Zirbel Finds Redemption at Nature Valley as Helmig Wins Stillwater Criterium
No breakaway, time bonus or weather condition was going to get in the way of Tom Zirbel and the Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies Team on the way to their overall victory at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Though the weather changed from warm sunshine to rain 13 laps into the 20 lap race, Team Optum’s strategy to keep the race controlled and reel in breakaways remained the same in a solidly-executed race.
“I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I made that last corner without slipping,” said Zirbel. “Then all I had to do was climb.” Zirbel wore the leader’s jersey into Stillwater in 2009, but lost the overall to a breakaway in the last lap.
“This is vindication. It meant a lot to be here, in front of my family and my team. And, this is my first NRC GC win.”
Though Zirbel and Team Optum make their win seem easy, Chilkoot Hill’s 18%-plus grades sifted out a majority of the field who were pulled out of the race by officials and given pro-rated times. In spite of the Cannon Falls Road Race being cancelled, speed and intensity made up for the time off and many racers this year spoke of their tired legs.
“We came in to the day hoping for GC today with Heath Blackgrove, but he was having a bad day and locked up early on,” said Aaron Smathers, Team Director of Elbowz Racing, who took first and second on the day with Christian Helmig and Eric Marcotte. “We then turned it over to our stage winners Marcotte and Helmig, and possibly Joe Schmaltz.”
Rain was a factor in today’s stage. Racers started with higher tire pressures suited for dry roads and fast descents, while rain requires a lower tire pressure to maintain traction on slick roads. Helmig had an advantage with his handling skills through his experience racing mountain bikes and cyclocross, a style of racing defined by harsh and ever-changing conditions.
Stillwater’s Chilkoot Hill and technical difficulty lend itself to breakaway attempts. Mike Olheiser (Competitive Cyclist Racing Team) won the race’s Freewheel Most Aggressive Rider jersey for his early break. Being at the front of the race allowed him to win enough points to also secure the Jelly Belly Sport Beans King of the Hill, beating out Frank Pipp (Bissell Pro Cycling) by one point.
“I knew I had to get out there alone to win today and that’s what I tried to do,” said Tyler Wren (Jamis/Sutter Home), who finished third on the day. “I was away with (Chris Uberti, Panther p/b Competitive Cyclist) for the last three laps. I attacked with a lap to go. (Helmig and Marcotte) caught me with about 50 meters to go, right at the line.”
The TRIA Orthopedic Best Young Rider jersey also changed shoulders, going to Ty Magner (BMC-Hincapie Development Team), who finished the Stillwater Crit with the lead group.
Coulton Hartrich (Athletix Cycling Team Benefiting Globalbike) held on to his Nature Valley Top Amateur jersey, and Carlos Alzate (Team Exergy) kept his Exergy Sprinters Blue Jersey.
Team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies won the Team Classification with their team’s dominant finishes, which makes it that much sweeter for the team, whose sponsors are based in Minneapolis.