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Rory Sutherland will open the defense of his three straight Nature Valley Grand Prix wins Wednesday morning in the Saint Paul Time Trial. If Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation) is to continue his lock on the National Racing Calendar stage race, he’ll have to contend with a number of strong rivals – and some of the most dynamic criteriums and road stages of the year – near Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota.
VeloNews.com will stream live video of three stages of the NVGP at https://velo.outsideonline.com/live. The Wednesday, Friday and Sunday criteriums will stream.
On the women’s side, Kristin Armstrong (Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty12) is one up on Sutherland’s win tally with four consecutive and will enter as the favorite. Armstrong missed the 2010 edition when she was pregnant and she directed Shelley Olds (now on Diadora-Pasta Zara) to the overall title. Much different riders, Armstrong will look to use the opening time trial and two road stages to amass a GC advantage, while Olds can compete on nearly any parcours and has the sprint to give Armstrong a very serious run for her money.
The Nature Valley Grand Prix is the fourth of seven stage races on the 2011 National Racing Calendar and is the third event in the Women’s Prestige Cycling Series.
Wednesday June 15
Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial
The opening, six-mile time trial is mostly flat, but has a sharp bite in the final mile with a .7-mile ramp to the finish. In 2010 Eddy Merckx regulations were put in place to eliminate time trial bikes in the stage. Stage winner Scott Zwizanski’s Kelly Benefit Strategies squad flexed the rule as far as it would bend and used their TT frames with road bars. This year a rider must use the same frame for the opener that they’ll use in subsequent stages.
Wednesday June 15
Downtown Saint Paul Criterium
*Live on VeloNews.com
The twilight criterium in the entertainment district in Saint Paul gives a strong taste of Americana, rolling past Mickey’s Diner, just a block from the Fitzgerald Theatre, home to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show. The five-corner, partially brick course is fast. With two intermediate bonus time sprints (5, 3 and 1 second) and 12, 8 and 6 seconds on offer at the finish, the top 20 GC – though perhaps not the top five – could look wildly different than it did in the afternoon.
An interesting change to the points competition separates the points sprints from the bonus sprints, forcing the teams with eyes on the overall and points competitions to do double duty – or give up control of one of the classifications.
Thursday June 16
Cannon Falls Road Race
Cancelled due to a tornado sighting in 2010, the Cannon Falls stage is back this year. The rural, rolling 67-mile parcours ends with six finish circuits that include a short, steep climb at the line. If the wind blows, which it very well may, GC-altering splits could form in the peloton. Greg Henderson won in Cannon Falls in 2006 when 17 riders gained more than five minutes in a split, and his teammate Karl Menzies went on to lead a Healthnet podium sweep of the final overall with Nathan O’Neill third.
Friday June 17
Minneapolis Uptown Criterium
*Live on VeloNews.com
Another entertainment district criterium, the Uptown stage is the cornerstone of the race. With thousands of fans lining the roads riders will fight for time bonuses, sprint points and the final corner onto Hennepin Avenue. The flat, six-corner course is fast and the bunch should put on a good show during prime time Friday.
Saturday June 18
Menomonie Road Race
The undulating Menomonie stage is back for the second time this year. With rarely a still moment in the 81 and 101-mile parcours, the penultimate stage is a day for the king and queen of the hills competitions – and perhaps even a GC move – to play out in breakaways. A rare all-rounder’s road stage in the U.S., Menomonie is a stage for the rolleurs.
Sunday June 19
*Live on VeloNews.com
It all comes down to Stillwater, at least usually. Next to the 7,000-foot Park City criterium in the 2010 Tour of Utah, many riders regard Stillwater as the hardest criterium in the country. The 20-percent Chilkoot Hill finish climb carries riders onto a long false flat beyond the line every lap. Sutherland and Olds both won the overall here on the final day in 2010 with perfectly timed late attacks. It was Sutherland’s second GC triumph at Stillwater in a row after he beat Tom Zirbel (Jamis-Sutter Home) here in 2009.
Riders to watch
Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation)
Sutherland has won three Grand Prix in a row. After finishing seventh overall at the Tour of California in May, and third on the Sierra Road summit finish, UnitedHealthcare’s GC man took a week off the bike and is building again for the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August.
