By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
For the second year in a row, the top U.S. road teams descended on the lush Housatonic Valley in southwest Connecticut for the Housatonic Valley Classic, which has quickly emerged as one of the top one-day road races in the U.S. On a cool but sunny afternoon, Navigators’ Vassili Davidenko won a field sprint among the tough men of the peloton, while Saturn’s Anna Millward won the inaugural Saturn-Timex Classic women’s race.
When the 198-strong men’s field left the start in Danbury just after noon, many of the 34 teams were probably expecting the race to unfold like last year’s, a survival of the fittest in which Trent Klasna and Chris Baldwin escaped on the short but very challenging hills of the Housatonic Valley.
At around the 40-mile mark, a breakaway began to take shape, and although there were still 80 miles of tough riding ahead, it looked like it could be a serious threat. The nine riders in the break were Mark McCormack (Saturn), Antonio Cruz (U.S. Postal Service), Tom Leaper (Navigators), Henk Vogels (Mercury), Erik Saunders (OFOTO-Lombardi Sports), Peter Knudsen (Schroeder Iron), Ben Jacques-Mayne (Sierra Nevada), Pascal Lievens (Lombarden-Michel Pollentier) and Alex Candelario (Prime Alliance), representing eight of the 11 U.S. professional teams and one foreign amateur team, with the biggest absence from the move being 7UP-Nutra Fig.
Despite its make-up, however, the break’s lead never really grew over the next 20 miles. At the halfway point in the race, though, things began to open up, while Lievens and Knudsen were popped off the back on the steep King of the Mountains climb on Church Hill Rd. in Redding.
Vogels, however, was still unhappy with the mix, as Candelario was struggling and Leaper was content to sit in the break. On the next sharp KOM climb, Vogels went on the attack, and only McCormack followed. Still, with 50 miles to go, McCormack wasn’t really thinking of the win. “We just worked hard,” he said. “We never really put the hammer down.”
The duo’s gap over the main field went over three minutes, while the trio of Cruz, Leaper and Candelario were holding at one minute back. But when Candelario was dropped on another of the many sharp climbs, Prime Alliance joined 7UP at the front, and things began to come back quickly. Just past the town of Ridgefield, where the race passed by a U.S. flag-lined main drag, Vogels and McCormack both finally gave it up.
That would set up the finishing laps in Danbury, with a lead group of about 35 riders still intact, and there were plenty of dangerous names among the leaders: Gord Fraser, Chris Wherry and Vogels from Mercury; Frank McCormack, Harm Jansen and Eric Wohlberg from Saturn; Charles Dionne from 7UP; Danny Pate and John Peters from Prime Alliance; Christian Vande Velde from Postal; and Davidenko and Kirk O’Bee from Navigators.
The 13 finishing laps on the 1.4-mile circuit saw plenty of attacks, especially on the long back-side hill, but in the end, it all came down to a 30-man field sprint. After Frank McCormack led it out coming into the final stretch, it looked like Vogels would come off of teammate Plamen Stoyanov’s wheel for the win, but Davidenko charged up on the right, and just nipped the Aussie at the line, with Peters coming across third.
Davidenko had spent much of the day chasing solo after the breakaway, but on the final lap, he had just enough left. “I went up to Kirk O’Bee and Mark Walters and said, ‘Guys, please lead me out,’” he said. “From Kirk, I followed some guy from Saturn, and then saw room on the right [to come through].”
After his day of hard work, Davidenko knew he was fortunate to win a field sprint at the end. “It all came together at the end,” he said. “I was very lucky today.”
In the women’s race, Millward didn’t need luck, but she needed plenty of strength to shake off the strong challenge from Amber Neben of T-Mobile and Quebec’s Clara Hughes.
Flying its new colors in the U.S. for the first time, the T-Mobile USA Cycling team was eager to make a strong first impression after a successful European campaign. From the start in New Milford, 32 miles into the men’s course, it was T-Mobile and Saturn animating the race.
After an early split in the race came back together, Saturn began launching the attacks, and Millward took her chance. “I saw an opportunity with the flurry of activity,” she said.
Millward was joined by Neben, coming off a strong European campaign. Shortly after, Hughes used her descending skills to escape the pack on a tricky descent and bridged up to the leaders.
Despite a chase from behind led by Diet Rite, the threesome was gone for good, and took turns trying to push the others. “Amber attacked into Redding [about 40 miles into the 70-mile race] and put the hurt on us a little,” said Millward, who wasn’t completely sure of her form after battling injury all spring.
But on the final big climb, about 15 miles from the finish, Millward made her move and it was enough to drop her company. And at the finish, although she only held a slim 15-second lead over Neben, who had mixed in with the main field on the finishing circuits, Millward savored her first victory of the season.
“I was really excited at how well I’ve come back,” she said.
And, on what organizers hope will be a women’s World Cup next year, it was a true test. “I loved it,” Millward said of the race course. “I think it’d be an awesome World Cup course.”
1. Vassili Davidenko (Rus), Navigators, 120 miles in 4:36:09; 2. Henk Vogels (Aus), Mercury; 3. John Peters, Prime Alliance; 4. Charles Dionne (Can), 7UP-Nutra Fig; 5. Plamen Stoyanov (Bul), Mercury; 6. Frank McCormack, Saturn; 7. Andrew Pinfold (Can), Atlas Cold Storage-Ital Pasta; 8. Luke Stockwell (Aus), Jittery Joe’s; 9. Jonathan Page, Wheelworks-Cannondale; 10. Martin Gilbert (Can), Trek-Volkswagen, all s.t.;
1. Anna Millward (Aus), Saturn, 70 miles in 3:10:58; 2. Amber Neben, T-Mobile, at 0:15; 3. Clara Hughes (Can), Quebec Provincial; 4. Tania Duff-Miller (NZ), Freddie Fu, at 3:39; 5. Laura Van Gilder, Trek PLUS; 6. Susy Pryde (NZ), Talgoamerica; 7. Tina Mayolo Pic, Diet Rite; 8. Roz Reekie-May (NZ), Mercy-Fanini Composite; 9. Suzanne Sonye, Saturn; 10. Catherine Bearce, CCB-Volkswagen, all s.t.