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By Mark Johnson
Averaging 29 mph over a 75-mile circuit, Bissell Pro Cycling’s Kirk O’Bee won stage two of the Fitchburg Longsjo circuit race on Friday, sprinting away from a seven-man breakaway that stayed away for the final 50 miles.
Riding in thunderstorms that dampened the latter half of the race, Team Type 1’s Darren Lill sprinted across the line in second, just in front of race revelation, local amateur rider, and points jersey winner Will Dugan (CCB). Thanks to a dramatic effort on the final lap, stage one winner Tom Zirbel kept keep his GC leader’s jersey from slipping into the hands of Kelly Benefit Strategies rider Zach Bell, who was in the winning break and only 34 seconds behind Zirbel going into the stage.
In the 34-mile womens’ race, Colavita Sutter Home rider Tina Pic attacked at the bottom of the circuit’s 100-foot finish climb and took the win with ease. Jennifer McRae (Team Type 1) finished second in the field sprint while Team Lip Smackers rider Evelyn Stevens rounded out third position. Thanks to a time gap at the finish, Stevens gained enough time to pull into first place on GC, one second ahead of previous day’s time trial winner Alison Powers (Team Type 1).
With the voice of New England cycling, Dick Ring, manning the announcer’s microphone for his 41st Fitchburg Longsjo, 113 women rolled out in dry weather and 80-degree temperatures, but with storm clouds billowing ominously across the Nashua River Valley. Because the race was relatively short, racing was expected to be fast, and three laps into the 11-lap race, when Colavita Sutter Home rider Kelly Benjamin took the first of four points sprints, the field was already shedding chunks of racers out the back. 30 seconds after Benjamin took the sprint, vets Jeannie Longo (Vital Plus) and four-time Longsjo winner Lynne Bessette led the field across the line.
Attacks followed from Team Lipsmackers’ riders Amanda Miller and Jessica Phillips. Colavita Sutter Home riders were also a constant presence at the front, as was Longo, who looked smooth and composed even when other riders were bobbing and weaving with efforts With four laps to go Benjamin (Colavita Sutter Home) had won two more points sprints, ensuring that she would take that jersey at the end of the day.
On the bell lap, Longo attacked from the outside of the course near the top of the finish climb, while Colavita’s Chatherine Cheatley simultaneously unleashed a similar attack in the opposite gutter. Pic’s Colavita teammates rallied behind Cheatley, absorbed Longo and delivered Pic to the bottom of the final climb, where she launched on her own and secured the win. “Half way up I started feeling the effects of the hill,” Pic recalled. She added that she was just hoping no one was gaining on her as she made her solo ascent to the finish line.
Team Type 1’s Alison Powers was awarded the GC jersey on the podium, but only later did Powers learn that she had in fact lost the leader’s jersey due to time splits that were not fully calculated until after the jersey ceremony. Nonetheless, at one second behind Stevens, Powers is still very much in the hunt going into the 64-mile stage three road race. While first and second place GC swapped positions, Team Lip Smackers rider Anne Samplonius and Jeannie Longo (Vital Plus) kept their respective third and fourth place positions GC, with Samplonius 10 seconds off the lead and Longo 15 seconds in arrears.
The 75 mile men’s race was aggressive from the start, with early attacks propelled by Chris Jones (Team Type 1), Cam Evans (OUCH-Maxxis) and Alex Candelario (Kelly Benefit Strategies), and Scotty Weiss (Kenda Pro Cycling). Along with Russ Langley (Harley Davidson), Chris Barton (BMC) and Frank Pipp (Bissell Pro Cycling), those riders formed a break with 60 miles to go. After Barton won the day’s first points sprint, the break was absorbed. Two laps later Chris Jones attacked again at the top of the climb, followed by the field led by Rory Sutherland (Ouch-Maxxis). A lap later, BMC’s Tony Cruz turned the screws hard and the field stretched down a long wooded road that threads between brick dorms at Fitchburg State College.
