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Kelly’s Bell and Evelyn Stevens grab overall titles at Fitchburg

Zach Bell (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Evelyn Stevens (Team Lip Smacker) won the men’s and women’s final general classification at the 50th Annual Fitchburg Longsjo Classic NRC stage race on Sunday. Stevens, a 26-year old New York City rider who only started racing bikes last July, finished 20 seconds ahead of second-place Alison Powers (Team Type 1) and 23 second in advance of third place Jeannie Longo (Vitall Plus).

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By Mark Johnson

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Dionne takes win number 2 at Fitchburg Longsjo.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Dionne takes win number 2 at Fitchburg Longsjo.

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

Zach Bell (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Evelyn Stevens (Team Lip Smacker) won the men’s and women’s final general classification at the 50th Annual Fitchburg Longsjo Classic NRC stage race on Sunday.

Stevens, a 26-year old New York City rider who only started racing bikes last July, finished 20 seconds ahead of second-place Alison Powers (Team Type 1) and 23 second in advance of third place Jeannie Longo (Vitall Plus).

Tina Pic (Colavita Sutter Home) won the final 25-mile criterium in downtown Fitchburg, Massachusetts, while Jen McRae (Team Type 1) took second and Erical Allar (BMW-Bianchi) third.

In the men’s race, Bell made a last-minute bridge to a break in a ferociously battled 50-mile criterium and finished with enough time on the field to snatch a GC victory from the hands of Tom Zirbel (Bissell), who led the race since the first day’s time trial.

Stage winner Charles Dionne, who also won Saturday’s road race, jumped to second place, four seconds behind Bell. Zirbel fell from first to third place in the final GC rankings.

Luis Amaran (Colavita Sutter Home) took second in the crit and Thomas Soladay (Mountain Khakis) rounded out the podium in third.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Fitchburg decorated for the 50th anniversary.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Fitchburg decorated for the 50th anniversary.

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

When the women’s criterium started, Stevens and her teammates had one task: protect her 20 and 23-second GC lead over Alison Powers and Jeannie Longo, respectively.

While Longo had no teammates to help her overtake Stevens, Powers’ potent Team Type 1 team was intent on putting the screws down on the rookie rider, as was Colavita-Sutter Home, who had Heather Logan, Andrea Dvorak, and Tina Pic all within 1:25 of her lead.

Three laps into the 28-lap race, Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Verducci-Breakaway Racing) took the first points sprint, which put her in a virtual tie with sprint leader Kelly Benjamin (Colavita). Mary Zider (Specialized-Mazda-Samson) countered after the sprint and Pic followed along with Laura Van Gilder (Mellow Mushroom). Longo didn’t like the look of that move and powered the field back to the break.

Going into the next points sprint, Colavita strung out the field in an effort to deliver Benjamin back into the green jersey, but Cliff-Ryan, the 2006 national criterium champion and a former inline skating world champion, overpowered the Colavita train and put the green jersey on her back for good.

Shortly after, Longo attacked again on a quarter-mile gradual ascent to a sweeping U-turn at the top of the boomerang-shaped, .9 mile course. Longo was quickly absorbed and Team Type 1’s Jacquelyn Crowell countered and built a seven second lead with Kristen Wentworth (Kenda), Stacey Marple (Colavita) and Catherine Cheatley (Colavita). Like all the other day’s breaks, that one was short lived and Cliff Ryan took the day’s last sprint points with five laps to go.

Pic attacked yet again but was brought back to the field before Van Gilder pocketed a $700 crowd prime with two to go. On the bell lap, ValueAct Capital’s Robin Farina blasted off the front, but was swarmed by the charging field on the descent into the final two left-hand corners. Heading up the final long straightaway, Pic launched one final attack and was pushed to victory along Fitchburg’s brick-fronted main street by a roaring crowd and wall of clanking cowbells.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Women's field at top of crit course.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Women’s field at top of crit course.

