By Mark Zalewski
Wet and wild would not even begin to describe the conditions for Sunday’s U.S. criterium national championships in Downers Grove outside Chicago.
Torrential rains soaked the elite amateur men’s field and thunderstorms delayed the pro men’s race by an hour. The slick course caused crash after crash, turning the races into survival contests and dashing the hopes of favorites.
For the ninth time here two riders crossed the finish line celebrating victory — Aussie Ben Kersten (Fly V Australia) for the outright win and John Murphy (OUCH-Maxxis) more than happy with second place as the first American across the line.
“I’ve been racing a long time and been waiting a long time for this,” said Murphy. “I’ve been waiting for my kick to come around this year so I’m really happy to have this. It was a team goal and what we were working for all day long!”
The wet roads were the central story all day, with the amount of riders going down in inverse proportion to the amount of laps remaining — culminating in the final turn with defending champion Rahsaan Bahati (Rock Racing) thinking repeat instead of caution, taking the final turn too hot and sliding into the hay bales.
This opened up the door for Kersten, riding solo with the rest of his team either in Utah or back in Australia.
“There were a lot of really good riders out there today that would have been up there if they hadn’t crashed out,” said Kersten. “Bahati was coming through that corner at about 100 miles an hour, so I’m sure he’s pretty upset right now.
“He jumped around me going into (the final turn) and I wasn’t going to change my line to follow him because it was too risky. So I stayed on my line thinking that I wouldn’t be able to hold his wheel — but he crashed and I came first out of the corner and went for it.”
Before the crazy finale to the race, the first half was dominated by one rider — Luis Amaran (Colavita-Sutter Home), who broke away in the opening laps and then built a huge gap on his own. With the wet roads making every team cautious he was able to come within 35 seconds of lapping the field, something nobody has done in the pro race here. But when Amaran was able to see the follow car on the longer straights the bigger teams picked up the speed and shaved off four seconds a lap. Fortunately for Amaran he was able to take the half-race prize of $2,000.
The final seven laps saw Kelly Benefits Strategies on the front after OUCH-Maxxis brought a late break back to within reach. With two laps to go, Kelly Benefits finished off the break, which included their man Ryan Anderson with the Barrajo brothers from Colavita-Sutter Home. But Anderson, a Canadian, would be ineligible for the jersey, and the team was working for its American riders.
“It’s always a difficult call when you have a foreign guy on the team and he’s in a position to win the race,” said Alex Candelario. “It changes the dynamics so much and hard to predict how the other teams will race. So it’s better just to neutralize it.”
With the break over, entering turn one seemed to bring back an old favorite, the “Saturn sit-up.” Three Kelly Benefits riders, including Candelario, jumped out of the turn while the three behind swung off and soft-pedaled, causing the riders on the outside to grab their brakes. Only a few riders on the inside were able to hold their speed, including Karl Menzies (OUCH-Maxxis), Bahati and Tony Cruz (BMC).
Eventually the three Kelly riders were joined by the few others as more and more riders went down in every subsequent turn, whittling the field down to 30 riders.
“The last two laps you could hear crashes every turn,” said Cruz, who won the title here 10 years ago and was hoping to make it an anniversary.
“I’m comfortable in the rain so I just kept my head up — I rode around crashes all day, so I could not go down now! And I made sure to take the inside on every turn, too.”
On the final lap Menzies hit out on top of the course and down the hill, trying to lead out Murphy. But at the bottom of the hill, exiting the second right-hand turn on the figure-eight course, Menzies carried too much speed and hit the deck with his derailleur sending up sparks.
“Whoa, he was right in front of me and it was a matter of millimeters,” Murphy recalled. “It scared the life out of me!”
The remaining riders collected themselves and continued down towards turns six and seven, with Bahati jumping into turn eight — the notorious corner where many riders have miscalculated speed and lines while dreaming of stars and stripes.
“Bahati stacked it on the inside of me and took out the first four guys, so Murphy got the hole shot,” said Candelario. “It’s always a treacherous last turn and you have to take risks, but Bahati took too many and messed up our chances — but that’s just bike racing.”
A very dejected Bahati eventually came across the line, overcome with emotion.
“Everyone said the last corner was going to be dangerous, and I knew from last night the sprint was to the last corner,” said Kersten. “With Kelly Benefits on the front I just couldn’t get to where I wanted to be. So I was riding on the inside, prepared to crash, trying to get to the front. But everyone else crashed and I came through it.”
The win is the biggest in Kersten’s road career, which is not even a year old. A former track racer, he asked his team to keep him in the States so he could get more road experience.
“The team that remained here is doing Utah, but I’m not a hill climber, so they said to come here by myself,” he said. “I think the team will be very happy.”
And so it is. Kersten is heading to Utah to replace two sick riders.
