(photo credit: Casey Gibson)
Stillwater is the stage we wait for all week long. Any riders that play it conservative during the week are likely saving it all for the final day. There are so many things that can happen. The overall can be completely shaken up. Usually only about 20 riders finish all 13 laps. It’s a big day – a really big deal. If nerves are high standing on the start line for the other stages, they’re doubled today.
Staging for Stillwater is mayhem at best. Everyone wants a front line start. The race begins at the bottom of the Chilkoot Hill, and we immediately go straight up. It’s always chaos from the gun. People drop their chain or they aren’t fast enough or whatever. Pure chaos on a 22% grade climb.
I had a good start fortunately, and my teammates did, too. Optum went to the front straightaway to control things for Carmen Small, who started the day with a 38 second advantage on the overall. Three or four laps in, Kristin McGrath (Exergy Twenty12) launched the first real attack of the race. She went away solo.
Because McGrath wasn’t a threat on the general classification, Optum was more or less okay with letting her go. They clearly were not panicking and instead just controlled things at the front. They didn’t have a ton of riders left at this point – I think there were maybe four Optum riders in the front group while McGrath was off the front. They turned themselves inside out yesterday to protect Carmen’s lead, and they weren’t full force today as a result.
Kristin opened up her gap as the laps ticked down. With eight laps left to race, she had nearly a minute on the field. Her solo move neutralized our group. No one wanted to do Optum’s work for them, and all the teams seemed pretty content to sit behind Optum as they set a steady tempo.
We came around the corner ahead of the start/finish with seven laps remaining and saw Kristin right in front of us. With her gap creeping up steadily on each of the previously laps, we suspected she had suffered some sort of crash or mechanical. We later learned it was the latter. She had ten seconds at most as we rounded the corner, and we brought her back on the back side of the course.
Amber Neben (Specialized-lululemon) was the next to break away from the bunch. She was gone for less than a lap. Optum was more concerned about Amber’s attack because she was closer to Carmen on the overall than Kristin was.
Once Amber was back, Megan Guarnier attacked. There were six laps left to race. Megan gained a maximum of 45 seconds as Optum controlled a bunch that was quickly dwindling in size lap by lap by lap. Lindsay Myers, Vero Fortin, Amanda Miller and I had no trouble maintaining contact with the front group.
(photo credit: Jonathan Devich / epicimages.us)
We were obviously pretty stoked to have Megan up the road. It allowed us to relax slightly. Anytime anyone tried to get across, one of the four of us would follow the wheel. We’d tag onto anyone that thought they’d bridge across and sooner or later, they’d be dragged back to the field. We did a good job covering and blocking for Megan.
There was some confusion with the lap counter at the bottom of the hill, and Vero attacked on the climb with one lap to go – thinking it was the final time up the climb. When Vero attacks, she attacks hard. I knew it wasn’t the last lap, and I panicked a little as I saw her attack blow things up again. She crossed the finish and realized it wasn’t the last lap and sat up. Luckily, the false alarm didn’t damage Megan’s advantage too much.
The lap confusion continued as we rounded the corner for the final climb. I wasn’t in a great position the last time through the final corner (which I thought was maybe still one lap to go). I was behind a rider from the Mexican National Team who crashed so hard into a curb that her bike went flying. Her bike hit Lindsay before bouncing in front of me.
The bike spent enough time in the air that I had a chance to consider what would happen if I hit her bike – and I know what would happen would be TROUBLE. I swerved, and I somehow managed to avoid it, but that was the end of my race. I missed the sprint, and I couldn’t contest the final climb.
Before I launch into my own (minor) disappointment, I’ll tell you how thrilled I am for Megan. I am SO thrilled. It was a huge win, and it’s hard to ask for much more. Everyone today did a really great job. In the pre-race meeting, our director Angela van Smoorenburg had said ‘You don’t have anything, so you have nothing to lose by trying.’ – and that’s what we did. We tried, and we ended up winning the stage.
Personally, my legs were feeling the best they have felt in a long time. I felt good each time up Chilkoot, and it would have been nice to have been able to put a final stamp on the race instead of watching the race unfold in front of me on the last time up the climb. I wish I knew what would have happened if I had the chance to sprint. Even without the sprint, I managed 8th on the stage and 11th overall.
Stillwater was a great way to wrap up our week of racing in Minnesota ahead of Nationals in Augusta, Georgia next weekend. We have a strong squad for Augusta. Granted, we didn’t have the great results we had hoped for this week, but I don’t think our lack of results are an accurate reflection of we raced. I’m hopeful we can show our true colors in Augusta and walk away with a sense of accomplishment with the results to support the sentiment.
Check out the Nature Valley Grand Prix website for official reports and full results.