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

Pic, who also won the Fitchburg Longsjo crit in 2008, said the New England stage race is one of her favorites. “I love it. I don’t like the really long stage races and this one has a little bit for everyone. It’s got climbs, so it’s kind of a climbing race. It’s got the time trial and it’s got the harder circuit race. I just think it’s great. It’s really fun and it’s not like Groundhog Day where it just goes on and on and on.”

At each stage start Jeannie Longo was good humored as the announcers repeatedly introduced her as the 50-year-old multi-time Olympian and world champion. After securing her third place position with a 10th place finish in the criterium, Longo admitted that she’s not sure what drives her to continue competing at the world’s highest level.

“I don’t know, really. For fun? You know, for example it’s the first time I come here (to Fitchburg) and I meet new people and nice people. It’s almost vacation.”

Longo said she could have turned in a stronger performance if hard rains had not kept her off her bike after flying in from Europe just before the race. “I couldn’t ride my bike for 24 hours after the flight, and I think I could have ridden better if I could have ridden my bike before the first (time trial). I did OK, but not as good as I thought I would be.”

From Wall Street to the podium

Of her remarkable rookie performance at a major NRC race, Stevens thanked her fellow Lip Smacker team riders, with whom she was riding as a guest, not a regular team member. “My team definitely kept me in that race.”

Until she gave notice last week, Stevens had spent the last two years working as a full-time investment banker in New York City. The Dartmouth College graduate entered her first race — a San Francisco cyclocross event — on a lark in November 2007 did not do a road race until she enrolled in a Central Park cycling clinic last July.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4:  Women's final GC winners (l-r): Longo (3rd), Stevens (1st), Powers (2nd).

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Women’s final GC winners (l-r): Longo (3rd), Stevens (1st), Powers (2nd).

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

Back in New York, Stevens took a summer racing clinic in Central Park, bought her first bike with clipless pedals and entered the Green Mountain Stage Race as a Cat 4 that fall. In one stage of the mountainous Vermont race, Stevens rode away from the 3-4 women’s field and passed the pro women’s peloton that had started five minutes before her.

Seeing as she has been racing for less than a year, Stevens was asked if she was nervous about defending her GC lead in the furiously paced and technical criterium: “Yeah. About the whole time!”

Of the overall event, Stevens said “It was just a great race. Great crowds and a great town to race in, Fitchburg.”

Was defending her GC lead in a major NRC race more stressful than investment banking? “Ahhhh—different. Different anxiety,” the easygoing but energetic Stevens responded. “This is a lot more fun than investment banking.”

A furious men’s race

Like the women’s race, the men’s criterium ran was never threatened by the rain that has drenched the East Coast for the last month. As Tom Zirbel lined up for the 50-mile, 55-lap final stage he was sitting on a thin 6-second lead over Zach Ball. With the race crown within reach of riders from Kelly Benefit Strategies, Bissell, Fly V Australia, Team Type 1, and OUCH-Maxxis, all in attendance suspected that Sunday’s Independence Day fireworks were about to get reignited.

Perhaps as a harbinger, as attacks launched from the gun on lap one, Zirbel broke a spoke and had to pull immediately into the SRAM neutral support pit for a wheel change. After getting pushed back into the race, the Bissell boys ushered their leader back to the front of the field. There, a break of about 15 riders had already gone, and Mike Friedman (Garmin-Slipstream) bridged up to the group containing Colavita, Kelly Benefit Strategies, BMC and Kenda riders.

Then Jonathan Page (Battley Harley Davidson) attacked the break along with Friedman and amateur rider and points jersey wearer Will Duggan (CCB).
Seven other riders hopped on with the threesome and the train of the day was gone. The others included Tony Cruz (BMC), Clayton Barrows (CRCA/Empire Cycling Team), Matt Wilson (Team Type 1), Daniel Vaillancourt (Colavita Sutter Home), Ben Day (Fly V Australia), Will Hoffarth (Mountain Khakis) and Keck Baker (Battley Harley Davidson).

