U.S. scene this week: dirt, money and contracts

This week, the U.S. racing scene is about three things: dirt, criterium prize money and an amateur spot at Nature Valley.

This week, the U.S. racing scene is about three things: dirt, criterium prize money and an amateur spot at Nature Valley.

The men’s National Racing Calendar makes its second stop of the year, this time at the Dana Point Grand Prix in California, while the Nature Valley Grand Prix Pro Ride qualifiers start with the Hillsboro-Roubaix in Illinois and the Rock Hill Bicycle Club Classic in the Carolinas. Back-to-back weekends of classics-style dirt racing at the Tour of the Battenkill kick off as well with the Pro/Am events in Upstate New York.

NRC back on the short track
Following a week of recovery and local racing, the nation’s top men’s sprint squads will descend on Dana Point Saturday for the first day of the newly expanded race weekend. The grand prix is in its fourth year and grows to two days this year en route to a planned expansion within two years to a three-day stage race featuring a time trial, road race and criterium.

Day one features a 2.25-mile time trial that follows mostly flat roads to the base of the short Cove Road climb, which reaches 18-plus-percent grade near the top. The TT course should favor riders like Jonathan Cantwell or Brad White, both confirmed to take the start, although the sprinters may hold back for the $15,000 purse in Sunday’s criterium.

Sunday’s criterium will feature a slew of primes, including a high-dollar prime with seven laps to go. Primes in last year’s race topped $4,000 and the event promoters hope they can shake the race up with late, top-dollar incentives. Rahsaan Bahati and Hilton Clarke (Bahati Foundation) will be at Dana Point — Bahati won here in 2009 and Clarke won both of the national-level criteriums in 2010. They’ll face the Fly V Australia tandem of Cantwell and Ben Kersten, both with criterium wins this year, as well as Karl Menzies and Andrew Pinfold (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis).

The UHC sprint train has been derailed early this season. In the final corner of the Redlands Criterium, Clarke jumped Menzies, while Rory Sutherland, hunting the finish line time bonus, tangled late with eventual winner Alejandro Borrajo on the final stage. Director Gord Fraser’s fast men will be motivated to turn close calls into a win Sunday; the question lies in whether anyone can top an on-form Clarke right now.

The Casa Dana Group is partnering with local Cox Cable to produce a live webcast of the men’s pro event. Tune into at 4:00 p.m. (PDT) Saturday to follow the action.

Getting dirty
Across the country and a world away in character, the first of two weekends at the Tour of the Battenkill opens Saturday. The big dogs won’t show in Upstate New York until the following week for the invitational race, but the local pros and top amateurs will face 82 miles with roughly 25 percent of those miles rolling over dirt roads on Saturday.

In Battenkill-related news, the Bahati Foundation team has pulled out of the professional invitational on April 16 in order to focus their resources on the Sunny King Criterium in Alabama. The team’s appearance in Alabama will include a foundation-related outreach project and the team has decided that that event trumps their participation in the sixth running of America’s growing spring classic. Manager Steve Owens tells VeloNews that team member Bobby Lea, who spent more than 100 miles in the winning breakaway in 2009, will ride with a local composite team in the event.

Picking up the granola
The Nature Valley Grand Prix Pro Ride, a series of events used to select the Nature Valley Cycling Team, kicks off this weekend. Top amateurs (Cat. 1 men and Cat. 1 or 2 women) in the qualifying events will join the Nature Valley team at the grand prix June 16-20 in Minnesota.

The Pro Ride series visits Hillsboro, Illinois, Saturday for the Hillsboro Roubaix, a one-day race in the same vein as Battenkill. The roads of Hillsboro are smooth, though riders will face a series of short, punchy climbs on the circuit and with the sought after spot at Nature Valley on the line, riders will be shelling out every ounce of punishment they can muster.

The Rock Hill Classic omnium qualifier comprises the Patriot’s Trail Road Race on Saturday and Old Town Criterium at Winthrop Lake on Sunday. The road race is a rolling affair in Northern South Carolina. The rarely flat terrain of the road race, combined with the Nature Valley spot on the line should make the racing at Rock Hill every bit as dodgy as Hillsboro.

Full steam ahead
Looking forward, we’re off and rolling toward the heart of the early U.S. racing season. Battenkill, Sunny King, USA Crits Speedweek, the SRAM Tour of the Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race are all less than a month away.

VeloNews named Battenkill one of the five biggest days of racing in early 2009. The Garmin-Transitions trio of Tom Danielson, Danny Pate and Dave Zabriskie will fly the DZ Nuts flag at Gila. The U.S. scene is heating up and spring’s only just begun.