Canadian Olympic bronze medallist Kirstie Lay and German Florenz Knauer may have won the inaugural $15,000 New West Grand Prix women’s and men’s races, but it may have been the course that was the real winner.
The women’s race had barely started when New West’s topography showed its teeth. The 61 riders had to climb Eighth Street from Columbia and then continue uphill on Carnarvon before speeding down Sixth Street and then Columbia. On the first lap of the 950-metre course, the lead escort car was two blocks ahead of the field on Carnarvon, the driver forced to fight the urge to depress the accelerator.
The stragglers started to emerge early. Less than three laps had been completed when riders started to head to the sideline, deciding to save themselves for other races in the B.C. Superweek series. The race was barely half over and half the field had called it quits.
“It’s attrition in its purest form of bike racing,” race announcer Andrew Pinfold, a former series racer, told the crowd. “This is the most difficult race in B.C. Superweek. We’ve never had attrition at this rate.
“No other course has decimated the field like this one.”
Pinfold told the crowd the racers would climb the equivalent of 20 kilometres during the race.
“There’s no one with the strength to pull away,” Pinfold declared about halfway through.
Oh, but there was.
Lay, a Montrealer who won a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics in team pursuit, did just that. She already had a series victory in Delta on Friday and was looking for another, so she took off. In most cycling races, the pack usually reels in breakaway riders.
Not this time.
The former speed skater strung her lead out to such an extent that, when she turned off of Columbia onto Eighth, the pack was just coming around the corner at Sixth.
“Put away the stopwatch and break out the calendar, that pack is not in sight!” said Pinfold.
The pack resigned itself to not catching Lay, so the rest of the riders concentrated on battling it out for second. During the race’s final laps the field was reduced to 18 and Lay was finishing laps more than a minute ahead.
Near the end, when she looked back before turning onto Eighth, there were no other riders in sight on Columbia.
“It’s definitely the nicest thing in the world to look back and not see anyone. You know your efforts are going to good use,” said the 29-year-old Lay, who won gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.
The midpoint breakaway was planned all along by her Rally cycling team.
“We just want to make it hard and aggressive, that’s what we wanted to do. And if someone came with us, then we’d play off of that,” said Lay, who finished the 38-km, 40-lap race in 59:24.
“But if we get the break, then that’s good too. We had the numbers to control the field from the back. We seized the opportunity when a counter attack went, and I was able to go on when one of the girls got tired. I got away a little bit easier. We wanted to try and make it hard and see what we could do, and we definitely did that.”
Lay has had more success track racing than on the road. But a course with hills, she said, suits her, and New West has an abundance of inclines.
“I really like grindy, powerful courses. I especially like short, punchy climbs,” Lay said. “When the course gets hard, that’s when you’ve got to attack, and we did that perfectly. You have to make use of the climb because it’s hard for everyone.”
Rally teammate Sara Bergen of Vancouver finished second, 39.75 seconds behind Lay. Third went to another Vancouverite, Stephanie Roorda.
No one ran away from the pack in the men’s race, but the attrition was almost as large with only 60 of the 129 starters going all the way. Knauer made a late charge to edge out Davide Vigano of Italy and New Zealand’s Campbell Stewart at the finish line, doing the 50 laps in 1:04.17.73.
Like Lay, Knauer is a track specialist, so when he toured the course earlier in the day he got excited.
“I stayed behind in the pack. I saved my energy for the last attack. I managed to get 50 metres between me and the pack, then I knew I just had to stay on the bike, keep my line and it’s my victory,” said Knauer, who, like Lay, took home $2,600 for his win.