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Pontoni, Knapp take wins
By Neal Rogers
If the standard perception of Northwestern cyclo-cross racing conjures images of mud splattered riders battling it out in the driving rain, then the opening round of the inaugural Crank Brothers U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross did nothing to change that image.
Intermittent rain showers turned the hairpin turns of the Cannondale Stümptown Gran Prix — held on grassy fields in and around the Alpenrose Velodrome, just south of Portland, Oregon — into a series of wipeout alleys, creating a race situation where bike handling and tire pressure were nearly as important as fitness. Mix in a victorious cameo appearance by former world champion Daniele Pontoni (Selle Italia) and an intense five-man contest for second-place, and the day was everything Northwestern ‘cross is supposed to be: slick, sticky, sloppy and downright sadistic.
While Pontoni and Ann Knapp (Kona) took the honors in the elite men’s and women’s races, perhaps the day’s biggest winner was Portland’s Cross Crusade race series, which saw a record 610 registered participants across the various categorized races held from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.
As the day went on, the stampede of racers along the compact but long out-and-back circuit churned the mostly-grass course into a slippery rain-soaked causeway, with hillier sections deteriorating into run-ups as the day passed.
Racing before the elite men were the elite women, and in the absence of reigning national champion Alison Dunlap, who has said she will not cyclo-cross race this year, 2003 national champion Ann Knapp demonstrated that she is the woman to beat on the national circuit.
Following her win at the Star-Crossed UCI event one week earlier in Seattle, Knapp (Kona) opened up a lead on the second of five laps over the 45-minute race, passing the not-yet-retired-as-rumored Gina Hall (Missing Link). Once off the front, Knapp’s strength running through unrideable sections carried her to an uncontested solo victory. Hall took second, with a tennis shoe adorned Rhonda Mazza (Vanilla-S&M) third. Josie Beggs (Starbucks) and Wendy Simms (Front Runners) rounded out the top-five.
“It took me about three minutes to get to the front,” Knapp said. “I’m not a fast starter, and there was a little crash that allowed me to catch up to Gina.”
Knapp’s husband Dale, a legend in the Northwest cyclo-cross community for more than a decade, is spending the 2004-05 ‘cross season coaching for the Seattle-area Rad Racing program in addition to working the pits for his wife. Knapp predicted Kona teammates Ryan Trebon and Barry Wicks would dictate the day’s racing.
“They’re going to school Pontoni good today,” Knapp said. “Wicks and Trebon are just gonna tag-team him, with Gully [Marc Gullickson] maybe jumping on the pile as well.”
From the gun it appeared Knapp was correct, as Wicks made his way into a three-man group on the opening lap, led by Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Giant) and Pontoni. Behind chased Jonny Sundt (Maxxis-Giant), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Specialized), Carl Decker (Giant-Pearl Izumi), Mark McCormack (Clif Bar-Colavita Bolla), Gullickson (Redline) and Jesse Anthony (Cyclocrossworld.com).
Missing from the start line was former national cyclo-cross champion Todd Wells (GT-Hyundai), away on a much-needed vacation after a long and tiring cross-country season, as well as Adam Craig (Maxxis-Giant), who was attending a friend’s wedding.
After spending the first two laps with the North Americans, the 38-year-old Italian national champion decided he’d had enough and rode away from the orange-clad Kabush and Wicks, while Jacques-Maynes, Decker and Gullickson worked together to chase behind.
With his superior handling skills, the diminutive Pontoni ably rode the slick “slip-and-slide” traversing climb out of the velodrome’s infield that others were forced to run, opening vital seconds of advantage each lap; a 10-second crack to a chasing Kabush on lap 4 had opened into a 30-second chasm a lap later as the Italian began lapping riders.
Wicks, 22, who hails from the nearby town of Corvallis, put on a valiant effort for the hometown crowd, briefly moving into second place on lap 5 of the 8-lap event, but the six-foot-five Kona rider bobbled hard into the fencing soon after and he and Kabush were joined by Decker, Jacques-Maynes and a hard-charging Gullickson, who had recovered from a poor start to make contact with the lead chase group.
