With the Tour of California moving to May this year, the first major test of the U.S. racing calendar returns to late March in Redlands, California.
While the top North American teams blew the pipes out down the road in San Dimas last weekend, the Redlands Bicycle Classic, which kicks off the National Racing Calendar and Women’s Prestige Series this year, is the true kickoff for national-level racing in the States.
Fly V Australia flexed its muscles at San Dimas, proving its place among the elite squads in VeloNews’ preseason domestic rankings, which hit newsstands this week. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and her HTC-Columbia teammates showed their usually dominant Southern California form, grabbing the overall on the final day. That dominance may, however, be challenged as what could arguably be the strongest women’s peloton in recent years takes the start Thursday in Redlands.
Foremost in many observers’ minds is the impact that the USA Cycling radio ban will have on the racing. Redlands is the first major event to run under the new ban and, if San Dimas was any indication, the racing on the front end of the bunch will carry on as usual, albeit a bit more fun for the peloton, as they return to the instinctual riding that brought them to the pro ranks. You can lead a horse to water, after all, but you can’t make it win stage races.
On to Redlands
The roads in and around Redlands have been the launch pad for the careers of top U.S. professional riders, as well as a showcase of topflight talent, since the early 1980’s.
Titans like Davis Phinney, Scott Moninger and Evgeniy Berzin led their 7-Eleven, Crest and the Russian teams to dominating rides when the race was contested over Memorial Day weekend. Chris Horner won a stage in 1996 and the overall four times – in 2000 and 2002-04 – riding in different sponsor colors each year. Christian Vande Velde took the overall in 1999, his second year as a professional with U.S. Postal. 2009 overall winner Jeff Louder has made the leap to Girona, Spain as his BMC Racing Team has ascended to the sport’s elite.
Linda Jackson, now the director of Team Tibco, scored an opening stage win in 1994, three years before she won the Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin. Six years later, fellow Canadian and 2010 Vancouver Olympics flag bearer Clara Hughes took one of her final road wins in the stage 5 road race in 2000 before turning her full-time focus to speed skating. Defending champion Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (HTC-Columbia) will return to Redlands this week in search of her seventh stage win since 2003.
The 3.1-mile Sun Time Trial kicks the racing off and is a short, uphill affair, somewhat similar to the Glendora Mountain TT much of the peloton faced on opening day in San Dimas less than a week ago.
Ben Day (Fly V Australia) and Mara Abbott (Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12) won on Glendora and will be tough to beat. Expect to see Andrew Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Cesar Grajales (Bahati Foundation), Chris Baldwin and Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) near the front of the GC Thursday night. Thursday could belong to Fly V Australia, however, as Phil Zajicek and Jai Crawford could join Day for a podium sweep.
Two-time prologue winner Amber Neben will be at the start of the women’s test as a guest rider with Dare to Be/BMW-Bianchi; she and Evelyn Stevens (HTC-Columbia) should give Abbott the biggest run for her money.
Since its inclusion in 2008 as a replacement for the traditional Oak Glen route, the stage 1 Beaumont Road Race has proven to be decisive. Santiago Botero, Louder and Teutenburg each won the stage en route to overall wins.
The circuit sees an update this year with the addition of the Banning Bench KOM just 9.6 miles into the first lap. The 4.5-mile climb tops out at just five percent grade and should loosen the legs up without pushing many riders out of the bunch. With the chance for strong, unpredictable winds and hard racing, the Beaumont stage is always ripe for a breakaway win.
Grajales and Sutherland showed their early form when they jumped away from the peloton with Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home), Davide Frattini (Team Type 1) and Neil Shirley (Kelly Benefit Strategies) on the final lap of stage 1 in San Dimas. The closing laps of the circuit are well suited to a similar escape – look for U23 national road champion Alex Howes (Holowesko Partners), Ben Jacques Maynes (Bissell) or the Bahati Foundation tandem of Jason Donald and Nathan O’Neill to sneak onto any move that goes in the final lap.
If the winds align and the right move develops, riders like Katharine Carroll (Peanut Butter & Co.), Joanne Kiesanowski (Tibco) and Alex Wrubleski (Webcor) are proven closers in the women’s tilt. The circuits will most likely deliver a larger group to the finish, however, and Tibco’s Brooke Miller may be in the hunt for her first Redlands win ahead of the Spring Classics.
Stage 2 returns to Redlands Saturday afternoon for the technical, nine-corner City of Redlands Criterium. The elongated figure-eight track is mostly flat and will likely lead to bunch sprints for the men and women. However, as both fields learned in 2009, the tricky cornering heading into the finish straight can put riders on the ground – Colavita-Sutter Home and Jelly Belly – or off the front – Teutenberg.
The men’s sprint field is loaded; most teams in the running will brandish two or more potent weapons and with the technical nature of the run-in, look for ghost attacks and long lead outs. Hilton Clarke (Bahati Foundation) showed that he can still finish with the best in San Dimas.
He’ll team up with Rahsaan Bahati to face off against Jonathan Cantwell and Bernie Sulzberger (Fly V Australia), Karl Menzies and Andrew Pinfold (UnitedHealthcare) and Alejandro Borrajo and Ivan Dominguez (Jamis-Sutter Home). Cantwell won the same match-up, minus Pinfold, two weeks ago at the Tour de Murrieta.
It is hard to pick against Teutenberg in the women’s field, although Miller, Kelly Benjamin (Colavita-Baci) and Coryn Rivera (Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12) should tender a strong counter offer.
The bulk of Sunday’s main event, the Beaver Medical Group Sunset Road Race, follows a 6.5-mile circuit near Redlands that features more than 500 vertical feet of climbing per lap. The men will face the circuit 12 times for a total of more than 6,000 feet of climbing, while the women repeat the loop nine times.
Only the elite should remain on the front when the peloton returns to downtown Redlands for the finish on Saturday’s criterium course. In 2009, the men’s race saw just 21 riders make it onto the finishing circuit. The usual protagonists should feature, though the strong all-arounders, like 2008 winner Borrajo and Brad White (UnitedHealthcare), most often finish the Sunset stage off while the climbers battle for GC position.
The same holds for the women’s finish. Eventual NRC champion Alison Powers ripped away from the leaders in the descent to the finish in 2009. While Powers is holding her fitness for later in the season this year, teammate Alexis Rhodes or Wrubleski could steal a win ahead of riders likely driving the pace earlier in the day in the hunt for the overall.
Prologue Thursday, March 25: The Sun Time Trial, 3.1 miles (men and women)
Stage 1 Friday March 26: The City of Beaumont Road Race, 105.75 miles (men)/68 miles (women)
Stage 2 Saturday, March 27: The City of Redlands Criterium, 90 minutes (men)/60 minutes (women)
Stage 3 Sunday, March 28: The Beaver Medical Group Sunset Road Race, 94.1 miles (men) /68.3 miles (women)
After his 2009 win, Louder called Redlands an “all-American bike race.” His sentiment captures the event perfectly as we roll into the season like days of old. With Redlands and San Dimas in the rear view mirror next week, we should have a solid picture of how the U.S. peloton will shake out for much of 2010.