June 15, 2009 (Stillwater, Minn) – The Nature Valley Grand Prix is one of the few North American races in which men and women share equal billing. Before the final stage, I stopped by the small lot in which the Webcor Builders riders were going through their prerace routines. Team Webcor would be trying to defend Alexis Rhodes’ second place on GC. Having soloed to victory in Saturday’s Stage 5, the Aussie trailed Kristin Armstrong by 11 seconds. Victoria’s Erinne Willock was chowing down on some snacks. She’d need all the fuel she could get, as Stage 6 would be all about power. It’s called the Stillwater Criterium, but on every lap riders must tackle the infamous Chilkoot Hill. 14 ascents up the climb averaging an 18% grade (and reaching a brutal 22%) makes this anything but a traditional crit.
I’ve never seen those before. How are they?
Erinne Willock: They’re PowerBar Energy Bites, you get energy from these. I’ve had about two of these so far, they’re pretty good.
So the team had a bad day on Stage 3 but then turned things around yesterday, when Alexis Rhodes had a great ride. Talk about the turnaround.
EW: Yeah, we came in Wednesday and had a good day and then Thursday we lost 7 out of our 8 riders from the top group (in crashes) so everything on GC was gone! So yeah, we just came into Friday racing every day as a one-day race pretty much, you know, never leaving the hope of coming back on GC but not being a main priority. And (Saturday) it just so happened that everybody raced hard and was attacking and doing their job and it worked out. And Alex raced like an all-star yesterday!
That was a pretty tough stage – what did it take to come from way down on GC to 2nd overall?
EW: It’s just a good team, everybody’s got a positive attitude and we just didn’t give up, which is pretty cool! Everybody’s got sore necks and backs and scrapes but we didn’t give up, we just on kept fighting. And Alex just dug in deep and she was out there all day – well, for quite a while of the day.
How tough is this course up Chilkoot Hill – pretty fun, eh?
EW: (Big laugh)… um, yeah,…it’s a tough one, sooo….
Alexis Rhodes: (from the chair next to Erinne) I wouldn’t use that F-word to describe it, actually I’d use another F-word. It’s definitely not fun!
EW: No, not the fun f-word (huge laugh from Erinne.) Yeah, I mean we’ve got second on GC, we’ve got Best Young Rider (also Rhodes) and we’re here to keep that and maybe improve on that, but definitely keep that, that’s our goal. You know, it’s gonna be a hard day. Everybody’s gonna race their bikes here.
Is this the type of course where you can help as a team or is it in some ways up to Alexis herself to get up that F-in’ hill?
EW: Hah! Yeah, I mean Alex has to have a decent day, you know, she’s gotta make it up the hill. But we also have one of the strongest teams here to help her out on it. And Alex has been riding so strong, she’s proved herself that she could do it. So we were 100% behind her today.
Then I moved over a couple of feet to where Vancouver’s Gina Grain was enjoying some tunes from her iPod…
What are you listening to?
Gina Grain: Right now I’m listening to… let me just see… (looks at iPod.)
EW: Techno, it’s always techno with Gina.
GG: Yes, it’s techno. It’s Rack Funk, Future Music Festival. Lots of deep bass.
So how will that help power you up Chilkoot Hill 13 times?
GG: (Deadpan) Uh, get into a rhythm of power.
What are your feelings about this course?
GG: We have one of the strongest teams here – this course is going to suit our riders so we can finish off the job that we started yesterday.
Were you pretty impressed with what Alexis did yesterday?
GG: No, no not really actually (laughs.) I’m not impressed because I knew that she could do it (laughs). I’m super impressed but it didn’t surprise me, she’s a superstar. Pretty average for being off the front for like 40 miles on your own and then ripping it up on the circuits, dropping everybody.
Good luck helping her defend that. Any chance of overtaking Kristin?
GG: You know what? There’s always a chance:
EW: We moved from 40th to 2nd yesterday, so there’s always a chance.
Alright, good luck.
Well, the best-laid plans of mice, men and bike racers sometimes go awry… Alexis Rhodes had burned most of her matches in Stage 5’s epic effort and didn’t have it in her to stay with the leaders on the circuits up Chilkoot Hill. She finished 14th on the day, dropping from 2nd to 10th on the final GC but no doubt, the young Aussie will be heard from again. Willock stayed with Rhodes for most of the day, finishing 15th. Her best placing of the week was 3rd in the Stage 1 Time Trial. Grain was 47th on the day, as the wall-like course didn’t suit her sprinting talents. Her best finish of Nature Valley was 3rd in Wednesday’s Downtown Saint Paul Criterium, Stage 2.
