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By Neal Rogers
As in Thursday’s Tour de France stage, which saw an early break succeed, the second stage of the Columbia River Bank Cascade Cycling Classic men’s stage race was won by a member of a break that escaped in the first 15km and stayed away. But unlike the outcome at the Tour, the Oregon win went to a U.S. Postal Service-Berry Floor rider – 23-year-old Michael Creed of Colorado Springs, who assumed the overall race leadership with just his second professional win.
An on-form Creed, who took fourth last weekend at the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic stage race, was clearly the strongest out of a group of 16 riders that slipped away 10 miles into a 70-mile course that featured two long climbs. The first, a 20-mile switchback ascent to the lava fields of McKenzie Pass, reached an elevation 5325 feet before dropping into the town of Sisters, named after the Three Sisters Mountains. The second climb was a 12-mile trudge up to the Three Creeks Sno-Park at the base of the Middle Sister.
Unlike the scorching hot weather in years past, when race medics ran out of intravenous fluid bags to treat depleted riders, the stage ran in ideal 72-degree temperatures, beginning at 11 a.m. and finishing some three hours later.
The pre-race strategy
All signs before the stage pointed to Health Net-Maxxis rider Scott Moninger and Webcor Builders’ Chris Horner as the men to watch. Moninger has won the race three times, during 1999-2001, and rode in support of then-and-now teammate Chris Wherry during his victorious run at the overall in 2002. Rumors circulating around Moninger’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado, had the 38-year-old veteran catching and passing groups of pros training on long mountain climbs as if they were standing still.
“I’ve been climbing in Colorado,” Moninger said before the race. “I’ve got pretty good legs from the Tour de Beauce. That’s the kind of race that either brings you up a notch or puts you in a body bag for the rest of the season, and it seems to have taken me up a notch. I can tell I have good legs.”
For Horner, who lives in the race’s locale of Bend, Oregon, the combination of his early season stage race domination and a chance to win in his hometown race was enough to prompt many to point to him as the man to beat.
But as in years past, Horner downplayed his chances for overall victory at Cascade, citing the race’s spot on the calendar as the primary reason. “This is a time to rest,” Horner said. “I’d like to win because it’s in my hometown, but the other races are just more important on the calendar, so where are you going to take a break? Unfortunately, I’ve got to take a break at a race that’s actually at my house.”
With Olympic trials just over and the T-Mobile International looming in September, Horner said, “you’ve got to take a break in order to be good for T-Mobile. I think my form is good enough to follow anybody, but I don’t think I can make any real attacks or anything.”
Horner said he would likely monitor Moninger while allowing one of his younger, less experienced teammates to go up the road and try his chances in a breakaway.
“This is the best race to let the younger guys step up,” Horner said. “We did it with Prime Alliance, too, because I was taking rest then and so it was perfect. It’s the same attitude here; if any of these guys go up the road, then we’re happy with that, too.”
As for Moninger, Horner had that situation figured out, too. “Moninger looks pretty good,” Horner said, “but I’m just going to neutralize him out of the race, so it isn’t going to matter. If [Health Net] is going to neutralize me, I’ll just neutralize Moninger and they’re going to have to race with the rest of the guys. If we hit the climb and he can just ride away from me, then there’s nothing I can do, but if they don’t want to ride with me then I’ll just neutralize their best guy and they’re going to have to ride with their second-best guy. [John] Lieswyn’s been on vacation, too, although he still looks pretty good, so we’ll just match Lieswyn with [Webcor’s Justin] England and we’ll just go from there.”
As for Creed, his plan was just to watch the favorites. “I spoke with [former Prime Alliance team director] Kirk Willett, and he said to just stick with Horner or Moninger,” he said. “We pretty much made that conscious decision, but then there was a little climb leaving town, and there was probably about 15 guys and I saw there were no Postal guys in it. There was a little uphill, so I took a flyer and got across to it. To be honest I didn’t pull at all, because I didn’t think there was a chance we’d even come close to making it.”
The break that stuck
But the break did stick, as all the teams were well represented. There was Creed; race leader Evan Elken (Broadmark Capital); Henk Vogels and Jeff Louder (Navigators Insurance); David Washburn and Russell Hamby (Sierra Nevada); Tyler Farrar, Gord Fraser and Mike Sayers (Health Net); Dan Bowman (TIAA CREF-5280); Alex Candelario (Jelly Belly-Aramark); Bernard van Ulden and John Kelley (Webcor); Dylan Sebel and Cam Evans (Symmetrics); and Omer Kem and Robbie Yost (Subway Express).
Somewhat surprisingly, with Elken, Candelario and Fraser in the group, the entire previous day’s sprint-finish podium was represented in a break headed for 30-plus miles of climbing.
“Early in the race I saw eight strong guys, and I just popped up there and all of a sudden we had 15 and we were rolling away,” said Elken, an amateur who is quickly establishing a name for himself in domestic racing.
