By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
In a wet national criterium championship that turned into a rain-soaked crash-festival, Go-Mart’s Ben Sharp was able to stay out of trouble and earn his first elite national championship jersey, outsprinting breakaway companion Tim Larkin (Lombardi Sports) for the win.
The rain began 10 laps into the 50-lap championship race in Downers Grove, Illinois, on Sunday morning, and definitely contributed to the outcome of the race.
Sharp’s Go-Mart squad was one of the strongest teams in the race, along with the Mercy Fitness team from Arkansas, and both squads were among the most active in the early going. In the one significant mid-race break, those teams each had two riders in the nine-man group, forcing Larkin and the Lombardi squad into chase mode.
As the rain began to fall harder, that group got caught, but with 13 laps remaining, Sharp and Larkin went off the front together.
“I thought it was a little far out, and I knew that Mercy would have some horsepower in the field, and I knew that THF Realty would have some horsepower in the field,” said Sharp, who had won seven collegiate track championships, but had never won an elite national championship before Sunday.
However, the main field had to contend with the wet weather, and a slew of crashes in turn No. 8, in addition to worrying about Larkin and Sharp.
“I knew when [the rain] was coming in that it would make it easier than normal for a break to succeed,” said Larkin. “I think once we got out there, it made the chase really tough. There weren’t that many teams to chase, and with it being wet, it was going to slow them down more than us.”
Larkin himself almost fell victim, sliding out with eight laps to go. However, taking advantage of a free-lap, he re-joined Sharp for the final push.
“I wasn’t committed to the line until I heard that we had eight or nine laps to go,” said Sharp. “And then when Tim crashed, and I did a lap by myself, I was really concerned. I didn’t know what happened to him, I didn’t know if he got dropped, or what. When he rejoined, that’s when I was like, okay, we’re going to the line. They have to come catch us.”
Instead, though, the chasers were falling by the wayside, with riders sliding out across the bricks on turn No. 8 lap after lap. Among those to go down was defending champion Rahsaan Bahati (Mercury), who saw his hopes of repeating end with four laps to go.
That left the race to the two leaders, with the advantage going to Sharp, whose speed has been honed by years of track racing and whose road racing ability was sharpened by a year in Belgium last year. Add to that Larkin’s nerves after his crash, and it was a Sharp edge.
“I kept losing his wheel during the corners,” said Larkin. “We both knew it was a race to the last corner, and he popped around me before it and by the time we got through it, I was three bike lengths behind him.”
And with that, Sharp cruised in to the biggest win of his career. “Words can’t even explain. This is something that I’ve been dreaming about for years and years and years,” he said.
Elite Men’s National Criterium Championship;
1. Ben Sharp, Go-Mart; 2. Tim Larkin, Lombardi Sports; 3. Steve Cate, Mercy Fitness; 4. Adam Hodges-Myerson, CRCA-Mengoni; 5. Jason Snow, Fuji Racing; 6. Chad Hartley, cbike.com; 7. Ryan Zook, Cityscape-Higher Gear; 8. Karl Boadine, unattached; 9. Alex Candelario, THF Racing; 10. Dan Schmatz, THF Racing.