“It was me and Tony and a couple of other guys doing even pulls,” Friedman recalled. “But Tony and I were doing really long pulls. I knew the guys in the peloton had to be on the rivet because we were hurting.”

Cruz was often at the front as the break arced through the U-turn at top of the course and Friedman moved to the fore as the break plummeted past enthusiastic partiers who had taken to the roof and sidewalk of a bar fronting the crit.

Lap by lap, the two Euro-savvy pros — Friedman placed 12th at Het Volk in 2008 — steadily notched up the break’s advantage until it was over one minute.

When the break’s advantage passed 37 seconds, Tony Cruz became the virtual GC leader. With Zirbel’s GC lead evaporating. Bissell put five riders at the front of the field, where they burned hard until the 20-to-go lap card flopped down and Kelly Benefits tossed six riders into the rotation.

With six Bissell and six fresh Kelly riders at the front, the break’s advantage began to plummet. With 14 laps remaining, the gap was down to 17 seconds and it looked like the break was headed for one of the lovely 17th Century graveyards that dot the Massachusetts landscape.

Two laps later the field had the break in sight. Riders in the break were starting to falter. In the field, Kelly Benefit sent two decoys up the road, which forced Bissell to burn even more of the matches in its cupboard, which was already bare from nearly 60 minutes of banging away at the front.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Men's Final GC (l-r): Zirbel (3rd), Bell (1st), Dionne (2nd).

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Men’s Final GC (l-r): Zirbel (3rd), Bell (1st), Dionne (2nd).

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

After 22-year old Duggan nailed the points jersey to his back for good by winning the lap 10 points sprint, Cruz was looking tapped from his capo roll in the break.

Then, on lap 9 Friedman pushed the eject button and absolutely catapulted himself from the faltering break along with Bell, Day, Jonathan Mumford (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Dionne.

At four to go the crowd went nuts at the sight of second place GC man Zach Bell and Thomas Soladay (Mountain Khakis) shooting up the side of the road away from Zirbel and his wasted teammates and up to Friedman’s resurrected break, which had lost Cruz but gained riders including Derrick St John (Garneau Club Chaussures), Mike Creed (Team Type 1) and Luis Amaran (Colavita Sutter Home).

“A couple guys from Team Type 1 and then Zach came across,” Friedman noted. “And then it was game on again.”
A $1,400 prime won by St-John at three to go was greenback incentive that put even more real estate between the break and Bissell’s flagging GC leader. With two to go and three of his cooked teammates off the back, Zirbel was at the sharp end of the field, pulling by himself.

On the last lap 30-year old Dionne came around the inside of the last turn, got a small gap and won a close sprint against Amaran, Soladay and Bell (4th). Creed placed 5th and Friedman 6th. “That’s what I do best,” Dionne stated after the race. “Yesterday I waited 500 meters to go and today I waited 250 meters to go.”

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Rooftop crit party at Fitchburg.

2009 Fitchburg stage 4: Rooftop crit party at Fitchburg.

Photo: © Mark Johnson/Ironstring

Bell started racing near his home in the Canadian Yukon and was a wrestler before becoming a bike racer. Asked if he was concerned about bringing Zirbel with him when he attacked the field, Bell said yes. “But as a sprinter I know if I go I’m a pretty hard guy to follow. I wasn’t concerned about having someone on my wheel as much as having guys who had enough gas to come across. I was just listening on the radio for my director to let me know. And when he let me know I had a gap I just put the stick down.”

Of Bissell, Bell said “we knew midway through that they were in bad shape. That’s why we started working with them because we wanted to protect our GC spots, too. It’s hard to ride a race from the front the whole week. It wore on those guys. But they rode a really good race. It’s good when you have a race come down to basically number one versus number two time trialing it in the last six laps to see who can hold the other one off. My hat’s off to Tom. He rode a really strong race.”

2009 Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic

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2009 Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic