Hilton Clarke, Kristin McGrath victorious at Exergy Twilight Criterium

Hilton Clarke rides his train while Kristin McGrath makes the best of a late breakaway

BOISE, Idaho (VN) — Despite a good dousing of rain, both Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) and Kristin McGrath (Exergy Twenty12) won the men’s and women’s events at the 2012 installment of the Exergy Twilight Criterium in Boise Saturday.

McGrath had been a part of a late breakaway, while Clarke’s win came in traditional UnitedHealthcare fashion with a reduced “Blue Train” of three riders leading the Aussie to victory.

“It’s always before the start of a race that you don’t know whether it’s going to be wet or dry,” Clarke said after the race. “I made sure I really didn’t pump up my tires too high, so once the rain came it was kind of a relief because I could see a lot of people struggling on the wet roads. The pressure was really on while it was raining, so we were kind of feathering between keeping safe and staying in front.”

The untimely foul weather, however, didn’t prevent Boise from being a fairly animated criterium. On the men’s side of the competition, several riders, including Eric Marcotte (Elbowz), Ty Magner (BMC-Hincapie Development), Devan Dunn (CashCall Mortgage) and Jim Stemper (Kenda-5-hour Energy) each made concerted bids to escape the grip of the main field.

It wasn’t until Stemper got away — with Marcotte, Magner, Sam Bassetti (California Giant-Specialized), Oscar Clark (UnitedHealthcare of Georgia), and the Exergy duo of Carlos Alzate and Ben Chaddock — that the race situation truly stabilized.

The move was particularly important to Clark, who needed to recoup points in the fight for the orange jersey of the overall leader in the USA CRITS series. Although he was outgunned three to one by current leader Luke Keough’s Mountain Khakis-SmartStop squad, Clark managed not to be marked out of the break.

But with one lap remaining, Hilton Clarke,  his brother Jonathan and stage-race veteran Rory Sutherland put an end to the escapees’ hopes of seeing the finish line first.

“It was probably the most dangerous break we could have let go,” Clarke said. “There were just three of us there. My brother, Johnny, was really forcing the issue in the wet weather. Out of the three of us he was easily the best rider in the wet corners.

“Once it dried out there was a lot of attacks, and he and Rory could only cover so many. Personally, I have to admit that I wasn’t having the best day, but Rory and Johnny didn’t care about whether I felt good or not, they were going to bring it back and give me a shot.”

Once the bunch made the catch, a number of crashes tore through the peloton.

“There were just crashes everywhere and I think it was my experience that really got me through that situation,” said Clarke. “I made sure I stuck my wheels out into the wind and just the fact that they hesitated brought a lot of confusion. When I came out of the last corner I think I gained  from the crashes, because when I kicked and then looked under my arm I had a big, clear gap.”

With a win in Boise, Clarke has essentially put a lock on the National Criterium Calendar’s title.

“It’s been a bit of a goal of mine to win this NCC title,” he said. “It’s a difficult task because you’re doing races that clash with one another (on the schedule), so it’s a matter of getting the right mix to try and win but also be able to do some different tours during the year.”

Clarke will now join the rest of the UnitedHealthcare squad in its bid to win this year’s Tour of Utah for Sutherland.

Behind the winner, Keough took fourth place in Boise, far ahead of his chief USA CRITS rival, Clark, who finished in 30th. Keough now takes the jersey to the final race in the series — the Tour of Vail September 30 in Colorado.

McGrath wraps win in sponsor’s hometown

In the women’s event, McGrath’s surprise win came after she jumped onto a late attack, hoping to lead out teammate Theresa Cliff-Ryan.

“I wasn’t 100 percent confident that I could win out of that break,” said McGrath. “Megan Gaurnier (Tibco-To the Top) and I were both sitting on and I’m not a sprinter. And our goal going into the race had been to (help) get Theresa Cliff-Ryan the win.”

With McGrath’s team sponsor out of Boise and backing the reace, the pressure was on for them to deliver. McGrath’s escape group featured not only Guarnier, but Emily Collins (Vanderkitten-Focus) and Olivia Dillon (NOW-Novartis for MS).

Once the field caught the quartet, McGrath says she expected her role in the race to change back to a support position.

“I knew that it was going to be my turn to work for the leadout since my girls worked really hard. So right when we were caught I jumped to take the speed up.”

McGrath saw that Alison Powers had launched an attack and after instinctively going to cover that move she realized that she was in a strong position to take the finale.

“With two turns to go I looked back and realized we had this huge gap, so I thought at that point, ‘Uh oh, I’m going to have to sprint.’ I just tried to channel Theresa and everything I learned from the team and it just worked out.”

Powers hung on for second and Cliff-Ryan came across the line third. Multiple-time national criterium champion Tina Pic, who made a rare post-retirement appearance, finished in fourth.

Erica Allar, who holds the USA CRITS orange leader’s jersey, finished in sixth place. With a commanding lead in that competition, it’s almost a certainty that she will once again be crowned the series’ overall winner following the final event in Vail.