The Nature Valley Grand Prix is a six-day stage race in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And in this land of a thousand lakes the locals love an outside festival. This was one of those great summer moments when the hardy natives can disregard their thermal wear and don summer gear. Packed like sardines, the masses cheer, yell and generally have a good time watching the riders negotiate the technical Uptown Minneapolis Criterium. This was a new course that packed six, 90 turns in a one-kilometer course. If that wasn’t challenging enough, one portion of the course narrowed due to a median. The riders accelerated down the homestretch, braked hard for turn one and two, hit the gas again before turn three, sprinted to turn four and roared down Irving Avenue followed by a quick right-hander and then one final right-hander to the long final stretch. A rider was going to have to have their wits about them to stay out of trouble.
While the riders were piling out of team cars and vans the locals were enjoying the big glowing ball in the sky we call the sun. The sun does make an appearance in Minneapolis, but after a long winter it’s easy to forget what that star looks like. Don’t think that just because the sun goes into hibernation like a bear, the locals stop enjoying outdoor pastimes. Minnesotaians have perfected the art of dressing appropriately. In the winter the warm gear comes out. And on those extreme days the hard-core cyclists, runners or walkers are completely covered from head to toe. So when the sun makes an appearance, the locals embrace it with a passion.
And speaking of passion, the crowds cheered as loudly for the head of the peloton as they did for the dropped riders. Of course the liberally placed VIP areas helped with the enthusiastic levels of crowd participation. And for those without VIP passes to get under an EZ-UP tent of some corporate sponsor, the many bars and cafés provided an opportunity to enjoy a beverage and watch the race go by. Minnesotaians know how to enjoy outdoor activities.
The Uptown course was a new selection for the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Situated in a more eclectic area, it brought out some of the more colorful characters who, when spoken to, didn’t really understand the nuances of the race, but could feel the excitement from the more knowledgeable fans. Plus there were ample opportunities to grab a cold one, walk around and yell at the mass of colors streaming by. One man who did understand the financial nuances of having the race was local Minneapolis Council Member Ralph Remington. In a press release Remington said, “The Nature Valley Grand Prix brings tens of thousands of tourists, sports fans and bicycle enthusiasts onto the streets of the Twin Cities every year.” With a packed vender expo and equally crowded bars and restaurants around the course there was definitely some money being spent.
As the woman’s pro race was in its final laps the pro men started to arrive. Race leader Tom Zirbel of the Bissell squad and the rest of his teammates reclined in canvas folding chairs and got prepared virtually undisturbed. About a block away the OUCH van had pulled up into a parking lot. With the urgency of a visiting dignitary, yellow caution tape was quickly unfurled and a zone of non-admittance was created. Folding chairs were put into a semi-circle and riders plopped themselves down, pinning numbers, adjusting shoes or checking emails on their mobile phones. I dared to make a move under the tape and spoke to a few OUCH riders. Outside the yellow tape the crowd started to form hoping for a chance to get an autograph of Floyd Landis. While out of the hunt for the overall win, he was still a very popular with the fans.
Once the stage started I took a walk around the course. I quickly settled into a neighborhood bar that was on the course to grab a quick brew and see what the locals knew about the race that, once a year, visited town and took over like locusts. Some locals were there to enjoy the festival-like feel of a late afternoon race. Several front lawns had sprung up barbeques and small parties. Those in the know and not too buzzed from the local ale quickly brought me up to speed on the race situation so far. Defending Nature Valley GP winner and Team OUCH member Rory Sutherland sat just seven-seconds behind Bissell’s Zirbel. While there was no way that Sutherland could take seven seconds in this flat criterium, he sure could lose the whole race if he wasn’t attentive. And as I watched the race unfold, Sutherland seemed be to near the front end of the field and generally staying out of trouble. At one point during the race our eyes met and he shot me a funny grin as if to say he was just cruising along – no worries. As usual in these types of crits there were break and crashes, but in the end it was all brought back with a field sprint to the line. Out of the mass of charging riders Sebastian Haedo of Colavita/Sutter Home p/b Cooking Light took the stage win. At the finish line interview scrum Haedo thanked his teammates, the crowd and the organizers. Zirbel had maintained his lead for one more day and the Bissell boys packed up and left. Back at the Team OUCH camp the yellow tape was still up and the team riders were safely behind it. Lining the tape again was the crowd waiting for Landis to walk over, autograph rider cards or get a picture with him. As Landis pressed the flesh the rest of the team slipped out of their kits, packed up their gear and waited for the meet and greet to end. When everyone had gotten their autograph Landis jumped into the team van and they pulled out of town. Left behind were the venders taking down their expo tents and volunteers tearing down fencing. From all accounts this new course seemed to be a hit with the crowd. It had provided fast paced action and plenty of opportunities for the neighborhood to get together and enjoy the beginning of summer.