By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Twenty-five-year-old Ernie Lechuga picked out a true classic for his first big win since coming back from testicular cancer last year. The DeFeet-LeMond rider added his name to the long list of top riders who have won the Nevada City Classic when he beat out Jelly Belly’s Damon Kluck in the Northern California race, June 24.
“So many famous people have won this race, and I’m hoping one day I’ll be one of those famous riders,” said Lechuga, whose co-sponsor Greg LeMond is one of those former winners.
Lechuga was well on his way three years ago, as one of the top under-23 riders in the U.S., when his career was interrupted by cancer late in 1998. But Lechuga made a solid return last year with the Mercury team, and the win at Nevada City was another rung climbed in the comeback. “I won a local criterium last year,” he said, “but this is a little bigger, just because of the course, and the name of the race.”
Last year, Lechuga wasn’t under much pressure from his team, but he had a definite role to play whenever he raced. “Last year was a comeback year,” he said. “It was pretty hard. On Mercury, I had to work a lot. That really helped me, just to go out and set tempo for Gord Fraser or whoever was the team leader. I did that every race.”
This year, Lechuga was set to ride for the Mexican Tecos squad, which had planned to be Division II. However, when the team wasn’t able to get that status, Lechuga opted instead for the U.S.-based DeFeet-LeMond team. After three months of warm-weather training in Mexico over the winter, Lechuga raced solidly in the spring, and then a trip to the Tour of Croatia and Tour of Slovenia in May gave him some good race miles heading into First Union week. All of those long, hard racing miles paid off in Nevada City.
Nevada City fell victim to the cancellation of the BMC San Jose race this year, losing its NRC status and forcing it to be rescheduled from May to June. As a result, not all of the top U.S. pro teams were in attendance, especially with most of the top women’s teams racing in Idaho. However, thanks to a late media blitz, the crowds at the roadside in Nevada City were as big as ever, and Lechuga noted, “It’s always a hard race to win, just because of the course.” Lechuga had to contend with Jelly Belly and the powerful Lombardi Sports team on the grueling up-and-down circuit. In the end, he outsprinted Kluck out of a six-man breakaway, adding another milestone in a memorable setting.
41st NEVADA CITY CLASSIC, Nevada City, CA. June 24.
1. Ernie Lechuga, DeFeet-LeMond, 43 mi in 1:29:37; 2. Damon Kluck, Jelly Belly, s.t.; 3. Tim Larkin, Lombardi Sports, at 0:02; 4. Steven Tibbitts, Xmen-L.A.; 5. Adham Sbeih, Navigators, both s.t.
1. Cynthia Mommsen, Olympic Club, 27.5 mi in 0:55; 2. Caren Spore, Jane Cosmetics; 3. Lauren Smith, Spokesmen; 4. Jenny Eyerman, Jane Cosmetics; 5. Sandra Kolb, LGBRC-Ciena.