Alisa Welsh (Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12) was fifth at 7:31. The top five in GC mirrored the day’s results, with exception of Starnes hanging on for fifth place in front of Pactimo’s Jade Wilcoxson.

English conquers three summits, takes overall

In the men’s race, Nate English (Yahoo! Cycling) started the final stage wearing the King of the Mountains jersey and he proved why by riding to a solo win in the 91-mile stage that included more than 10,000 feet of climbing.

2011 Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, Stage 4
The namesake peak watches over the race as English climbs the third summit in search of the original breakaway.

English and Bend’s Ian Boswell (Trek-Livestrong) gained an advantage on the other overall contenders as they tried to bridge to an early breakaway of four riders on the third major summit of the day. When Boswell got a flat tire and was delayed waiting for the support vehicle to get through on the narrow, sometimes snow-lined forest service roads, English set out with Sebastian Salas (Team H&R Block) and slowly tracked down the quartet in front.

English then separated from Salas and reeled in all but one escapee by the time the race turned back toward Cooper Spur. He finally caught Dave Vukets and ended the Trek-Red Truck rider’s stage win hopes in the closing kilometers. By the time he hit the ski area 10 km later, he had gained 1:46 on the second-placed rider Salas, who had also caught and passed the original breakaway riders.

The rest of the blown-apart field came across the line as single riders or in small groups. Stefano Barberi (Team Stefano Barberi) was third at 2:21. Lang Reynolds (Hagens Berman) finished fourth, 2:28 behind English. Trevor Connor (Team Rio Grande) rounded out the op five, coming in at at 2:34

Elite national road race champion Mike Olheiser of Alabama, who came into the final stage after winning the yellow jersey with an impressive gun-to-gun solo breakaway in front of the 130-rider men’s field at the citerium the evening before, finished 27th, more than 11 minutes behind English.

“I put a pretty big effort in last night,” Olheiser said. “(English) was just the strong guy of the day. He was attacking like crazy. He just had the legs today. It was good still. It was a great stage — beautiful.”

Chad Haga, who had taken the race lead at the prologue and wore it for two stages before losing it to Olheiser at the criterium, finished 31st, 11:34 off the winning pace after suffering two flats, one before each of the first two climbs.

English, who started the day third overall, said the rollercoaster Three Summits course helped him climb to the top of the podium.

“This is a good race for me,” he said of Hood’s Queen stage. “It’s all climbing and descending with very little flat in between. So it’s just all about chugging along, which is what I’m good at. I’m not good at short efforts. We finished on a climb today and that’s good. And it’s not super steep, so it doesn’t favor a pure climber.”

Quick results
Stage 4 men

  • 1. Nathan English, Yahoo! Cycling, in 4:10:44
  • 2. Sebastian Salas, Team H&R Block, at 1:46
  • 3. Stefano Barberi, Team Stefano Barberi, at 2:21
  • 4. Lang Reynolds, Hagens Berman, at 2:28
  • 5. Trevor Connor, Team Rio Grande, at 2:34

Final GC men

  • 1. Nathan English, Yahoo! Cycling, 9:04:38
  • 2. Sebastian Salas, Team H&R Block, at 2:36
  • 3. Stefano Barberi, Team Stefano Barberi, at 3:42
  • 4. Garrett McLeod, Team H&R Block, at 3:49
  • 5. Trevor Connor, Team Rio Grande, at 4:03

Stage 4 women

  • 1. Kristin Armstrong, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, 3:42:12
  • 2. Clara Hughes, Pactimo Cycling Team, at 0:16
  • 3. Kristin McGrath, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, 2:55
  • 4. Rhae Shaw, Keller Rohrback, at 3:57
  • 5. Alisa Welsh, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, at 7:31

Final GC women

  • 1. Kristin Armstrong, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, 7:29:39
  • 2. Clara Hughes, Pactimo Cycling Team, at 0:20
  • 3. Kristin McGrath, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, at 5:25
  • 4. Rhae Shaw, Keller Rohrback, at 5:30
  • 5. Alison Starnes, Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty 12, at 8:30