Cruz’s pressure through the campus of the wooded hillside college, which was founded in 1894, stung the field out like a bubble gum on the bottom of a shoe. Sure enough the strand snapped, and Cruz and some 15 other riders were alone off the front with 16 3.1 mile laps remaining. The acceleration put third-place GC rider David Veilleux (Kelly Benefits Strategies) into distress, and he was dropped from the field.
At first the break’s lead hung at 11 seconds with three Kelley Benefits riders throttling the break as it flew threw the feed zone at speeds that made taking on food impossible. Meanwhile, Bissell sent its riders to the front of the chasing peloton in an effort not to let the race ride away from their GC leader, Tom Zirbell.
An hour and 15 minutes into the race, thunder boomed, lightening slashed across the darkening clouds, and rain started falling in pregnant drops.
As spectators ran for cover on porches and dorm room entryways, the break took advantage of the slickening roads and consolidated their lead. With 24 miles remaining, the break was whittled to seven riders: Pittsfield, Massachusetts’ amateur rider Will Duggan (CCB), Cape Town, South Africa’s Darren Lill (Team Type 1), Zach Bell (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Tony Cruz (BMC), Tom Soladay (Mountain Khakis), Kirk Obee (Bissell), and Tim Johnson (OUCH-Maxxis).
Behind, the field was content to ride tempo and let Bissell control the pace. With 21 miles remaining, the gap grew to 1:08. With Obee, a two-time US Pro Criterium Champion in the break, Bissell seemed to be gambling that if the break stuck, the win would be theirs. And if the break was caught, it would be at the expense of another team who got to the front and left themselves on the road bringing it back.
Meanwhile, up in the break with four laps to go CCB’s Will Dugan had taken enough points sprints to secure the points jersey. Dugan, 22, just graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in behavioral psychology and pre-med, but hopes to have a go at pro cycling before heading to medical school. His companion in the break, Tim Johnson is also a past CCB rider.
With three laps to go, Colavita Sutter Home played Bissell’s hand and brought their men to the front of the field. With fresh motors at the fore of the field, the gap quickly fell to 40 then 38 seconds with six miles remaining. On the bell lap, Johnson was dropped from the break. Zirbel moved to the front of the field at the top of the climb and went into time trial mode in a desperate attempt to keep his leader’s jersey, which he would lose if the break and its passenger Zach Bell finished 35 seconds ahead of him. At the line, Zirbel’s motoring had brought the break’s lead down to 20 seconds. Zirbel’s teammate Obee took the up hill finish with ease, while Lill came in second and local hero Dugan finished ahead of most of the pros in third.
After the race, second place finisher Lill admitted beating Obee would have been tough. Because the Bissell rider had GC leader Zirbel in the field behind him, he was operating under instructions not to work and had a free ride in the break all day.
“Obviously, Obee profited by being able to play his team card and sit on all day,” Lille observed. “Since he’s pretty much a sprinter it would have been tough to beat him even in a short hill like this. But the fact that he got to sit on I pretty much expected him to win. I guess I’ve got to be pretty happy with a second place today.”
Of his win, Obee said his team had to work hard to keep the break within striking distance. “By that point towards the end of the race I had no choice but to win. If I didn’t I would’ve probably been in trouble!”
Zirbel confessed that he was concerned about his GC position when the break had built up a one minute lead.
“It was a dangerous break for sure,” he said. “We were in a bad way there for a while. Colavita came to help because they had interest in the stage, but the break was too strong. Colavita pulled the plug with about one and a half to go and it was kind of up to me at that point.”
Zirbell added that his teammates Ben Jacques-Maynes and Paul Mach came to his aid by pulling him on the downhill stretch leading into the final corner.
“I kept the jersey by the skin of my teeth.”
Going into the hilly 110 mile July 4 road race, Zirbel has a 21-second lead on second place Bell, while Kelly Benefits Rider Scott Zwisansi moves down a notch to third GC at 23 seconds and Obee moves up into fourth overall, 36 seconds behind teammate Zirbel.