Andrew Pinfold (OUCH)
In the men’s race, defending champion Rory Sutherland of Team OUCH entered the final day seven seconds behind Bissell’s Tom Zirbel, who’d worn the leader’s jersey since winning Wednesday’s opening Time Trial. The men would race up Chilkoot Hill 21 times, but conventional wisdom was that seven seconds was a lot of time to pick up over a strongman like Zirbel surrounded by an impressive Bissell team. Breaks went away, but the Bissell and OUCH squads patrolled the front of the main peloton, controlling the pace. On the penultimate ascent up Chilkoot, Sutherland gave it one last strong effort, attacking and dropping Zirbel, to take 10 seconds from the Yellow Jersey and the overall victory by a mere three seconds. Canada’s Andrew Pinfold (OUCH) was visible all day toward the front of the peloton, helping pave the way for Sutherland’s dramatic win.
Team Symmetrics always raced Tour de Beauce at this time so you never had a chance to race here before. What are your impressions?
Andrew Pinfold: Well, certainly Beauce is a slog and this is a real sprint, you know? It’s sort of the quintessential American stage race – it’s just short and hard. So I’m happy to be here with the team and even happier that we won.
Today’s stage is called a criterium but it’s not really your type of criterium with a sprint finish, but you were at the front most of the race. What did you think?
AP: (Laughs.) Yeah… I mean a lot of it is position and we established early on that we were going to be at the front, behind Bissell. Our plan was always to execute what we did today so that meant we needed guys at the front, and to be honest, if you were riding close enough to the front you can carry a lot of momentum, maybe halfway up the hill and you only have to pedal hard for maybe ten seconds and then after that you slot back in. So for me it wasn’t too bad and it enabled me to be able to ride to the finish.
Rory was the defending champion here and you guys had the onus on you to try to repeat. What’s it like to have succeeded in that?
AP: Well, yeah, all year we’ve had big shoes to fill based on the expectations that Team HealthNet set for this program last year. And we have a little bit different composition of guys so I think we’re learning that we can’t do it exactly the way HealthNet did it, but we have a different skillset and if we use that to the maximum we will be able to win a lot of bike races.
You were on the podium with a 3rd place on Stage 4 here… and actually when I was in Mexico City covering the World Baseball Classic (in March) I looked in the paper and there you were winning a stage at the Vuelta Mexico.
AP: Oh, really?
Yeah. What’s been your high point this so far this season?
AP: Well, I think the high point is obviously today, winning. You know, getting the podium, I’m always happy to get on the podium. But I think what was most exciting for me apart from winning the race is just to come into this race the last day with a very firm plan and be able to execute it. And I think that it wasn’t by luck, it was well planned out and that’s the overall highlight. We also won Joe Martin”¦ and at Philadelphia for me, personally, I can’t wait to get back there because I think that I can only build on my 10th place there. But for now we’ll try to get some momentum going into the second part of the season.
It had to feel good back in March as a newbie on the team to win a stage – to accomplish what you were brought in to do?
AP: Yeah, I mean my job certainly is to win sprints and in Mexico, you know, seems like it was years ago because it was my last win, but that’s why I was brought on to this program – to win sprints and to be able to do that is always exciting, especially on this team. On Symmetrics bunch sprints and lead outs wasn’t our strength, but on this team, I’m really fortunate because if I’m riding well I’ll get full support from the guys and the same goes for anyone else on this team. But it’s nice in the sprints to have guys like John Murphy and Karl Menzies to lead me out because they’re some of the fastest guys here as well.
How’s the ambiance on the team?
AP. Oh, it’s a lot of fun! Coming from the program like Symmetrics where we had great camaraderie and and a great fraternity of guys, coming to training camp I was optimistic but a bit skeptical that we’d be able to recreate that. But that’s what we have, and we have a lot of fun on the road – it’s a great bunch of guys.
Do you keep in touch with your old teammates?
AP: Yes I keep in touch with everybody from Symmetrics. Fortunately everyone got picked up. I don’t get to talk to Svein (Tuft) and Christian (Meier) as much as I would like because they’re overseas (with Garmin-Slipstream). But Will (Routley of Jelly Belly) was at this race and we had a chat and (I keep in touch with) all the guys at Kelly Benefits (Zach Bell, Jake Erker and Ryan Anderson). so it’s really nice to be able to see those guys and we’re all still great friends. In October we kind of had an end of Symmetrics party and I think that fingers crossed we’ll hopefully be able to do that every year in the fall. I mean we all live in really close proximity (in BC.)
Sounds great! Thank you very much for your time and all the best.