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MINNEAPOLIS (VN) — One of the unique features of the Nature Valley Grand Prix is that it not only accepts developmental and composite teams, but also actively puts them together.
This focus on training riders for the pro peloton runs deep, and it can be seen in the number of developmental teams accepted to race. Regional squads like California Giant-Specialized, D3Devo-Airgas, Team Novo Nordisk Development, and Get Crackin’ all make the race a central point in their calendars.
“We treat the amateurs with respect. It is one of the reasons we have a top amateur jersey,” said the race’s executive director, David LaPorte. “We have a separate classification listing for the amateurs, and whoever is at the top of that classification gets a green jersey, a separate pay list, and they get call-ups.”
The race runs two development programs, the Nature Valley Pro Chase and the Kowalski’s Markets Collegiate All-Stars. The Pro Chase partners with six regional races across the country where eligible men and women can qualify for a spot on the team. Both programs provide a pre-race camp, a travel stipend, housing, free entry, and support staff — including a director, soigneur, and mechanic.
For riders like Pro Chase team member Emily Georgeson, it’s a chance to step outside her comfort zone for a taste of life as a professional cyclist.
“The opportunity to race at this level, with this kind of organization, feeling like you are part of a pro team, having a director, having host housing, and the experience of learning from the best women on the road is really a great opportunity for anybody,” said Georgeson, who finished 12th at the St. Paul Downtown Criterium.
All the riders in the Pro Chase and All-Stars programs attend a pre-race camp where they learn the skills needed to survive in the pro peloton. Pro Chase director Jenn Reither put her riders through the paces with a series of boot-camp-style drills.
“What I did was bottle feed-ups, drafting off the cars, I motor-paced them, and especially for Nature Valley Grand Prix, I had drills where we clipped in without looking,” said Reither, who races for Vanderkitten during the season. “They had to clip in and sprint right away, because it’s so much about the start here.”
The Nature Valley Grand Prix has become an important target for regional developmental team riders like 20-year-old Zac Noonan (D3Devo-Airgas).
“The jump from harder domestic races to the [WorldTour] races is a massive gap,” said Noonan, who won the best young rider award at the Parx Philly Classic. “To be able to come to these races with good support consistently is the only way to bridge the gap.”
Riders like Noonan have good support locally, said D3Devo-Airgas director Chris Johnson.
“But they have to get results against Continental Pro teams if they want to go to a division 1 or division 2 team, which is the goal of our riders,” Johnson added.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix also attracts established programs like California Giant, which has a long history of pairing developing riders with former professionals.
California Giant rider Jared Barrilleaux previously rode professionally for Jittery Joes, and his Cal-Giant squad has been active throughout the NVGP, taking fourth place and the most aggressive rider’s jersey at the St. Paul Downtown Criterium.
Barrilleux acts as a mentor for his younger teammates, whose average age is 21, passing on the knowledge he gained the hard way. Those lessons include “how to save and conserve energy, and how to be aggressive at the right times,” he said. “It really comes down to utilizing what works best for you, and racing to your strengths.”
One successful graduate of the Nature Valley Grand Prix college of pro cycling is Jade Wilcoxson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies). Wilcoxson, who raced for the Nature Valley Pro Chase in 2011, credits the program with helping her go to the next level — which included winning the U.S. pro road championship and leading this year’s NVGP.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for the riders,” said Wilcoxson after winning the Minneapolis Downtown Criterium. “This was definitely a springboard for me. I made so many connections here, and I learned so much.
“I don’t think I’d be here today if I didn’t have that opportunity.”