By Jared Hall | Bentonville Racing
In case you haven’t noticed, the cycling scene here in NWA is getting pretty large. We clearly have the state and local governments behind us, I mean we have the Razorback Greenway trail system spanning from Bentonville all the way down to Fayetteville, mountain bike trails in each town (including about 120 miles of new single track almost reaching into Missouri), BMX parks, new bike lanes, and not to mention…people getting on their bikes. I mean we have 6 or 7 competitive road race teams, several MTB and cross teams all within a 25 mile area. So how come we have to drive 2+ hours to do a big time criterium race? Guess what folks…not anymore. The organizers behind The Natural State Criterium Series took that bull by the horns and begged the question, ‘Why not build one of the best amateur and professional crit weekends in the country here in NWA?’
For a first year event, I would say that things ran pretty smooth! I don’t recall having a race delayed, or a car get onto the course, or poorly designed courses. If payouts are what bring you to a race, then The Natural State Crit Series has that covered. $35,000 purse for a 2 day event? That rivals ANY crit weekend I’ve ever heard of or been to. The quality of racers that showed up was quite impressive considering there was a pro race the same weekend out in Littleton, CO.
Racing as a cat 3 you tend to have to scout out your competition quite a bit because you can get a melting pot of racers. From guys who are old but use to win all the time (extremely savvy), to young bucks just ripping through the ranks (with more speed than smarts), to Canadian national champions (who get placed in Cat 3 since they don’t have a USAC license). The field tends to be interesting.
The New American Town Crit (Friday night) in downtown Bentonville is the only race I’ve heard of where Cat 3’s have the opportunity to race at twilight. This promised to be a crit of epic proportions considering the $1,500 purse, $400 in primes , technical course and a bunch of rookies who have never raced in the dark before. I knew I was in for a treat, and it definitely got the testosterone working.
The race started off full gas, with the Canadian national champ I mentioned deciding he wanted to thin out our large field of 60 riders (down to about 15). He attacked from the gun with 2 other riders, and from what I heard, did all of the work to stay away for the first 15 minutes of the race. With the help of several strong riders from different Oklahoma teams we finally managed to bring him back, and by this point the field was shattered. Not knowing whether or not the other riders had been pulled or were just out of sight, 13 or so of us kept the pace up high only to have guys decide that this was the perfect time to attack. The technicality of the blind turn followed by the large downhill turn on 5th Street, might make it possible for a rider or two to stay away. I guess the pace we held for the first 20 minutes was more difficult than we thought, because no group of riders managed to stay away for more than a lap or two. With the field practically all back together (at least what was left of it), I thought that it would be a perfect time to try to ride up front and sneak away before the corners and get a prime. I attacked hard up the riser after the downhill turn and put a 5 second gap on the guys and won a $150 prime. I knew I was going to need a lap or two to recover before I moved back up into the top 5, and was just hoping they wouldn’t call out another prime until I recovered. By the time I was back up front, the officials were ringing the bell for a $100 prime. I thought, “Why not go for it? $250 cash is almost the payout of 1st place?”, so I attacked again just after the hill only to bring a guy with me Martial Trigeaud (Team CARVE). We came around the final turn to race to the line, unfortunately I underestimated the skinny Frenchmen’s sprint and left it up to a coin toss/photo finish….(which the judge decided I lost). With only 4 laps to go at this point, I told Martial we should work together to stay away. He came through with a massive pull, nearly ripping my legs off. I came through, and started regretting my decision, looking back and seeing the field already chasing us down. Matt Lanier (OKC Velo) was on the front and was determined to not let us get away. Martial and I sat up, and got back in the small group. With 2 to go, I guess Martial had enough because he sat up through a turn with me close on his wheel. I nearly ran into the grass trying not to wreck, this opened up a large gap. I managed to close it before we started the last lap but at this point I was cooked. I settled for 10th knowing that my race was over. Only 2 local guys finished the entire race, with Brian Lea (Experience Fayetteville) showing a good result for 5th place.
