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Recent U.S. champions Zirbel, Rodriguez headline Nature Valley GP

A number of national champions will be on hand for the annual race in Minnesota

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Several newly crowned national champions, including Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Jade Wilcoxson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Carmen Small (Specialized-lululemon) will be on hand to show their new stars and stripes jerseys at the 15th running of the Nature Valley Grand Prix starting Wednesday. Zirbel and Wilcoxson are particularly focused on this year’s race, given that their team’s title sponsor, Optum, is located in Golden Valley, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis.

“It’s a road bike TT, but it’s a TT,” said Zirbel about his first opportunity to wear his national champion’s skinsuit. “Obviously that’s a big objective for the team because we have a lot of our sponsors in Minneapolis, including Optum, so we have to bring our ‘A’ game there.”

The men’s field is smaller in years past due to a scheduling conflict with the UCI-sanctioned Tour de Beauce. Only a handful of professional teams, including Jelly Belly, Jamis-Hagens Berman, and Optum, are sending full squads to this year’s event. Several top amateur teams, including CashCall Mortgage, California Giant, and Elbowz Racing, will attempt to play spoiler throughout the five-day event.

U.S. professional road race champion Freddie Rodriguez is bringing his young Jelly Belly squad as the team starts its bid to obtain invites to the U.S. summer stage races like the USA Pro Challenge and the Tour of Utah. Without United HealthCare to dominate the criteriums, Rodriguez will face stiff competition from other top sprinters, including former UCI WorldTour rider J.J. Haedo (Jamis) and two-time Olympic medalist Leon van Bon, who will be guest riding for Mt. Borah-Minerva Design-Basso.

Van Bon, who raced for several U.S. and European teams over the last 20 years, is in the states to race at the Nature Valley Fixed Gear Classic. Several other contenders for the GC, including Chad Haga (Optum), will be lining up, hoping recent showings at the Amgen Tour of California could be promising for overall victory at a smaller-scale event.

In the women’s field, national road race champion Jade Wilcoxson and her Optum squad will be running at full strength with a roster that includes sprinter Lauren Hall and veteran all-around rider Janel Holcomb. Fresh off a second-place finish to Wilcoxson at the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road Race National Championship, Hall will prove to be a threat in multiple stages, including the penultimate stage, the Stillwater Criterium. Chilkoot Hill, which carries a 24 percent grade and was named after Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass, will greet the riders that day.

Small, the reigning Nature Valley champion, will bring a squad composed of regular teammates and several guest riders. The recent winner in the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Time Trial National Championship, Small attributes her recent high-profile victories at Gatineau and nationals to the professionalism of her new team.

“They take everything to the next level,” Small said. “We have the best equipment, we have the best skin suits, booties, everything is taken to a different level and it makes a difference.”

Shelley Olds (Tibco-To the Top) will present the biggest threat to the Specialized and Optum squads. Olds, who took fourth place at last year’s Olympics, won Nature Valley in 2010 and knows the course well. The mix of hard road races and criteriums suits Olds, and with a strong team in tow that includes Meredith Miller, Rushlee Buchanan, and Claudia Haeusler, she will be a threat in every stage.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix begins Wednesday morning with the St. Paul Riverfront time trial, a short, 7.7-mile course that riders must complete on their road bikes. Racing continues Wednesday evening at the Downtown St. Paul Criterium, a five-corner criterium known for its speed and sections of brick road.

Riders head out of town on Thursday for the Cannon Falls Road Race, a rolling, 90-mile circuit that finishes with several laps of downtown Cannon Falls. Friday’s racing moves back downtown for the Uptown Minneapolis Criterium, a six-corner criterium known for its rowdy Friday night crowds and fast finishing straight.

Saturday’s queen stage, the Menomonie Road Race, is dotted with several punchy climbs that will be sure to split the professional teams from their challengers. Many riders consider Sunday’s Stillwater Criterium as the make-or-break stage, and the GC winner always finishes with the first group.

While weather often plays a role at Nature Valley, as several past stages have been canceled due to torrential rains and tornados, forecasts are calling for clear skies and summer temperatures this week.