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By Rob Jones, Special to VeloNews
Gord Fraser’s smile said it all as he crossed the finish line during the Canadian national road race Sunday in Kamloops, British Columbia — the Health Net-Maxxis rider was finally the national champion, and had moved into strong contention for a spot on his country’s Olympic team.
Fraser played a waiting game in the 180km race, sprinting away from a small lead group over the top of the final hill and soloing away to the finish lline. Svein Tuft (Symmetrics) took second, with Alexandre Lavallee (Volkswagen-Trek)third.
In the women’s race, meanwhile, Lyne Bessette (Team Québec) was dominant, taking her second road title in four years. Olympic hopeful Manon Jutras (Team Québec) took second, and appears set to win the third spot on the women’s squad alongside Bessette and national time-trial champion Sue Palmer-Komar (Genesis-Scuba).
The heat that has sapped the strength of riders all week showed no signs of abating on the final day of the national championships, topping 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) during the men’s race and adding to the difficulty of a circuit that many riders, including Bessette and Fraser, called the hardest nationals course in memory. In the women’s race, only 12 riders finished on the same lap as Bessette.
The 10km circuit (12 laps for women, 18 for men) was simple in design, and incredibly hard — start and finish in the valley, in downtown Kamloops, and climb 3km out of town each lap before a quick descent. The climb went up in steps, with some portions better than 10 percent.
Prior to the start of the women’s race, the speculation was that Team Québec would try to get Jutras into position to take the remaining Olympic spot. Bessette’s position was secure, as the highest UCI-ranked Canadian woman, and Palmer-Komar, after her incredible time-trial performance, had a virtual lock on the second spot. Just one spot remained, sought by four contenders – Jutras, Geneviéve Jeanson (Rona), Anne Samplonius (Team Québec) and Amy Moore (Quark), none of whom were a dead certainty.
“My plan was to go early, make it hard, and get the group at the front smaller,” explained Bessette. Her surge on the very first climb was so strong that only Jutras, Erinne Willock (Rona) and Palmer-Komar could respond. Willock sat on for team leader Jeanson, and Palmer-Komar was struggling, still depleted from her effort in the time trial.
The gap steadily increased as the field behind splintered. Jeanson was riding with a chase group containing Moore, Samplonius, Sara Neil (Trek-Broadway) and Nicole Demars (Victory Brewing), but they were constantly losing ground, and the Rona team leader clearly did not have the legs to get up to the front group. Bessette and Jutras finally told Willock that Jeanson was not coming and that she had to contribute. The young Rona rider responded with an attack that dropped Palmer-Komar. Jutras brought Bessette back up to Willock, and they repaid her for the attack by dropping her on the fifth lap.
Bessette and Jutras rode together until the final climb, with Bessette spending the majority of the time at the front, setting a hard tempo. On the final climb, Bessette attacked, soloing in for the national title, 1:29 ahead of Jutras.
Behind, Palmer-Komar bridged up to Willock. But as she noted afterward, “my legs only had one speed today on the that climb — they had no snap.” Thus, when Willock attacked on the final climb, the first-year senior rider was en route to a bronze medal.
“It worked out perfectly, with four of us at the front.” said Bessette. “Erinne wouldn’t work, so we dropped her, and then Manon and I worked together until the last lap. We had discussed (letting) Manon win, to help her Olympic chances, but this is the nationals, and it should be the strongest rider who wins, so I attacked again on the final climb.”
Slow start and a fast finish
In the men’s race, the early pace was slower, given the 18 ascents the riders faced, but by lap five the race was beginning to take shape. A front group containing Lavallee, Dylan Sebel (Symmetrics Cycling), Alexandre Cloutier (Volkswagen-Trek), Trevor Connor (Chris Cookies-Swan Cycles), and Darren Vogler (British Columbia) had a gap of a minute on a chase group of four: Jacob Erker (Team Seasilver), Derek McMaster (Team Coastal), Andrew Randell (Jet Fuel Coffee) and Cam Evans (Symmetrics Cycling). The peloton was a further minute back.
Two laps later the two groups at the front had merged, and Eric Wohlberg (Sierra Nevada) and time-trial champion Tuft attacked from the peloton, with Fraser recognizing the danger and bridging up. They joined the lead group, while Team Québec, supporting Olympic hopefuls Charles Dionne and Dominique Perras, went to the front. The gap came down to 45 seconds, but that was as close as the chasers would get.
A lap later, the situation at the front had stabilized, with 11 riders steadily gaining ground on a disorganized chase. The front group contained Wohlberg, Fraser, Alexandre Nadeau (Volkswagen-Trek), Sebel, Tuft, Erker, Lavallee, McMaster, Randell, Marsh Cooper (Symmetrics Cycling) and Evans.
Behind, small chase groups were forming, but Walters, Dionne and Perras seemed to be watching each other, each waiting for someone else to make the effort to pull things back together. By the halfway point, the leaders were more than two minutes ahead, and Walters finally reacted, blowing the remains of the field apart, as a core group, including Dionne and Perras, took up the chase.
They would pull to within 1:30 of the leaders with 80km remaining, before losing impetus and starting to slide back out of contention. The front group was gradually shrinking, as riders succumbed to the heat and the climb. By the final 35km there was a core group of six left at the front – Fraser, Wohlberg, Evans, Tuft, Lavallee and Randell. Evans was the only espoir, assuring himself that national title. The Walters-Dionne group, meanwhile, was nearly six minutes back.
