Road

A selective Nature Valley Grand Prix on tap

Two-time defending champion Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) will open his three-peat attempt Wednesday morning in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the 10th annual Nature Valley Grand Prix kicks off. In the women’s race, the top U.S.-based professionals will battle for the podium step left open by the retirement of 2006-2009 champion Kristin Armstrong.

Sutherland won the 2009 edition with this last-lap attack
Sutherland won the 2009 edition with this last-lap attack

Two-time defending champion Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) will open his three-peat attempt Wednesday morning in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the 10th annual Nature Valley Grand Prix kicks off. In the women’s race, the top U.S.-based professionals will battle for the podium step left open by the retirement of Kristin Armstrong, who had won the race four years’ straight.

Part of the Twin Cities’ greater Nature Valley Bicycle Festival, the Grand Prix uses a mix of urban criteriums and road races with finishing circuits to reach a wider fan base than the traditional stage race. Given that fact, the strong all-arounders most often feature in the National Racing Calendar event.

New climbs, new TT rule

With a new road race course that includes four categorized climbs lurking for stage 5, this year’s Grand Prix could be more selective than ever before. On the other hand, a rule banning aero gear in Wednesday’s six-mile time trial should make the race tigher. Race organizers have gone “Eddy Merckx-style” for this year’s race in hopes of leveling the playing field for lower budget squads.

Sutherland aiming for a three-peat

Sutherland, whose squad was strengthened this month with the addition of sprinter Hilton Clarke, has to be the favorite. Sutherland can hold position in the criteriums, time trial with the best in the States and, as he showed last year on the final day at Nature Valley, is ruthlessly tactical when the overall win is on the line.

That said, Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home) has been on a tear in 2010. The Joe Martin Stage Race overall winner leads the NRC by more than 200 points and is well suited to the Nature Valley parcours. Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell), Kiel Reijnen (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and David Veilleux (Kelly Benefit Strategies) are also each versatile and have shown good form in the last month.

In the women’s race, Evelyn Stevens and HTC-Columbia will continue their North American kick that began with the Liberty Classic. Stevens last weekend won the Chrono de Gatineau UCI time trial in Canada and showed at the Tour de L’Aude and Philadelphia that she is on top form.

Joining Armstrong on last year’s Nature Valley podium were Shelley Evans (Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12) and Alison Powers (Vera Bradley Foundation). While very different riders — Powers is the rouleur and time trialist, while Evans is the speedster — both should again contend for the overall win.

Joanne Kiesanowski and Brooke Miller (both TIBCO-To The Top) and Amber Neben (Webcor Builders) will also likely find themselves near the top of the GC, though Miller will need a superb TT effort and Neben superb crit positioning to pull out the overall win. If the climbers go full gas in stage 5, Evans’ teammate Mara Abbott could find herself in contention, while Evans and Miller may be left to fight for a stage win on the final day.

Regardless of who the players turn out to be by the time the final criterium in Stillwater finishes on Sunday, the new stage and time trial should lead to the most selective Nature Valley Grand Prix in recent history.

The stages

Stage 1: Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial (6 miles), June 16

First woman starts at 8:30 a.m.

First man starts at 10:00 a.m.

The six-mile course ends with a steep, 0.7-mile climb that should result in a separation of as much as 25 seconds on the top of the overall. In 2009, Armstrong and Tom Zirbel rode TT wins to the overall lead headed into the final day; Armstrong emerged victorious, while Sutherland overcame Zirbel in a last lap attack.

Stage 2: Downtown St. Paul Criterium, June 16

Women’s Pro/Elite Race (28 laps) 6:15 p.m.

Men’s Pro/Elite Race (40 laps) 7:45 p.m.

The St. Paul criterium relocates this year to the city’s entertainment district, where crowds should be huge. The new course is a flat, five-corner track that includes two brick sections.

Stage 3: Cannon Falls Road Race, June 17

Men’s Pro/Elite Race (65 miles) 5:00 p.m.

Women’s Pro/Elite Race (65 miles) 5:30 p.m.

Gravel roads, rolling farmland, a challenging finish circuit — the Cannon Falls stage has it all. Stage 3 can factor in the final overall, though the favorites are likely to make it to the line with or in sight of the leaders. Wind is the wildcard, and in 2006 a 17-man break rode away in the men’s racing, finishing more than five minutes ahead of the peloton, and ripping the race apart.

Stage 4: Minneapolis Uptown Criterium, June 18

Women Pro/Elite Race (30 Laps) 6:15 p.m.

Men Pro/Elite Race (40 Laps) 7:45 p.m.

The Uptown criterium, new in 2009, is another pancake-flat affair. The six-corner course includes a long straightaway up Lake Street for final positioning before the last corner. Organizers have added intermediate time bonus sprints to the stage to spice the racing up.

Stage 5: Menomonie Road Race, June 19

Start Pro Men (95 miles) 12:00 p.m.

Start Pro Women (76 miles) 1:30 p.m.

The Menomonie stage is new for 2010 and should change the flavor of the race dramatically. The men and women will face four categorized climbs (the first for the Grand Prix) and with a selective course and the potential for winds, the GC will likely look very different when racing concludes. The flat, four-lap finishing circuit should see a group of 60 or so riders duke it out for the stage win — with a tight GC and rolling terrain, the fans in Menomonie won’t likely see a successful breakaway make it to the line

Stage 6: Stillwater Criterium, June 20

Women’s Pro/Elite Race (13 Laps) 12:00 p.m.

Men’s Pro/Elite Race (20 Laps) 1:30 p.m.

Arguably the most challenging criterium in the States, the final stage at Stillwater features the 20-percent climb up Chilkoot Hill to the finish. In 2009, Sutherland attacked an out-of-position Zirbel at the base of Chilkoot and rode away to the overall win. A very select group should come to the finish line in Stillwater — generally about 70 percent of the field either abandon or get lap-pulled each year.