“There were never a lot of people working, but there were enough people working that we stayed away. Once we got over the climb we were moving pretty good. It couldn’t have gone better. I think I’ve got the Oregon-rider jersey now. My group finished at least a couple of minutes ahead of the pack. There’s nothing like riding off the front. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
He and Vogels share that pastime in common. The former Paris-Roubaix top-10 finisher and Gent-Wevelgem winner was the primary engine behind the move, taking nearly 50 percent of the pulls to make the break stick. By mile 15 the group had 1:20 on the peloton; by mile 20 it had reached two minutes as the climb began; and at the top of McKenzie Pass it was four minutes before it began to disintegrate.
“Henk was just an animal today,” Louder said. “It was beautiful. He was a locomotive. That four-minute gap was 80 percent Henk. He was just coming back for more. Hats off to him. Without him we would have been all back together.”
For Vogels, who cracked near the top of McKenzie Pass and finished 116th, 20 minutes down, it was another day at the office on a course that didn’t suit his strengths.
“I knew Jeff could climb really well, he’s on really good form,” Vogels said. “He’s lost some weight and is looking like he can climb quite well. I knew I wasn’t going to make it up the last climb with anyone today, but I know I can ride 50kph on the flats, so that’s what I did for 50km. Health Net was pretty surprised when [the gap] was four-and-a-half minutes. That was what it was all about, just trying to get a big gap and get away from Horner and Moninger and Wherry and guys like that.”
Sebel attacked the group at mile 28, but with still nearly 15 miles of climbing remaining there was no reaction at all from the bunch. His gap maxed out at one minute; meanwhile, behind him, Vogels, Hamby, Yost, van Ulden and Washburn had dropped off a fast pace initiated by Louder. Only Creed and Sayers were able to follow.
“Louder attacked, and I sat on that and I kind of made a deal with Louder that I’d pull if I got the King of the Mountains jersey, because again, I didn’t think we’d stay off the front,” Creed said.
It was an effort that Louder would pay for later. “I was too anxious at the start,” he admitted. “I pulled the whole first bit and that cost me at the end. I was just trying to help the race along and make something happen. It’s just frustrating when there are so many guys sitting on. No one wants to work. I’m just trying to back up [team GC riders Chris Baldwin, Burke Swindlehurst and Phil Zajicek] and get a gap. Creed didn’t want to ride with me. It wasn’t to his advantage. He said he’d ride with me if I gave him the KOM.”
The trio caught Sebel atop McKenzie Pass, and the Symmetrics rider hung on during the 10-mile descent into the town of sisters, where the leaders were rejoined by remnants of the original breakaway, including Elken, Fraser, Evans, Kelley and Bowman. By the time the group had reached the town of Sisters, the time split to the peloton had reached eight minutes.
As the group approached the final 11-mile climb, Creed attacked and was again joined by Louder and Sayers. “Nobody really wanted to work in the group,” Creed said, “so I just relaxed and relaxed and then we hit that first steep pitch, and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m just going to go in my big ring, and if you can come with me, great, if not, I’m going.’”
While Sayers clung tight to Creed’s wheel, Louder yo-yoed off the back. Creed encouraged him to contribute, saying, ‘Come on Jeff, I know you can do it. Just pull through for a minute,’ but after a few attempts it was clear the Navigators rider wasn’t able to maintain the pace.
“We weren’t really getting too good of time splits, so we just tried to keep the pace going through the middle of the race, and then we find out in Sisters that we’ve got an eight-minute gap, it wasn’t enough time to recuperate before the climb,” Louder said. “Creed just had a little bit more. He had a great ride. He basically rode us off his wheel.”
It came as a bit of surprise to Creed. “I thought Louder was playing coy with me, because he was killing me on the first climb,” Creed said. “So I started doing little accelerations just to test him, and I saw he was gapped, so I kept the pressure down and got rid of him. I really didn’t mind Sayers sitting on my wheel, because I was pretty sure I could out-time-trial him [Friday], so I was perfectly willing to give him the stage if he could have hung, but I had to get as much time into Louder before the time trial. Or who even knows how fast Horner can go uphill? Even in the last kilometer I was expecting Horner or Moninger to come flying past me.”
With only Sayers remaining, a calm and clearly fit Creed again dropped the hammer, leaving Health Net’s lead-out man behind.
“What can I say?” Sayers said. “Creed is riding good. He threw everything at me. I weathered the storm a couple of times, and then I just couldn’t go any harder. I had to back off, otherwise I was going to have to get off my bike.”
Creed soloed into the finish, 39 seconds ahead of Sayers, with Louder another 22 seconds adrift.
It wasn’t all spoils for the victor, however. Upon conferring, the race jury penalized Creed 30 seconds for centerline violations, bringing his lead over Sayers to just nine seconds. Creed wasn’t the only rider penalized, as Louder was docked 15 seconds, leaving him 1:12 down. Louder’s teammate Viktor Rapinski was also docked 15 seconds on the stage.
