Wednesday, June 15, 2011/lk
The end unfolded just as everyone watching the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic hoped it would. Heading up the final climb of the final stage, American Kristen Armstrong and Canadian Clara Hughes were racing wheel-to-wheel.
Hughes had yet to claim the yellow jersey in the race and Armstrong had lost it two days prior to teammate Alison Starnes; however with the two far out in front of the rest of the field, the overall winner would go to which of the highly touted duo reached the top first.
"I knew I had to give it everything I had because on the last climb Clara was riding really strong. I had pre-ridden the last 2K before the start this morning and I saw the hill was steep and dirty and I like that stuff," Armstrong said.
"I knew I had one last ticket in my pocket and I had to give it everything I had. I knew Clara was a good finisher so it was going to be hard so I decided to jump then and give it everything I had to the line."
Armstrong, who rode with the support of a seven-member team, was able to save a little in her legs for the final climb. Hughes, who also had a team, but not with the sheer numbers or talent of the Armstrong-led Peanut Butter and Co. 2012 team, could not.
When Armstrong went on the attack in the final 500 meters, Hughes could just watch as she pulled away.
"Kristen has such a big team here and she is a smart racer so I knew she wouldn't pull so I basically pulled with Kristen on my wheel for the last 50 kilometers. It was a little irritating but it would have been even more irritating if her teammate (Kristin McGrath) had caught me. So I basically had a decision where I could get guaranteed second place - which I was really happy with - or maybe lose second if her teammate caught me," Hughes said.
"I was just wondering where she was going to attack and I was just thinking that if I was her racing against me I would wait until that last steep bit because she's much stronger than me up the steep climbs and she did and my hat goes off to her."
Hughes, a time trial specialist, did come away with the queen of the mountain jersey for the race after having the fastest times on the race's climbing stages, an achievement which led to both pride and amusement.
"My return to cycling has been great. I'm doing it my way and keeping it positive and keeping it fresh by doing new races and challenging myself, Hughes said. "I've never won a mountain jersey in my life so it's kind of funny to have won that."
While Hughes got the Queen of the Mountain jersey, Peanut Butter and Co. 2012 won just about everything else in the women's pro field.
They won every stage but the Trout Lake Time Trial (which Hughes won), kept possession of the yellow jersey throughout the race (with Armstrong starting and ending with it and Starnes holding it in between) finished first and third in the overall individual standings and took the team title.
"It was great," Armstrong said. "I had a great team behind me, we had 19-year-old Katie Antinou win the crit, Alison Stairns in the yellow jersey and Kristin McGrath on the podium ... everyone on this team had a role this weekend."
On the men's side the race was projected to be wide open coming in, and like the women's race, it held true to form.
Four different riders won stages, with the only double winner, Nathanial English, outlasting everyone to take the yellow jersey with a dominating win in Three Summits stage.
The final two days of racing featured two incredible performances which both gained possession of the yellow jersey.
On Saturday night Michael Olheiser turned in a spectacular performance in front of hundreds of cheering spectators in the downtown Hood River Criterium. Olhieser led virtually wire-to-wire and unlike many riders who break away early only to tire in the waning laps, Olheiser actually grew stronger as the race went on. A gap that started at around 11 seconds after the first several laps grew to over 30 seconds before settling at 26 by the time he cruised through the finish line.
Olheiser's amazing ride Saturday night left him with little in his legs for the brutal climbing stages the next day, though, and he was unable to hold off English. Turns out, neither could anyone else.
The Yahoo! Cycling Team rider took the lead in the early climbs on the stage and held off all challengers to win by 1:45.
English's victory in the final stage completed a near- complete turnover of the top three in the overall standings with English finishing first overall, Sebastian Salas second and Stefano Barberi taking third.
Olheiser fell to 18th in the final standings and early leader Chad Haga, who held the yellow jersey heading into the Saturday criterium, dropped to 19th.
The last stage left riders both awed and shell-shocked as they came across the line, with many having their eyes go wide over the prospect of the final big climb to the Cooper Spur Ski area.
That final stage left a significant impression on Armstrong and Hughes. Armstrong said she would like to come back depending on how he Olympic hopes shape up next year.
"I would love to - I think it's great training; we'll have to see what next year brings in terms of Olympic qualification but I think it fits right in my schedule," she said. Plus it's just a drive away for me because I live in Boise. I think it's a great race and I'm going to spread the word to all the women in the pelaton."
Hughes, who has family which lives in Albany and retired from speed skating to make a cycling comeback, was more blunt.
"It was built to be epic and lived up to my definition of epic. I loved it…" She said. I'll be back."