I left Friday night disappointed, because I really wanted that extra $100. But I felt a little better about the fact that there was a chance for redemption Saturday afternoon, with another $1500 on the line for the men’s 3 race! Waking up Saturday morning, my legs felt a little groggy. I decided I was going to hit up the hot tub for a bit, get my legs warmed up and massage them out. After this, they still didn’t feel much better, but with the race taking place in my hometown (Rogers) and the great payout and atmosphere, I didn’t care. I knew that when race time arrived, I’d be ready to rock.
Saturday’s race the Brick Street Criterium, although not nearly as technical as Friday nights course, brought some interesting issues into play. The weather for one was questionable in the morning with the rain. I wondered if the bricks would be dry. With such a bumpy course I thought that this might be a course that a strongman’s breakaway could work.
The sun had decided to come out creating that classic hot and humid environment we cherish (NOT) so much in Arkansas. I was prepared for a hot race, but some clouds moved in. It wasn’t even hot, maybe 85 degrees, perfect weather for a race! A couple guys wanted to test everyone’s legs from the gun. A group of 4 managed to put 6-8 seconds on the field, but with the long downhill section on Poplar Street, I could soon tell that this was not a breakaway race. After mixing it up for primes on Friday night, I decided that on Saturday I wouldn’t go for primes unless somehow I just found myself at the front. I chilled as much as possible, attacking once trying to set up my team mate Joel Raymond for a prime, and also helping close down a small break that had Russell Worley (Experience Fayetteville) and Matt Lanier (OKC Velo) in it. When we came around with 2 to go, the field was together. Approaching the hill up Walnut for the bell lap, Reid Brown (Experience Fayetteville) attacked hard with a guy from Dallas Racing. Somehow they got a gap, I guess because everyone just kind of looked at each other. Their gap widened to probably 5 seconds down the backside of the course, when my team mate and TT specialist Chad Grundy came to the front out of nowhere. He decided that he had 1 big effort left, and that he wasn’t going to let that breakaway stick. Right as he came to the front, I managed to move from about 15th to 6th. He pulled down Poplar Street and through the turns on the west side of the course. The gap on the two man break had come down, but I could tell that if we did not give one big last push, they would have successfully spoiled the sprinters day. Chad did not know what position I was in, and I could tell by his body language that his massive effort was on the verge of ending. I yelled ahead “Go Chad! Go!” to let him know that I was in position to sprint. He immediately took it to that last point of suffering that we all dread. We came out of the last turn, and could see the finish. I got antsy, and knew a surge to the line was coming so I moved up passing Ben Craig (BMC), and Adam Barnes (Experience Fayetteville), fighting for the wheel of a guy from LA who was making his move. When we got to 200m, I knew we would catch the break, and I was looking for my sprint lane. The guy from LA kind of swerved a bit, forcing me to clutch for a half count before I could launch. Ben Craig, out of my draft found his lane before I found mine and he launched. I let it out maybe a pedal stroke or two behind him, at this point he had half a bike length. I could feel my back wheel bouncing off the cobbles and my watts going to waste, but was determined not to lose this one. Somehow I closed on Ben just before the line, but neither of us was sure who had won. We waited for the photo finish, which showed my wheel just edging him out!
[Photo By Biff Stephens]
I want to thank Ben Craig and Jason Evans (BMC) for promoting and organizing the races, as well as all of the sponsors and volunteers who made it happen! And I want to give a big thanks to Pedaler’s Pub, Bentonville Brewing, Mojo Bike Shop, ALL Laundry and Kind Kitchen for supporting and sponsoring our team. Also, a big thank you to my friends and family and all of the spectators who came out to support us! Without the community and local businesses getting on board, these races would not have happened. I look forward to next year seeing this series grow; as I know many people in NWA were introduced to crit racing for the first time last weekend! Let’s build upon what we have started!