The incident that seemed to particularly irritate the commissaires was Creed’s counterattack on Fraser around the centerline at the base of Three Creeks Road, directly in front of the chief referee. The situation was made more awkward when, as the referees spoke out their vehicle to warn Creed about it, Fraser appeared to complain to the refs that it wasn’t the first time Creed had violated the rule.
Said Fraser: “[Creed] attacked over the yellow line right in front of the commissaires. They were giving him a warning, and I’m like, ‘How many times are they going to warn him?’ Everyone knows there’s a yellow-line rule. I attacked clean, and he went around the yellow line to come after me.
“It’s bullshit. We’ll see if these commissaires have any guts to enforce a rule they so vehemently tell us at the beginning of the race, instead of nitpicking where our frigging numbers are, enforce the rules they claim. It was plain, it was right in front of them. It was a blatant cheating move. Not that it would have made much difference, but rules are rules. You can’t advance over the yellow line. I mean, everyone goes over the yellow line, but when you purposely advance over the yellow line and attack to cover a move, then that’s when the rules have to be enforced.”
As for Creed, he said: “Sometimes they enforce the centerline and sometimes they don’t. You can talk to them after the stage. I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of leeway if you yell at them, so I figured we’d talk about it afterwards.”
It seemed as though serious tension had been created between Fraser and Creed, particularly when Fraser caught back on and taunted Creed with comments such as, “Come on, Postal boy. You’re going to have to pull harder than that if you want to ride at the Tour.” However, both downplayed the smack talk afterwards.
“Ah, he was just playing with me,” Creed said. “Me and Gord go a long way back. When I was 19 I was in Tucson training by myself over Thanksgiving, and Gord found out I was by myself and had me over for Thanksgiving dinner. Gord’s a good man. It’s all in good fun.”
While he finished with the main group, 6:08 down, Moninger was clearly was the biggest loser on the day. Though his teammates finished second and fourth on the stage, Moninger watched the opportunity to win the race escape him as things turned out more or less as Horner had predicted.
“I think Chris Wherry put it best when he said it was probably the most negative bike race he’d ever been in,” Moninger said. “Everybody was watching everyone else, and nobody was willing to do anything. I understand if Horner doesn’t have the form, then he’s not going to bring the race back together so we can win it, but he’d rather have nobody up there.
“At least today we got second on the stage, second and fourth overall, with three guys in the top 10. We can still put pressure on whoever is leading the race. It’s one thing to ride against a team, but when you’re not getting much out of it, I don’t really see the point. It seemed like we were shadowboxing a lot. He was covering me every time I was trying to get across to a move, which is fine, but at the end of the day, if he really didn’t think he had a chance to win, I don’t see the point of taking himself of taking himself and me and his teammate Justin England — who’s a pretty good climber — out of the race.
“It really played into Postal’s hands, and in a lot of ways ours. We had three guys up there, so it’s not like we could chase, really. It’s a little frustrating because I have good legs and I felt good going up the final climb. But we didn’t feel like it was our job to control things from start to finish. Even up the climb we set a mellow tempo and brought the gap from four minutes down to two. I think everyone felt like we were going to let that break hang out there until we wanted to bring it back, but it got to the point where everyone was like, ‘I’ve got somebody up there.’
“The only guys we had left in the field were guys we wanted to save for the end – myself, Wherry and Lieswyn – and we had three guys up there, so it didn’t feel like we had the most to lose. At the same time, I think Postal made a mistake by sending just one guy out of 16 up the road. That’s not ideal, but Creed obviously had a good day, and I congratulate him on the stage win.”
Fraser added his opinion to Moninger’s. “Where is the strongest team in America?” he said. “Where was Webcor? They keep telling us how strong they are and they let the race go up the road. Practice what you preach a bit, huh?”
The ever-smiling Horner didn’t seem bothered by the frustrations of his former Mercury teammates Fraser, Moninger and Wherry.
“We talked about it in the meeting this morning,” Horner said. “We wanted to get John Kelley, or somebody who can time trial, in [the break]. It worked out nice. We knew Moninger was riding really well. Honestly, he looked like the best today, without seeing the break, of course. He looked really good in the field, and I knew my form wasn’t fantastic, so we were happy to play a move up in the break and just see if something would work that way.
“We’re sitting fifth or sixth, and we go into the time trial and maybe [Kelley] can move into fourth. That’s still a good result for our team. I mean a lot of people are sitting back and saying, ‘You can’t be happy with this.’ We’re a small team still. We win a lot of races, but you start comparing the budgets, and sitting top-five is still pretty good for our team.
“In all actuality, I didn’t have the form to win. Maybe I could have stayed close to Moninger, but he was going to win today if it came down to it. I can’t really comment on Creed, it sounds like he was going really well, but [Moninger] would have dropped me today, and probably Creed, too. I don’t think we could have done any better than we did.”
Heading into Friday’s time trial, 1:12 separated the three leaders, with Fraser sitting fourth, 2:30 down.
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