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Nature Valley Grand Prix Stage 5 Menomonie Road Race Interviews, Photos – Willock, Erker, Kirchmann

by Amy Smolens

June 19, 2011 (Menomonie, WI)- Last year, Victoria’s Erinne Willock (TIBCO/To the Top) won the challenging Menomonie Road Race at the Nature Valley Grand Prix’s first venture into Wisconsin. Could lightning strike twice? When I came upon Willock by the Team TIBCO vehicles before the race, she was talking to her teammates about the course, explaining its intricacies and difficulties. Then she went to work writing herself a cue sheet with mileage markers. Willock is 8th on GC at 48 seconds behind Kristin Armstrong, and after her prep work was finished I spoke to her…


You’re 48 seconds behind Armstrong and with what you know about the course (winning here last year) and that she could be less than 100% following yesterday’s crash, do you think you can pick up that much time on this stage?
Erinne Willock: Yeah, I think definitely it’s a possibility. It’s a hard course out there, lots of rolling hills. It’s unfortunate that people are hurt and stuff like that, but they’re here, they’re racing and we’ll be giving it a go and wanting to gain some time, and hopefully we’ll get rid of some of the sprinters and move ahead in GC.

I saw you talking the team through some of the details and writing notes for yourself. Talk about your expertise on this course and what you’re able to pass on to them.
EW: Right, well, we have four KOMs today and the third is probably the hardest. That’s where I got away last year, up and over the top of that third one. So we’re going to be aggressive today, we’re going to be hoping for a breakaway or a small group finish and again – win the stage or move up in GC.

Does it give you confidence knowing that you won the race before?
EW: Um, you know, every year’s a different year and this year there’s definitely a good group of girls here and a lot of good riders so we’ll see. It’s a good course for me and hopefully it’ll go well for TIBCO today.

Thank you and good luck!
EW: Thank you!

POST-RACE – Full results HERE

Former Canadian Symmetrics rider Jake Erker is now Performance Manager for the Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth squad. He was in the team vehicle when Jesse Anthony finished 2nd on the stage and took over the race lead. I caught up with Jake behind the podium before Anthony donned the yellow Jersey:

Great job out there today.
Jacob Erker: Heh heh heh!

When did you guys think that the break could stick and that you could get rid of the UHC guys?
JE: Well, the first goal was to just isolate United on the climbs. They’ve got a lot of fast crit guys here. We kind of saw that we could put them a little on the ropes in Cannon Falls yesterday so today was up and down all day. As soon as the KOMs hit, we just wanted to hit ’em as many times as we could and try to blow as many of their guys out as possible. We managed to get rid of everybody except for Rory (Sutherland, in 2nd place on GC going into the stage, and 3-time defending race champion) and that was fine because we still had good numbers. All the teams had good numbers against Rory and as long as everyone was willing to hit him again then we could take care of him – then the rest of the guys would continue to work for the GC, and so it worked great, yeah.

When did you realize that Jesse had a chance for the yellow jersey?
JE: I mean we knew that he could be leader on the road. (Tom) Zirbel was there (Jamis-Sutter Home, 3rd on GC after Stage 4) and he was a danger, but once it split again and he wasn’t there then Jesse knew he was leader on the road and we just had to watch a couple of guys (Andres) Diaz (Team Exergy) and Bernard (Van Ulden of Jelly Belly) and then we thought about the time bonuses here as well.

We’re in Wisconsin, near Kelly Benefit Strategies’ headquarters so this is Kelly Benefit Strategies’ home race. What does it mean for Jesse to wear the yellow jersey in this particular race?
JE: Yeah, this is the home town (meaning Minneapolis, Minnesota) of OptumHealth so this is a very important race for us. And it’s the home town of our management team, we have a lot of sponsors here, we’ve got Kurt Kinetic, and we’ve got a number of other sponsors that are all in the area. And OptumHealth is sponsoring the race as well so this is the biggest race of the year for us and now we’re leading so we’re extremely happy.

Thanks, congratulations.
JE: Thank you.


