By Kip Mikler , VeloNews Editor
As the designated finisher for Mercury on the final day of the Sea Otter road race Saturday, Australian Baden Cooke was on the hot seat. His team – accustomed to taking wins in buckets with sprinter Gord Fraser – had been stymied by a hot Saturn squad and hadn’t won all weekend. With Fraser feeling under the weather, Cooke did just fine, outsprinting Dutchman Jeroen Blijlevens, among others, to chalk up the biggest win of his young career. In the women’s Laguna Seca circuit race, Anna Millward just kept rolling, winning the stage and the overall Sea Otter title.
Joining Millward in the overall winner’s circle was teammate Trent Klasna, who finished the 45-mile men’s circuit race — held on the twisting, turning Laguna Seca Speedway — safely in the main group. Klasna carried a lead of 1:45 into the day, and the Saturn squad made sure none of the handful of breaks that went up the road Saturday got too far.
In the end, however, it was Mercury who chased down a five-man break that reached a maximum lead of about 45 seconds, to set up the push to the finish. Just when Mercury thought they had things under control, with five men on the front at the start of the bell lap, Australian Michael Rogers of the Mapei-QuickStep team rocketed over the steep climb before the famous “Corkscrew” descent, and opened up a gap of about 100 meters.
“I thought we might not get him back,” Cooke said afterward.
But that thought never crossed the mind of Mercury’s Chris Horner. The brash team leader went to the front and pulled the whole field to catch Rogers 500 meters from the line. After that, Mercury’s Jamie Drew took care of the rest for Cooke, setting him up as the sprinters crowded to the far right, brushing up against the barriers in the finishing stretch. Drew left just enough room for Cooke to squeeze around him on the right, shutting everyone else down.
“Beating guys like Blijlevens is huge for me,” said the 22-year-old Cooke afterward.
Jelly Belly’s Eddy Gragus picked up a three-second time bonus with sprint points, which was just enough for him to jump past Czech rider Vladimir Miholjevic and take second overall for the three-day race. Miholjevic, of the KRKA-Telekom Slovenia squad, finished third overall.
The 30-mile women’s race was textbook for Saturn, a team clearly in a class of its own throughout the weekend. Tour de Snowy champion Kimberly Bruckner got things started by going on an early flyer on the hilly course, which sent riders up a gnarly 300-foot climb every six minutes or so. Bruckner got about 20 seconds clear and stayed away for about eight miles until she was caught by the main field, being powered by AutoTrader.com.
Less than one lap after Bruckner was caught, Saturn rider No. 2 broke away. This time it was German Petra Rossner, who quickly gained 15 seconds. Again, however, AutoTrader.com shut it down.
That’s when Millward made her move. With two laps to go, Millward, wearing the yellow leader’s jersey, put on an attack and went clear by 23 seconds. When the Australian was reeled in on the final lap, she could have sat up and taken satisfaction in the overall win, but instead she put herself at the front of the sprint, and when Saturn’s designated sprinter Rossner couldn’t find Millward’s wheel, she just took care of it herself.
“I thought Petra would be on my wheel, but she never came around me,” Millward said.
As for Saturn’s dominance, Millward said the team’s not about to get complacent. “We still have to keep on our toes,” she warned.
But on this weekend, which ended for the road racers on a sunny day in Monterey, Saturn knocked everyone else right off their feet. In the three days of men’s racing, Mercury and U.S. Postal kept looking at each other, while Saturn just kept attacking. And in the women’s racing, no one could touch Millward, who after this weekend, will return her focus to the World Cup series.
MERCURY SEA OTTER CLASSIC, March 22-25
Laguna Seca Circuit Race
1. Baden Cooke (Aus), Mercury, 72km in 1:45:19; 2. Jamie Drew (Aus), Mercury; 3. Gorik Gardeyn (B), Lotto-Adecco; 4. Jeroen Blijlevens (Nl), Lotto-Adecco; 5. Vassily Davidenko (Rus), Navigators; 6. Antonio Cruz, U.S. Postal; 7. Soren Petersen (Dk), Saturn; 8. Christopher Baldwin, Navigators; 9. Steve Cate, Mercy; 10. Joel Chavez (Cu), Wheel Works-Cannondale, all s.t.
1. Trent Klasna, Saturn, 8:44:19; 2. Eddy Gragus, Jelly Belly, at 1:44; 3. Vladimir Miholjevic (Cz), KRA-Telekom Slovenia, at 1:45; 4. Petersen, at 2:13; 5. Scott Moninger, Mercury, at 2:17; 6. Levy Leipheimer, U.S. Postal Service, at 2:18; 7. Chris Horner, Mercury, at 2:27; 8. Harm Jansen (Nl), Saturn, at 2:35; 9. Danny Pate, Prime Alliance, at 3:40; 10. Mark McCormack, Saturn, at 4:19.
1. Anna Millward (Aus), Saturn, 1:03:24; 2. Laura Van Gilder, TalgoAmerica.com; 3. Petra Rossner (G), Saturn; 4. Jenny Eyerman, Jane Cosmetics; 5. Ann Samplonious (Can), Intersports; 6. Sandy Espeseth (Can), Intersports; 7. Katrina Berger, 800.com; 8. Catherine Cardwell, Jane Cosmetics; 9. Judith Arndt (G), German National; 10. Stacey Peters, 800.com, all s.t.
1. Millward, 5:31:11; 2. Kimberly Bruckner, Saturn, at 1:01; 3. Kimberly Smith, Autotrader.com, at 2:05; 4. Arndt, at 2:20; 5. Espeseth, at 3:10; 6. Anke Erlank, Saturn, at 3:25; 7. Berger, at 3:51; 8. Peters, at 4:59; 9. Jimena Florit (Arg), Autotrader.com, at 6:30; 10. Julie Young, Autotrader.com.