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By Mark Morical, Special to VeloNews
As if taunting them, Pilot Butte loomed in the distance as Gord Fraser and Phil Zajicek raced toward the finishing climb with the peloton closing fast behind them.
But the two riders stayed ahead of the pack, and they raced neck and neck for the mile-long climb up the steep road on the cinder cone in east Bend.
Fraser then held off Zajicek by half a bike length to claim the 118-mile stage 1 of Central Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic on Wednesday. The winning time was 4 hours, 38 minutes, 19 seconds.
The two top finishers had broken away from a lead pack of eight cyclists at the 85-mile point, and they held the gap just long enough.
“We didn’t have much left at the end,” a sweat-streaked Fraser said. “That must have been the slowest sprint ever.”
Fraser, who rides for Health Net-Maxxis, and Zajicek, who races for Navigators, are typically known as riders who set up other teammates for an overall victory. And Health Net-Maxxis and Navigators certainly brought talented teams to Central Oregon. Cesar Grajales of Navigators finished third on Wednesday, 57 seconds back, and Chris Wherry of Health Net-Maxxis crossed fourth in the same time.
“For Health Net-Maxxis, it’s always nice to start a race with a win,” Fraser said. “I don’t think this is really an indication of what’s going to happen in the GC. But for me, hey, it’s always nice to win.”
Wednesday’s stage, the Prineville Road Race, started in east Bend and took riders east through the scenic Crooked River Canyon and into the old mill town of Prineville. Once in Prineville, they did a quick loop and returned to Bend the way they came, and up Pilot Butte for the finish.
Fraser and Zajicek made their break from six other riders during a steep, hard climb through the canyon. From then on, they worked together to keep the six other riders and the peloton at bay, quickly building a minute gap on the pack of six at the 95-mile mark.
Fraser and Zajicek both live in Tucson, Arizona, and train together often.
“Gordon and I are pretty evenly matched,” said Zajicek, who was racing for the first time since April’s Tour de Georgia after breaking his heel a month ago. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It was a good battle. We knew we had to work together if we were going to stay away.”
Fraser and Zajicek fought off cramping and a strong head wind on the way back to Bend to make the fierce climb up Pilot Butte ahead of the pack.
“I was pretty sure we had it with 10K to go,” Fraser said. “It was so hard, just the two of us, and it was such a hard head wind for the last hour and a half. It made it really difficult to get up the last climb. I kind of knew I had it at the bottom of the climb (Pilot Butte). I just tried to ride as steady as possible. I know we were both cramped up pretty hard.”
In the early going on Wednesday, Chuck Coyle of Vitamin Cottage made the first move, breaking away from the peloton at the 18-mile mark. He was soon joined by five riders: Fraser, Zajicek, Jonny Sundt of Jittery Joe’s, Zachary Taylor of TIAA-CREF, and Taylor Tolleson of Cal Giant-Village Peddler. Those six riders soon gained a 10-minute lead on the rest of the pack as they made their way through the Crooked River Canyon.
On the way back to Bend, they were joined by Curtis Gunn and Kyle Gritter of Seasilver.
Shortly thereafter, Fraser and Zajicek made their break from the lead group as the peloton crept closer – but never close enough. The two riders had five minutes on the main field with 5km to go, and 90 seconds on the lead chase group, which was down to five riders after Coyle got dropped.
“I figured those guys were in the same amount of hurt as the two of us, so I was pretty confident we could stay away, but it wasn’t without a lot of hard work,” Fraser said.
Wherry, who finished fourth, said that the Health Net-Maxxis team did not have to work too hard for Fraser to earn the stage win.
“It looks like they (Zajicek and Fraser) worked really well together,” Wherry said. “We as a team really didn’t have to do too much work. Hopefully, we saved a lot of energy for the rest of the week. The team is definitely stoked.”
Wherry hasn’t raced since his win at the USPRO Championship last month, but he did not deny that the team may still set him up for the general classification.
“I don’t think my racing form is 100 percent, but it’s definitely there,” Wherry said. “Hopefully, it’ll just get better as the race goes on.”
Both Wherry and Fraser said they were impressed with Wednesday’s course, a new one for the Cascade Classic that showcases the Crooked River Canyon and the Prineville area.
“I thought it was one of the nicest stages I’ve done in a long time,” Fraser said. “I mean, that river rally was really picturesque, and it felt like a European-style stage. I give that race pretty high marks. That was an epic stage, that’s all I can say.”
Thursday’s stage, the Cascade Lakes Road Race, starts at 10 a.m. for the men and 10:30 a.m. for the women. The race takes riders past the Mount Bachelor ski area and past a chain of lakes known as the Cascade Lakes.
The finish is a climb back up to Mount Bachelor’s Sunrise Lodge. The stage is 90 miles for the men, 81.6 miles for the women.
Cascade Cycling Classic
Stage 1, Prineville Road Race
1. Gord Fraser, Health Net-Maxxis, 118mi in 4:38:19
2. Phil Zajicek, Navigators, same time
3. Cesar Grajales, Navigators, at 0:57
4. Chris Wherry, Health Net-Maxxis, s.t.
5. Nathan O’Neill, Navigators, at 1:07
6. Cameron Hughes, Subway, s.t.
7. Aaron Olson, Colavita-Sutter Home, at 1:22
8. Ben Jacques-Maynes, Kodak Gallery, at 1:23
9. Cameron Brenneman, Kahala LaGrange, s.t.
10. Neil Shirley, Seasilver, s.t.