Alzate carries UnitedHealthcare to Sunny King victory

U.S.-based UnitedHealthcare has a solid foothold on the American crit racing circuit

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After an unbroken string of UnitedHealthcare victories by veteran Hilton Clarke, Carlos Alzate took up the banner for the UCI Pro Continental squad to beat Sergio Hernandez (Predator Cycling) for his first National Criterium Calendar (NCC) race of 2013 at the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Alabama on Saturday.

“In the past few races we’ve been mostly working for Hilton, but today we had permission from our race director Mike Tamayo to fight for a breakaway,” Alzate said.

Alzate and teammate Karl Menzies were part of a seven-man move that included enough representation from the other major squads that it was given a large enough leash to stay away once they were 38 laps into the 60-lap event.

Along with Alzate, 2009 Sunny King champion Menzies, Hernandez, Winston David (706 Project/Team United Healthcare Georgia), 2007 Sunny King winner Frank Travieso (Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis), David Guttenplan (AG Bicycles/Guttenplan Coaching), and Thomas Brown (Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis) were part of the break.

The group eventually gathered up enough steam that it came dangerously close to lapping the field 10 laps later. Christian Parrett, the sole representative of the 5-Hour Energy p/b Kenda team, was among a few riders who made attempts to bridge across, but UnitedHealthcare was committed to another scenario.

“Carlos and I were committed to lap the field,” Menzies said. “It was our best opportunity to get together with our teammates and lead it out for a sprint. We took the onus on us and then everyone else did their bit. But we definitely put the screws down and got us to lap.”

Once the rest of the field was racing for eighth place, Hernandez’s Predator Cycling team gathered up at the front of the pack and did what it could to up the pace.

“We wanted to ride the front just to keep Sergio out of trouble,” Predator team captain Emile Abraham said. “We wanted to set a tempo so that no other attacks would go up the road.”

UnitedHealthcare bided its time, letting Abraham and Predator soak up some preme money. However, the team still had its trademark “blue train” leadout to put into motion. And once it did, the familiar scene of the strongest criterium team putting away another victory was evident.

On the back of the line were both Menzies and Alzate, so the squad had two good options during the long drag to the line out of the final corner. Smartstop’s Shane Kline gave it a last minute dig to try to get either Travieso or Brown to the finish line first. Coming to the line though, he wasn’t able to maintain that momentum and Hernandez instead chased on for the chance to break UnitedHealthcare’s iron grip on the NCC.

When Hernandez , Menzies, and Alzate came to the finish line, the field was far behind and the Colombian sprinter made his play with a bike throw that gave him the win by the better part of a bike length. Alzate, whose wife is expecting a baby girl sometime this year, celebrated with a thumb in his mouth and a hand pointing towards divine inspiration.

Alzate’s teammate Clarke will more than likely hang onto his NCC lead for the moment, but Saturday’s winner emphasized that this was an “all for one, one for all” squad at the moment.

“This is more than a team,” Alzate said later. “I consider myself having joined a family.”

Following the tone set at last week’s Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium, the women’s field saw no thrilling breakaway over the course of their event. But there was drama in a first-lap wreck involving Colavita-Fine Cooking’s Jen Purcell.

With the superior numbers the team had on hand, the potential loss of Purcell as an effective contributor would not necessarily have spelled curtains. But Purcell got back into the field quickly enough, and Colavita watched and waited out escape efforts from Scotti Wilborne (LeBorne Development), Ivy Audrain (Stranamanti Cycling/Keller Rohrback), Morgan Patton (Team Novo Nordisk), and Coryn Rivera (Marian University).

With 10 laps to go, it was clear that all involved would be shooting for a bunch sprint. In the pack, both local favorite Laura Van Gilder (Mellow Mushroom) and Erica Allar (CARE4CYCLING p/b Solomon Corp) were eager to get this win, with neither having seen the top step of the podium so far this year.

But Colavita had put a lot of effort into Sunny King by manning the front of the field when necessary and trying to instigate a break that might last. In fact, with two laps to go, their very own Lindsay Bayer attempted a short-lived attack.

Coming out of the last turn, it was Allar who showed her cards. Having won in Anniston the year before, she was familiar enough with the rise to the finish and knew how to play it. But at the last moment Rivera, who currently boasts 44 national road, track, and cyclocross titles to her name, came out of the pack on the left side of the course and dramatically caught Allar at the line.

“I knew you had to be in the front because it’s hard to come around [someone on this course],” the 21-year old Rivera said after her victory lap. “But if you go too long, you die in the end. Erica initiated first … and as soon as she went I waited a second and then started my sprint and it gave me just enough time to get by her to the line.”

Third place went to Purcell who, realizing that she had damaged one of her shoes during her earlier wreck, couldn’t manage all the power she normally would sustain in a tough, uphill finish.

“I could feel my foot kind of pulling out of it,” Purcell told VeloNews following the race. “And it felt a little bit off. When you’re sprinting you want to feel like your bike is part of you and when your foot is held on with just a leather buckle, you’re afraid of pulling your foot out and causing a big crash. It was definitely a factor.”

Allar lost her hold on the top spot in the NCC standings by one point following her 12th place finish in Charlotte last weekend. But with that race’s winner, Lauren Stephens (FCS Racing) not present, her second-place result in Anniston was good enough to restore her lead.

“To see that one point had kept me out of maintaining the lead was pretty devastating,” Allar said. “So I’m super excited to take over again. But now with this result I feel like I’m definitely carrying some more momentum and I’m really happy to have a race that I won last year be the igniter for my momentum again.”

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