By ERIK SANDIN – Stillwater Gazette
After riding in and around St. Paul, Minneapolis and Cannon Falls, the Nature Valley Grand Prix rolls into the St. Croix Valley and Stillwater this weekend for a finish with Olympic-sized implications for some riders.
"This is an extremely talented field and we are excited to have several racers participate in the Nature Valley Grand Prix before they go to London and compete on the international stage at the (London) Olympics," said David LaPorte, the festival’s executive director. "It will give our fans an incredible chance to see some of the world’s best athletes compete right here in the Midwest."
How import is the Nature Valley Grand Prix in the cycling world? LaPorte said Mexico is using the five-day race to select its Olympic team.
"For the Mexican men’s and women’s national teams, this is how they are going to select their riders to go to the Olympics," he said.
Cyclists began the 14th annual Nature Valley Grand Prix Wednesday with a morning time trial along Mississippi River Boulevard in St. Paul and an evening short circuit race surrounding Rice Park in downtown St. Paul. Thursday was a road race in the Cannon Falls area and tonight features an evening criterium in the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis.
The festival moves to western Wisconsin Saturday for the Menomonie Road Race before arriving in Stillwater on Fathers Day Sunday for the Stillwater Criterium that features a brutal 24 percent grade climb up Chillkoot Hill, the most difficult climb in North American cycling.
But Chillkoot Hill is not the only reason the Nature Valley festival ends in Stillwater. LaPorte said the Valley’s support of the grand prix is a major reason race organizers include Stillwater in the race schedule.
"You know, it really was community support," he said. "The number one reason we select a community is because of the support it gives us. Our metric is, does the race get a big crowd? Stillwater was our first big crowd."
One thing LaPorte said race organizers decided not to do was make the festival a "clone" of the Tour de France in the U.S.
"Every time they’ve tried that in the United States, they’ve failed," he said.
Instead, LaPorte said organizers use a combination of shorter criteriums, or short circuit races, a bicycle festival and music to attract spectators to the criterium.
"The other principle that we use is we bring the races to the people instead of bringing people to the races," he said. "A lot of people are in Stillwater who don’t know a race is going on and they hear the music and come up from downtown to investigate. What we’re creating is a big party with a bicycle race in the middle."
LaPorte said "party-goers" can expect to see competitive races on both the men’s and women’s sides Sunday.
"On the women’s side, the top team is going to be Team Specialized lululemon," he said. "I believe they’re the number one-ranked team in the world. They’re going to have plenty of competition because all the top-ranked domestic teams (are in the race)."
Individual cyclists to watch among the women are Amber Neben, defending Nature Valley Grand Prix champion seeking a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in next month’s Summer Games, and Kristin Armstrong of Team Exergy Twenty12, a four-time Nature Valley Grand Prix women’s champion, two-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist who also hopes to qualify for the London Games.
"On the men’s side, we’re going to get the top-ranked domestic teams," LaPorte said. "One of the most interesting things about the men’s side is that it’s going to be wide open."
One reason, according to LaPorte is that Team UnitedHealthcare, which produced several top men’s racers in the past, is not returning for this year’s Grand Prix.
Among the individual racers to watch are Jesse Anthony of Team OptumHealth, the defending men’s Grand Prix champion and four-time U.S. champion Fred Rodriguez of Team Exergy, known as "Fast Freddy for his sprinting.
So, with cyclists not only trying to win races but also trying to qualify for next month’s London Summer Olympics, Stillwater could be considered the center of the cycling world, if just for one day.
"It’s huge," LaPorte said. "We’ part of USA Cycling’s racing calendar. We started at the bottom of the NRC (national racing calendar) and now we’re at the top."