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By Mark Johnson
Bissell’s Tom Zirbel and Alison Powers (Team Type 1) won the first stage of the 2009 Fitchburg Longsjo Stage Race in central Massachusetts on Thursday, with each taking a damp and foggy 14.3 kilometer time trial win.
The first stage of the four-day NRC race, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, began with a deluge. While the early-morning Category 4 riders and Juniors faced the TT course in pounding rain, the water backed off to a gentle mist by the time the first Pro women started at 12:45 pm.
Later, thick fog shrouded the winding course and overhanging trees dripped fat globs of water onto riders’ helmets. The scenic out and back course in the town of Westminster, Massachusetts, took riders through deep woods and across a causeway on Mare Meadow Reservoir, one of more than 1300 ponds and reservoirs that dot the state’s landscape.
Zirbel shines in his specialty
Zirbel, Bissell Pro Cycling’s most promising time trial talent, scored a solid win, turning in a time of 17:15, easily beating the four Kelly Benefit Strategies riders who rounded out the top five. Kelly’s Scott Zwizanski was the closest, with a time of 17:38.
Zirbel was an early starter on Thursday and set an unassailable time that none of the remaining 160-plus riders could beat, despite the fact that the afternoon fog seemed to tamp down winds that Zirbel faced during his earlier ride.
Zirbel said he was satisfied with the ride, particularly since he had spent a full day of travelling to get to the race.
“I did fine, considering,” he said. “My day started at 8:30 Mountain Time and ended at midnight here.”
Zirbel said the wet weather did not bother him, but admitted it did force him to make some eyewear adjustments.
“I had to chuck my sunglasses. Coming in with about three K to go it was so foggy I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
With three Kelly Benefit Strategies riders within 35 seconds of him going into Friday’s 75-mile circuit race, Zirbell said his team is going to protect his position.
“I think we’ll try to defend,” he predicted. “Kelley is pretty stacked up there. They are a strong team, a very aggressive team. They won’t be happy with second, third and fourth, so they are going to be aggressive from the go.”
But the Colorado-based rider, who is racing Fitchburg Longsjo for the first time, pointed out that Bissell “brought a very strong team here,” despite the loss of Jeremy Vennell , who missed the race due to flight delays and cancellations.
“A lot of the guys are going to be feeling better as the race goes on,” he said. “I mean, we had guys show up 10 minutes before the TT. They are only going to get stronger. It should be some interesting racing.”
Powers makes her mark
In the women’s race, Powers turned in the fastest time on the rolling, wooded course at 19:54. Team Lip Smackers rider Evelyn Stevens was just shy of Powers’ time at 19:58. Anne Samplonius (Lip Smackers) came through with a time of 20:03, edging out French legend Jeannie Longo (Vita Plus) who placed fourth at 20:08.
The 29-year-old Powers was clearly delighted with her win, especially since she just took a week off the bike to recuperate from the Nature Valley stage race.
“I’m super-psyched,” Powers exclaimed during a post-race interview at the dorm at Fitchburg State College where her team is staying for the event. “First place is first place and it makes for a really exciting race for the rest of the weekend.”
Powers, who lives and trains in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado, noted that with only a four-second lead, the next three days’ stage-finish time bonuses are going to be critical to her six-woman team’s ability to defend her position.
“I’m fortunate I have two very, very strong sprinters on my team,” she said. “If I’m unable to get the time bonuses they will.”
Powers said it was especially rewarding to beat a cycling legend of Longo’s caliber.
“That’s amazing,” Powers said of the recently crowned French time trial champion. “It’s so great that she came to the race, because it brings a lot of press and interest to the race. She’s such an icon of women’s cycling. It’s cool that she could be here.”
Powers’ team strategy going into the 34-mile circuit race is clear: “We came here to try to win the GC. If we can get stage wins with some of our sprinters, that’s great. But first things first is to defend the GC.”
On Friday the Pro women will do 34 miles on a rolling 3.1 mile circuit course with a 100-foot stair-stepped climb on each lap. The men will do 75 miles on the same course that cuts through the middle of the Fitchburg State College campus. There are 10, 5, and 3 second time bonuses for the first three finishers and riders will also compete for the points classification jersey.