If any cycling fan doesn’t know about the self-described “professional cyclist from the prairies” now, they’re not paying attention to the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Leah Kirchmann is the Canadian National Criterium and U23 National Road Champion, and has more than lived up to those titles this week here in the Midwest.

She has been in a breakaway in every stage, often pushing the pace and animating the action. The Winnipeger will turn 21 later this month, but on today’s stage alone she accomplished more than many riders a decade older have. Her Menomonie haul included the Wheaties Fuel Sprint Jersey (black), the Jelly Belly Sport Beans Queen of the Hill Jersey (jelly beans for polka dots), and the TRIA Orthopedics Center Best Young Rider Jersey (white).

She also moved into 3rd place on GC, behind former World TT Champion Amber Neben (HTC-Columbia) and Olympian Erinne Willock. Oh, and did I mention that she won the stage in a sprint from a group of seven strong riders? Kirchmann was happy to talk to me as she waited behind the podium for the ceremonies to begin.

You’ve been knocking on the door and been in breaks all week and your persistence finally paid off!
Leah Kirchmann: (Laughs) Yeah, I seemed to be in all the early breaks this week! I just saw the early one go up the road (in today’s stage) and I was looking for one of my teammates. I didn’t see anybody out there so I just made a decision to jump across to it. I didn’t think it would stay way the whole time but then it ended up working out great for me at the end.

Good composition of the break with Amber and Erinne, who wanted to move up on GC.
LK: Yeah, definitely. When the break originally went, they weren’t in it and so I was actually the virtual leader on the road for a while and then when they came across that’s when the break was more likely to stay away because they were up there in GC.

What was your strategy in the final sprint, how did you play it?
LK: For the final sprint, during the final laps I could sit on the back because really the TIBCO and HTC teams were interested in keeping the time gap as big as possible so I could sort of sit at the back and wait for the sprint to play out. I saw Erinne go and then Amber jumped after her, so I went with them and then held it to the line.

Where does this win rank among the victories in your career?
LK: Oh, really high, yeah! My first NRC win was last weekend in a crit so I’d rank this really high in my career!

You have a closet full of jerseys – Best Young Rider, the Sprint Leader, the Climber. What’s it like to have all these jerseys in a prestigious race like this?
LK: It’s really amazing (laughs,) I have never even had a jersey or worn a jersey like this. I can’t remember if I’ve ever had one before so it’s really cool. Especially the climbing jersey because I don’t necessarily consider myself a climber, so maybe that’s changing, maybe I’m becoming a better climber!

Congratulations on a great day.
LK: Thank you!


Erinne Willock followed up last year’s winning performance in Menomonie with one almost as good, 2nd place. But she jumped from 8th place on GC to 2nd, now trailing only HTC-High Road’s Amber Neben, and picked up the Freewheel Bike Most Aggressive Rider for Stage 5.

So you knew what was coming, you gave the team the lowdown before the race and it seems to have paid off for you and the entire team.
Erinne Willock: Yeah, it definitely did. We were in there from the start, Megan (Guarnier) and Sam (Samantha Schneider) were in the early break, I was able to bridge up, but Joëlle (Numainville) kept a good pace on the climb, she was over the top with the climbers. It was really a team effort today. We had three girls in the break that were able to drive it, with the help of HTC, you know? We moved up on GC and we were together.

Knowing that Amber was in the break for the overall and Leah for the stage win, what was your strategy? Did you think of attacking and going for the stage win?
EW: You know, more than anything I wanted to move up in GC. I knew that there was a chance to move up to the podium in GC and that was our goal. Obviously a stage podium is as well and I went for that, but Leah didn’t do any work all day, which is fine – that’s the way the game goes and she’s a good sprinter and she won the sprint. So yeah, congratulations to Leah, but our goal was to move up overall in GC and that’s what we did today.

And now you’re in second overall, right?
EW: I believe so, I haven’t heard official results, but that’s what we’ve heard.

Is that a good position, given what you know about tomorrow’s stage in Stillwater?
EW: Definitely, yeah, we’re happy with that for sure.

EW: Thanks!

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