After receiving a last-minute invitation to the race, Sutherland’s squad is donating all of its prize money to the UHC Children’s Foundation.
Tom Zirbel (Jamis-Sutter Home)
Since organizers added the finish climb to the Saint Paul TT in 2008, Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell), Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski (UnitedHealthcare) have each won the stage and subsequently lost control of the GC to Sutherland. With Jacques-Maynes and Zwizanski out with injuries, Zirbel will look to reverse that trend.
Zirbel showed in May that he is back on top form, finishing less than five minutes behind Levi Leipheimer on the Mount Baldy stage in California and scoring his second silver medal in the U.S. professional time trial championship. He’ll enter the opening stage as the odds-on favorite.
Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home)
Amaran was the 2010 National Racing Calendar champion and will team up with Zirbel as the aggressive sidekick to the likely early race leader. It’s unclear if the Cuban will be able to hold his form longer this summer than a year ago when he struck out to a large NRC lead before fading in the heart of the season.
Frank Pipp (Bissell)
A strong, veteran all-rounder, Pipp won the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race in May and was solid at the Tour of California. He won in Stillwater in 2007 and has shown good condition this spring. Without Ben Jacques-Maynes to contend in the time trial, Pipp could emerge as the GC man for Bissell at Cannon Falls.
Alex Candelario (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth)
While his time trial might limit Candelario’s ability to contend in the GC, he’s shown that he’s fit heading into Nature Valley, finishing with the first chase group at the U.S. professional road championship and missing a stage win in California by half a wheel. Candelario can finish with the leaders on every stage and is strong enough to compete for time bonuses and stage wins.
Andres Diaz (Exergy) has been a breakout this spring with a near stage win at Redlands and a great ride at the Tour of the Gila. Chris Winn (V Australia) has built his fledgling pro career on solid Nature Valley results, but he’ll be shorthanded with a small squad.
UnitedHealthcare enters Nature Valley with the strongest sprinters’ squad on paper. Double 2010 stage winner Hilton Clarke anchors a lineup that includes other finishers like Giro d’Italia stage winner Robert Förster, NRC second-place Jake Keough and Boy Van Poppel. Other fast men to watch include Ben Kersten (V Australia), Kyle Wamsley (Bissell), 2010 Menomonie stage winner Ken Hanson (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Tulsa Tough winner Alejandro Borrajo (Jamis).
Kristin Armstrong (Peanut Butter & Co.-Twenty12)
Armstrong will take the start ramp in Saint Paul as the prohibitive favorite, though her teammate Alison Starnes won the stage in 2010 and has spent a good deal of time in Europe with the national team this spring. If she adds to her tally of no less than 10 Nature Valley stage wins in the opener, Armstrong will have the undivided support of her squad in pursuit of her fifth Nature Valley title.
Shelley Olds (Diadora-Pasta Zara)
Olds returns as the defending champion after making a fierce acceleration on Chilkoot Hill draw back Evelyn Stevens and secure her title. A stage winner at the Giro Donne and overall winner of the Tour of New Zealand, Olds vs. Bronzini should be a good show after the finished one-two at the Liberty Classic two weeks ago.
Evelyn Stevens (HTC-Highroad)
U.S. time trial champion Stevens will show off her stars and stripes skinsuit for the last time before defending her title later this month. She’ll be a top favorite in the riverfront TT along with teammate Amber Neben, but also in the overall. Stevens can climb and power the rollers with Armstrong and will be a top threat at Stillwater, where she won in 2010.
Giorgia Bronzini (Colavita-Forno D’Asolo)
The world road champion is on her first American tour and will team up with Theresa Cliff-Ryan as the most dangerous one-two punch in the bunch sprints. Look for her rainbow jersey hiding near the front of the race on the back of the Colavita train.
Cath Cheatley (Colavita-Forno D’Asolo)
Cheatley is a strong all-rounder and won the Saint Paul criterium in 2007. She’s been instrumental in a number of Colavita results in 2011 and won the Sunset Loop stage at Redlands in her New Zealand national champion’s jersey.
Joanne Kiesanowski (Tibco-To The Top)
The Kiwi all-rounder won a stage at Nature Valley in 2004 and should feature at the head of the race at Cannon Falls and Menomonie.