Jeannie Longo has held on to her overall lead in the HP Women’s Challenge, but the 42-year-old French rider may be facing serious challenges from three riders — Germany’s Judith Arndt, Rasa Polikeviciute (Acca Due O-Hewlett-Packard) and Saturn’s Kimberly Bruckner – who joined a winning break in the closing miles of the 58-mile Lowman to Stanley road race on Thursday.
Arndt powered in to the sprint of the lead group of four that included Longo’s Office Depot teammate, Joan Wilson, the last member of a break that started just a few miles into this hilly and wind-blown stage near the Sawtooth mountains of southern Idaho.
Longo began the day with a small six-second advantage over Saturn’s Lyne Bessette. But the two had a substantial advantage of two-and-a-half minutes over their nearest competitors after the duo had ridden together into Idaho City on Wednesday.
But by the finish line in Stanley, the three had taken nearly two minutes out of their deficit, tightening the race and putting six riders – two of them from Saturn — within 30 seconds of the race leader.
With its long, gradual climb out of the Payette River Valley to the top of Banner Creek Pass, the early part of the Lowman to Stanley stage is often punctuated by attacks by those hoping to gain a slight advantage before a climb that begins at around 20 miles.
And as expected, an early break formed up just eight miles into the stage. None of the five riders to make that early effort – Catherine Cardwell (800.com), Pam Schuster (AutoTrader.com), Andrea Foster (Goldy’s), Brenda Black (Webcor) and Nicole Friedman (Voler) – was within 10 minutes of Longo’s overall lead, so the field responded casually to the effort. Only Wilson moved to cover the break, in hopes of ensuring that at least one of Longo’s teammates was represented in the break.
“No, I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I also thought that by the time it reached the hills, I might be in a position to help Jeannie as she came by,” Wilson recalled.
But over the next 15 miles, Wilson maintained a steady pace, building an advantage that grew to 1:50, while those who initiated the break began to fall back one-by-one. Wilson was soon on her own and expecting to join Longo and other leaders as they crested Banner Creek Pass. It never quite happened that way.
Back in the field, the pace was moderate and a large group stayed together for much of the climb. Longo made a few attempts to get off on her own, but each move was shadowed by a member of the Saturn squad. As the top of the climb neared, the attacks from Saturn stepped up. Longo fended off accelerations by Bessette, her teammate Anna Millward and Bruckner. Finally, Judith Arndt the German National team member who finished second to Bessette at this year’s Tour de L’Aude, jumped and Longo didn’t follow.
Once over the climb, the course consisted largely of a wind-aided downhill into Stanley. Wilson eased back, her advantage now around 30 seconds. As the German rider moved in on Wilson, she was joined by Polikeviciute and Bruckner who, like Arndt, had finished in the main chase group on Wednesday. Wilson was joined by the three riders and slipped to the back of the group for the “free ride” into Stanley.
“At that point, I wasn’t going to help with people like Judith and Kim in the group,” Wilson said.
The other three, however, organized and rode tempo, building the lead up to 1:50 with just a kilometer remaining. Arndt was clearly the strongest of the four and charged with more than 300 meters remaining. Polikeviciute held on for second, while Wilson did her best to keep Bruckner from scoring even a few seconds in time bonuses for third.
Longo finished with the main field that consisted of nearly 45 riders. Saturn’s Petra Rossner took the field sprint, slightly ahead of Millward.
Longo was somewhat philosophical about the result. “I knew that Saturn would be tough. It will be a little tougher now that they have two tough riders so close.”
Two Saturns and Arndt. The German conceded that her GC chances might be limited, but smiled as she suggested that over the course of the next 10 days “anything can happen and maybe it will do us well to have the fight going on between Jeannie and Saturn. It may end up helping us out.”