Now prominently flying the black and red of Saturn, Cruz repeated his stunning performance at the 137-mile Olympic trials road race in Jackson, Miss. on May 20 with a sprint victory. The win will land him in Sydney come September the winner of the race gets an automatic slot on the Olympic team.
"My team supported me all the way throughout the race. When the race came down to a field sprint, I felt confident that I could get the job done, said Cruz. Our original plan was to help Frank McCormack (fourth place) win the trials. But things did not happen and we went to plan B, which was for me to win the field sprint.
Cruz has followed a circuitous route to U.S. cycling stardom. In 1984, the 13 year-old Cruz biked through his hometown of Los Angeles to watch Alexi Grewal win the cycling gold medal.
Fascinated by the race and supported by his bike-racing father, Cruz started racing. But by 1990 he was out of the sport and concentrating on his career as a pharmacist. He returned to competition in 1995, again after being reminded of his passion for the sport while watching a race and, this time the Nevada City (Calif.) Bicycle Classic.
Cruzs sprint came about after a hard-fought race through the tree-lined streets of residential Jackson. With a field that included all of the major U.S. trade teams and contenders for the Olympic team, all on form and extremely motivated to grab the one automatic berth on the team meant that anything could happen.
Midway through the race in rainy, steamy Jackson, a break spearheaded by Cruzs teammate Trent Klasna (Saturn) and former USPRO national champion Eddy Gragus (Jelly Belly) went clear of the field on the eight-mile loop course.
Mercury, the dominant U.S. team the past two years, was caught out of the break and went to work to pull the move back. By the time Mercury had caught the break with two laps to go, a rested Saturn team was in perfect position to force their race tactics.
Mercurys Chris Horner and U.S. Postal Services Frankie Andreu, who each won one of the Olympic trials road races in 1996 (four selection races that year), made aggressive moves, but the field had yet to split for good until one lap to go.
A move by Saturns Frank McCormick set up the final 11-man break, which included four riders each from Mercury and Saturn.
Mark McCormack (Saturn) attacked on the final climb up Woodland Hill but couldnt hold his lead to the line, but his move set up Cruz perfectly for the sprint. He timed his jump past Derek Bouchard-Hall (Mercury) to clearly take the sprint, and ink his name next to Lance Armstrongs on the five-man Olympic roster.
"I struggled with two laps to go. I was trying to concentrate on the last part of the race, and Frank helped give me a boost. The entire Saturn team won these trials, Cruz said, obviously happy to have such a strong team to ride on this year. We rode as a complete team and the plan worked out well. If not for Trent Klansa (Pine Valley, Calif.), and his early break, who knows what would have happened with the final outcome."
Although the weather was bad in Jackson, it was bad enough in other parts of the country that two members of the U.S. Postal squad Christian Vande Velde and Kirk OBee missed the race due to horrible air travel conditions, which undoubtedly put a crimp in the style of the top U.S. team. Chances are, however, that one or more U.S. Postal Service riders will be picked for the team by coach Jim Ochowicz on August 1
1. Antonio Cruz, Long Beach, Calif., Saturn, five hours, 21 minutes, 31.90 seconds
2. Derek Bouchard-Hall, Palo Alto, Calif., Mercury, same time
3. Frankie Andreu, Dearborn, Mich., U.S. Postal Service, same time
4. Frank McCormack, Leicester, Mass., Saturn, same time
5. Dylan Casey, Mountain View, Calif., U.S. Postal Service, 5:21:33
6. Danny Pate, Colorado Springs, Colo., Saeco/Villi & Villi, same time
7. Trent Klasna, Pine Valley, Calif., Saturn, 5:21:39
8. Chris Pic, Buford, Ga., Mercury, same time
9. Mark McCormack, N. Easton, Mass., Saturn, 5:21:43
10. John Peters, Santa Rosa, Calif., Mercury, 5:21:52
In the womens trial the two big teams controlling the 65-mile race were Saturn and Autotrader.com. But the rider who thought she had the best chance of winning took top honors, and a spot on the three-person womens Olympic squad, to be announced July 19.
"I did not know what to expect, said Nicole Freedman (Charles Schwab) after she dispatched her breakaway partners in the final sprint. I was confident about my chance of winning the race, and even told some of my friends last December that I could win the Olympic Trials. The course suited my sprinting abilities, and the race strategy fell into a perfect situation for me. I wanted a field sprint, and that is what I got."
When a decisive break containing riders from both Saturn and Autotrader.com got away with two laps to go, Freedman, 27, knew she had to get on board. After bridging to the move with the help of Mina Pizzini (Procter & Gamble), the talented sprinter took the race into her own hands, pulling hard and then attacking on the final climb.
When her late attack didnt hold and the lead seven riders came back together, the group slowed for a tactical match sprint perfect for Freedman. She lined up her drive to the line perfectly, winning by a bike length over Pam Schuster (AutoTrader.com).
A one-time middle distance runner in college, Freedman dreamed of winning an Olympic medal like her idol, marathon gold medal-winner Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Now Freedman has a chance to win a medal, but shell use two wheels instead of two legs to power her across the road course in Sydney this September.
1, Nicole Freedman, Stanford, Calif., Charles Schwab, 2:38:56.0
2, Pam Schuster, Northridge, Calif., Autotrader.com, 2:38:56.7
3, Mina Pizzini, Philadelphia, Team Procter & Gamble, 2:38:57.0
4, Jen Dial, Northampton, Mass., Proteus.ASI, 2:38:57.3
5, Kim Smith, Highlands Ranch, Colo., Timex, 2:38:57.8
6, Julie Hanson, Superior, Colo., Saturn, 2:39:01.0
7, Kim Morrow, Greenville, S.C., International Christian Cycling, 2:39:01.0
8, Tina Mayolo-Pic, Dahlonaga, Ga., Autotrader.com, 2:39:07.6
9, Jenny Eyerman, Encinitas, Calif., Jane Cosmetics, 2:39:09.3
10, Karen Dunne, Colorado Springs, Colo., Elita, 2:39:09.4
Olympic cycling trials coverage on PAX TV:
Track cycling, women's road cycling: Saturday, June 10 (9 - 11 p.m. E/P Time)
Men's road cycling: Saturday, July 1 (9 - 11 p.m. E/P Time)