Pic caps career with No. 6
Tina Pic (Colavita-Sutter Home) made it clear this would be her last time at Downers Grove, and so the five-time criterium national champion was motivated to go out on top.
In her way was a strong TIBCO team led by defending national champion Brooke Miller. But despite TIBCO riding a nearly flawless race, with attack after attack and a surprise late-race flyer from Saturday night’s champion Kat Carroll, Pic was able to use her experience on this course to find the perfect position for the final turn, and rode that all the way to the line ahead of Miller and Shelley Olds (Proman).
“This was the last hurrah because it is so stressful,” said Pic. “Crits are one of those things that are hard to predict. The team was dragging stuff back all day, killing themselves, and I knew I was the only one left.
“I was pretty far back but I got on Shelley’s wheel and we went zooming around the corner to get me in around the Laura (Van Gilder) and Brooke (Miller) area. There were two TIBCOs on the front so I just got on Brooke’s wheel until the last corner.”
Pic was still kicking herself a little from last year when she allowed Miller to sit on her wheel in the final turn in the warm-up race, allowing her to see how she won those other five championships.
“I knew I did that last year,” she said. “But I just knew where to be this year, and when I saw her in front of me I went, ‘Ah ha!’ “
Up until that moment, it looked to be going TIBCO’s way in every respect — with Carroll leading the last two laps and making all of the other teams chase, even putting Pic into panic mode.
“She has done it a million times and that is her trick, so I was, ‘Oh, no!’” said Pic. But her teammate Kelly Benjamin was held in reserve for this very reason.
“That was my one job,” said Benjamin. “My team did such a good job keeping it together and we didn’t take TIBCO’s bait — go ahead and throw anything at us, but we wanted a field sprint. They saved me until the last two laps in case Kat Carroll went and I would have to catch her. Chris (Pic) said, ‘You all did your job so now it’s Tina’s job.’”
One of the keys to Pic’s success was her adjustment of the strategy for the final turn. “I think the wind was a factor in the finish because Brooke went pretty early and there was a headwind. I was thinking of that when we were warming up.”
Though she finished second, Miller was more than happy with the way the team raced — a nice consolation and sign of things to come.
“We really raced a flawless team race, and threw a lot of different things out there,” said Miller. “From four laps to go we had five riders on the front of the race and then at two to go we had Kat’s attack, which was the plan to put everyone in panic mode. I even took a bit of a flyer early on because we wanted to put pressure on, which made it a really fun race.”
“But this is such an unusual race which makes it so special. It takes a lot of experience, and Tina had a great finish. There is a reason why she was won this race so often, she knows how to finish it.
“I made three distinct mistakes on the finish — I know what they are and I will be reliving it. It was such a strong headwind on the finish that we thought it would be OK to take it second wheel but I wasn’t able to close it up.”
Former pros dominate elite amateur race
The group that got the worst of the rain was the elite men, with the first line of thunderstorms coming in 15 laps into their race and sheets of rain sending riders spinning on their chamois.
But with no lightning present the officials allowed the race to continue, with a depleted field hanging in for the end of the race. However, the rain-soaked course allowed breakaways to escape in the key moments with former Toyota pro Justin England (California Giant Berry Farms) cashing in on a chance and winning an unlikely crit title.
“I’m definitely not a crit racer!” he said, laughing, after the race. “I told all my teammates to stay on the front, because I thought it would split in the rain. But it didn’t split like I thought it would until it dried up. A guy went solo with 10 to go, so I hit it and went across and then a few more came behind me.”
England said he was not working for the break to stay away, but rather to set up his team’s sprinter.
“It was the five of us but I was honestly sitting on. I knew those guys were strong and I actually wanted it to come back, because we have Steve Reaney, one of the fastest guys in the field. I eased up the last three laps but then the gap stayed out there, so I attacked on top of the hill and just hit it all the way down.”
Fortunately for England the chase behind him — Paul Martin (Panther-RGF) and Kirk Albers (Texas Roadhouse), also former pros — collapsed when Albers went down in a turn.
“My teammate put in a monster pull to keep the break close, so you have to reward your teammate’s work and I made it across in about a lap,” said Martin. “Albers followed me up there and it looked like a strong group, so I hoped to attack on the top of the hill but [England] beat me to it.
“I pulled down to the (second) right turn, then Kirk took over but he crashed in the second-to-last turn. If he had made it through there I might have had a chance, but it was all over after that.”
For England, the title could be his ticket back into the pro ranks, as a former California Giant rider, Ken Hanson, won the amateur race last year and is now a pro on Team Type 1.
“I don’t know, it is what it is,” said England. “It is still a great win and I’m just happy to get it for California Giant. They won last year so it’s great to keep the streak alive.”