Fraser was looking very strong and confident, frequently coming to the front on the climb, but Symmetrics had the upper hand, with two riders in the group. On the last lap, the heat began to affect everyone, with Wohlberg coming to a virtual halt at the base of the climb after a sudden attack of cramps. Lavallee launched a serious attack that immediately put Randell in difficulty, and Fraser hung back, forcing the two Symmetrics riders to chase.
“I almost had a heart attack going across to the break behind Eric (Wohlberg) and Svein (Tuft), but I knew that was where I had to be,” Fraser said. “I was feeling really good on the climb, but I was totally cramping up in the last laps. I knew that I had only one chance to do an attack because of the cramps, and it had to be at the top of the climb, because if I could get over the top with a gap, I could stay away on the descent to the finish. Then, I just had to try and keep it together in the last two kilometers — I was definitely coming a bit unglued.”
Evans led the trio back up to Lavallee, and then Fraser launched his decisive attack in the final 750 meters of the climb, immediately getting a gap that he was able to hold to the finish. Tuft took second, with Lavallee third. Evans was fourth, claiming the national espoir title.
While the women’s Olympic picture looks clearer, the men’s is still harder to call. Michael Barry (U.S. Postal) is the only rider assured of a spot, due to his top Canadian UCI ranking. Fraser and Wohlberg both had strong rides at nationals, but Dionne was also very strong a week earlier at Beauce. Perras appears to have slipped out of contention, and Walters, while showing an impressive effort in the road race, does not have the necessary results.
Fraser had high praise for the local Symmetrics team. “They rode like pros today; very impressive,” he said. “They knew what they needed to do, and had riders in all the right moves. It was good to see a team riding like that in Canada, especially with young fellows like Cam (Evans).”
Fraser has had a frustrating time at past nationals. His sprinting prowess has made him a marked man in breaks, many of which fall apart as soon as he joins them; as a consequence, he skipped nationals for a number of years. On the podium, after receiving his maple-leaf jersey, he lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
Canadian national road-race championships
Kamloops, British Columbia
1. Gord Fraser (Ottawa, Ontario), Health Net-Maxxis, 180km in 5:01:40
2. Svein Tuft (Langley, British Columbia), Symmetrics Cycling, at 0:20
3. Alexandre Lavallee (Montréal, Québec), Volkswagen-Trek, s.t.
4. Andrew Randell (Toronto, Ontario), Jet Fuel Coffee, at 0:37
5. Eric Wohlberg (Levack Ontario), Sierra Nevada, at 3:00
6. Alexandre Nadeau (Québec), Volkswagen-Trek, at 6:05
7. Charles Dionne, St. Rédompter, Québec), Equipe du Québec, at 9:49
8. Cory Lange (Victoria, British Columbia), Brodie, at 9:59
9. Martin St-Laurent (La Prairie, Québec), Volkswagen-Trek, at 10:25
10. Bruno Langlois, Québec, Volkswagen-Trek, at 10:38
Espoir (U23) men
1. Cam Evans (Calgary, Alberta), Symmetrics Cycling, 180km in 5:02:00
2. Francois Parisien (Repentigny, Québec), Espoirs Laval, at 5:45
3. Will Routley (Whistler, British Columbia) Symmetrics Cycling, at 9:29
4. Kevin Lacombe (Amos, Québec), Equipe du Québec, at 9:39
5. Chris Isaac (Hamilton, Ontario), Ital Pasta, at 9:56
6. Christian Meier (New Brunswick), Atlantic Cycling Centre.com, at s.t.
7. Cory Jay (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island), Espoirs de Laval, at 17:00
8. Jeff Sherstobitoff (Kelowna, British Columbia), Kelowna Cycle, s.t.
9. Dustin MacBurnie (Nova Scotia), Atlantic Cycling Centre.com, at 19:41
1. Lynn Bessette (Knowlton, Québec), Equipe du Québec, 120km in 3:35:09
2. Manon Jutras (Victoria, British Columbia), Equipe du Québec, at 1:29
3. Erinne Willock (Victoria), Rona, at 6:12
4. Susan Palmer-Komar (Hamilton Ontario), Genesis Scuba-FFCC, at 7:33
5. Nicole Demars (Victoria), Victory Brewing, at 15:43
6. Sara Neil (Vancouver, British Columbia), Trek-Broadway Dental, at s.t.
7. Amy Moore (Mississauga, Ontario), Quark, s.t.
8. Leigh Hobson (Waterloo, Ontario), Biovail-Cervelo, s.t.
9. Sarah Noble (Vancouver), Rocky Mountain Business Objects, s.t.
10. Anne Samplonius (Montreal, Québec), Equipe du Québec, s.t
Espoir (U23) women
1. Laura Yoisten (Calgary, Alberta), Team Alberta, 120km in 3:56:24
2. Emily Sandwith (British Columbia), Kappa
3. Audrey Lemieux, (Alma, Québec), Equipe du Québec
4. Alison Testroete (British Columbia), Petra-Uans-Orbea
5. Krystal Jeffs (Hamilton, Ontario) McMaster Cycling