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Small, Murphy lead Nature Valley after double opening day

Carmen Small, Theresa Cliff-Ryan, Tom Zirbel and John Murphy were all stage winners on Wednesday in Saint Paul, Minnesota

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Carmen Small (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and John Murphy (Kenda-5-hour Energy) lead the women’s and men’s overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix after the opening double day of racing in Minnesota.

The nation’s top domestic teams contested the first GC dispute of the 2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix over a rolling 12.4km on the banks of the Mississippi River.

In the men’s race, Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) sailed through the Saint Paul Time Trial course in 15:56.

“Our team won here last year, and that’s definitely our goal this year,” said Zirbel. “If it’s me, great, if it’s not, as long as they’re wearing our jersey I’m happy.”

Murphy, one of two top-five finishers from Kenda team, finished four seconds down in second. Scott Zwizanski (Optum) finished third, six seconds off of his teammate’s time.

Zirbel’s lead wouldn’t last the night, however, as Murphy took an intermediate time bonus during the Saint Paul Criterium Wednesday night, earning the yellow jersey by just a second.

Carlos Alzate (Exergy) tore through the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2011 and started Wednesday night where he left off, winning the first criterium of the week. Alzate earned the Exergy sprinter’s jersey.

“He is very happy because our team is sponsoring the jersey so he’s going to try to keep it until the end,” said Alzate through teammate and translator Andres Daiz.

Murphy is not only gunning for stage wins, but also the overall in the five-day National Racing Calendar event.

“It’s always better to have the yellow jersey than to chase it,” he said. “I was second overall here in 2008 with my teammate Rory [Sutherland] winning. I’m not afraid of the hills here.”

Zirbel and company are doing the same.

“Really we’re gunning for the overall classification,” said Optum manager Jonas Carney. “Zirbel almost won three years ago, Zwizanski almost won two years ago, and Jesse [Anthony] won last year, so we have a lot of guys who can contend for the general classification.”

2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix Stage 2 from Rick Fuentes on Vimeo.

Small leads, Cliff-Ryan wins sprint

The women of the 2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix rolled out at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday for the race-opening 12.4km Saint Paul individual time trial.

Carmen Small (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) bested all comers with a time of 17:30. Jackie Crowell (Exergy-Twenty12) finished second, at nine seconds. Amber Neben (Specialized-lululemon) came home third, also nine seconds down on Small, and just 0.014 seconds off of Crowell.

“It’s good timing, because we’re all trying to make the Olympic team right now,” said Small. “A lot is going on with us. The pressure’s been on the last two weeks. It’s been a little bit stressful, but I’m happy to be here. It’s better to be here than at home where I can stress out about things.”

Neben said that with Nature Valley falling in the middle of three brutal weeks that include the Exergy Tour, Liberty Classic, U.S. Olympic selection (on Friday) and the elite national championships, it was difficult to focus in the opening stage.

“This is a nice race, but it’s too close to nationals and there’s too many other things going on,” said Neben. “So I came in a little tired and focusing on other things, trying to have a good day today. I rode fine, but Carmen was way faster today. Jackie rode well too, which was really cool to see.”

Small was focused, however, and extended her overall lead Wednesday night in the Saint Paul Criterium. Her Optum squad neutralized a late attack from Specialized’s Loren Rowney and Small’s former Colavita teammate Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Exergy Twenty12) came jumped the final corner for the stage win. Leah Kirchmann (Optum) was second, with Small third.

“My team knew that (Optum) didn’t want to let a breakaway go because they had Leah there for the sprint. She’s an excellent sprinter,” Ryan said. “And they wanted to protect Carmen overall. So we knew they wanted to pull (Rowney) back, so we just let them do the work to save my girls for the lead out for me.”

Small said that she kept her cool and tempered her squad’s chase of Rowney to leave the catch late enough to limit any GC attacks.

“I wasn’t worried,” Small said. “The girls rode absolutely incredible. It was pretty awesome.

“The girls wanted to close faster and I was like, ‘slow, slow, slow. Just keep eye’s distance,’” Small said. “The main thing is, we just wanted her to dangle out here as long as possible.”

The Nature Valley Grand Prix continues Thursday with the Cannon Falls Road Race.

Ari Baquet contributed to this report.