An All-Star Nature Valley Grand Prix 2011
Written By Elle Anderson
One of the best parts of this sport is that racing is always full of surprises, and one year is different than the next. I’m still healing up from the bruises, scrapes and injuries from all too many crashes during this year’s 6-stage, 5-day stage race around the Twin Cities. But luckily, I’ve still come out smiling.
Last year’s Nature Valley was my first attempt at the largest women’s race in the country, and also my first of two years qualifying for the Collegiate All-Star team. I got a lot of the sharp learning curves out of the way in 2010 and knew better what to expect this time around. Since I’ve recently graduated from Dartmouth College, I’ve raced the collegiate cycling circuit as well as the road season for the past 4 years. The Collegiate All-Star team is a one-time composite team only for Nature Valley that brings together the top 6 collegiate women in the country and gives us a dose of professional women’s racing. We wear our collegiate jerseys but have matching shorts. It is a fantastic experience, but most of the time we also gracefully fill up that last team spot in the team standings by the end. It is safe to say that it is not a forgiving race.
Now that all the excitement is over, I can say that this year’s run at Nature Valley turned out pretty well, despite the horrendous crashes and brutally aggressive racing. I can’t say the same about going into the race, because I was pretty apprehensive. I had been mercilessly working on my undergraduate thesis for two solid weeks leading up to Nature Valley, with only senior week and commencement between finishing exams and getting on a plane to Minneapolis/St. Paul. But I do have a clear conscience, in that I sacrificed my training a bit for my academics and finished strong. By the time I walked to the stage with my cap and gown, I had what I had for training and preparation for the largest race of my season, and I was at the mercy of the best women in the country and the world. I was about to race with not only the best domestic women’s teams in the US, but the Olympic gold medalist (Kristin Armstrong), the World Champion (Giogia Bronzini) and the National TT Champion (Evelyn Stevens) as well as the internationally renowned Colavita and HTC teams. I also got to see LadiesFirst alum Anna Barensfeld race and do really well! (She was in the successful break in the Menomonie Road Race).
Even though my fellow Collegiate All-Stars and I raced with verifiably better and more famous women, we got to feel the part. I think my best memories from NVGP are about the team experience; not the racing, not how I did, not how much I crashed or got dropped. The All-Stars really do everything all-star-like. We proudly hand out our “trading cards” to kids and fans alike, with our picture on the front and our best collegiate results highlighted on the back. The Colavita women can walk by our team tent and point and laugh at our cards, but to most of the spectators that come out from the local areas, we might as well be better than all of them. Its just so fun to live like a professional cyclist for a week, or even better than one. I can’t complain when the team masseur gives me a daily massage, and the mechanic cleans and preps my bike from tip to tail.
So that is a glimpse of my behind the scenes Nature Valley experience. Out in the spotlight, on the battlegrounds of each stage, I definitely left some skin behind. Stage 2, the Downtown St. Paul criterium was most memorable as the course was as slick with fresh rain as if it had accidentally rained Vaseline. Not to mention two 110-degree turns, cracks in the pavement that could eat a whole cyclist, and a brick chicane. Talk about the nightmare of a crit course. The whole pelaton was slipping and crashing all over the place, and every other lap seemed to have riders join from the two support pits. My favorite picture is taken right after the largest crash I was involved in. I got pinched on the very outside line coming up to at foot-high highway divide which I was thrown over. In the picture, I am on the other side of the highway divide (left of the frame in green) and my bike is still on the right side with the rest of the destruction.
An even more horrendous crash took out two of my teammates with shoulder injuries two days later. Dubbed by Cycling News as a ‘horror crash’ the whole stage was nullified because of it. We were on the finishing stretch about to see one lap to go when I suddenly was shoved on top of a huge pile of mangled bikes and bodies – seriously a horror scene. I was just lucky I crashed on top, and not trapped underneath. I was able to quickly untangle myself, but four others were brought to the hospital.
But those are mostly the sad parts of a great race. I simply had a blast at all other times. There is nothing that compares to racing at one of the highest levels of the sport: the increased adrenaline, pack dynamics, and high speeds make it exponentially more fun (I think). For the Cannon Falls Road race, we averaged 25 mph. The fastest lap of the Minneapolis Crit was 28 mph. I can’t be a Collegiate All-Star again, but when next June comes around I’ll be itching for the best stage race in the country.