“It motivated me when I caught those guys,” said the former national cyclo-cross champion. “It took me a lap-and-a-half, but once I caught them I just got sucked along. There wasn’t any drafting happening, but it was motivating, and I figured I might as well throw an attack.”
But Kabush, the 2004 NORBA cross-country series overall winner who had never seriously pursued ‘cross racing until this season, surged off the front again with the four riders five seconds in tow with two laps remaining. With Pontoni holding a nearly one-minute lead, the race for second-place – first North American – had come down to a five-man battle.
As the sun finally broke out at nearly 4 p.m., the warm rays must have shone most brightly on Gullickson, who bridged across to a tiring Kabush and valiantly rode in for second-place, while behind Decker also attacked and passed Kabush, who finished fourth. Jacques-Maynes and Wicks rounded out the top-six, but Wicks was reportedly relegated to seventh for riding into the pits without taking a bike change.
It was an outstanding performance by the 36-year-old Gullickson, who is considering retirement at the end of the season. “I had a good start,” he said, “but at the first hairpin I was sprinting inside a bunch of people and I pulled the brakes full-on and I didn’t stop at all and I went straight into McCormack and the tape, and one of the barriers went into the triangle of my frame. In muddy races like this it’s hard to pass, because everybody is on the line, and it just took me forever to get back on. Carl was with me and together we went through about 10 guys.”
For Kabush, who spent much of the day as the first-chaser after putting in a five-day stint at Interbike, the fourth-place finish was bittersweet. “I got the hole shot,” Kabush said. “I tried to relax, and I waited for Pontoni to come up. I wanted to see what lines he was taking, but I could only stay with him for about a lap. This is the first time I’ve raced in this kind of mud, so I’m still learning. These are probably the most adverse conditions I’ve raced in, but I’m having fun. The first couple of races I’ll be learning a lot.”
Pontoni, who speaks little English and reportedly abhors muddy conditions, had little to say after the race. Through an interpreter, he said he felt it was prestigious to win in the United States, and that were there not schedule conflicts with the Cyclo-cross World Cup, more Europeans would like to come over to race in the U.S.
UCI cyclo-cross racing continues Sunday in Tacoma, Washington, with the Clif Bar Grand Prix of Cyclo-Cross at Fort Steilacoom Park.
1. Daniele Pontoni (Selle Italia)
2. Marc Gullickson (Redline)
3. Carl Decker (Giant-Pearl Izumi)
4. Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Giant)
5. Andy Jacques-Maynes (Specialized)
6. Mark McCormack (Clif Bar – Colavita)
7. Barry Wicks (Kona)
8. Erik Tonkin (Kona)
9. Bart Gellespie (Biogen-Idec)
10. Brandon Dwight (TIAA-CREF- Clif Bar)
1. Ann Knapp (Kona)
2. Gina Hall (Missing Link)
3. Rhonda Mazza (Vanilla-S&M)
4. Josie Beggs (Starbucks Dubbleshot)
5. Wendy Simms (Front Runners-Steed Cycles East)
6. Christine Vardaros (Velo Bella)
7. Sarah Kerlin (Velo Bella)
8. Hilary Daniels (Hunter Cycles)
9. Kristi Berg (Bicycle Centers)
10. Brigette Stoick (Veloshop)
1. Braden Kappins (TIAA-CREF- Clif Bar)
2. Charles Marzot (Corner Cycling Club)
3. Taylor Lane (Rio Grande-Monson RA)
4. Alex Howes (TIAA-CREF- Clif Bar)
5. Luke Brechwald –(Rad Racing NW)
6. Eric Riggs (SF Velosport)
7. Adam McGrath (Excel Sports
8. Adam Switters (Lombardi-Kline)
9. Joeseph Rogerson (Rad Racing NW)
10. Noah Harwood (People Cycling-Stelvio)