Stage 2, June 9, Lowman to Stanley, 58.5 miles
Call it payback.
HP Womens Challenge defending champ Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli (Office Depot) was left out of the winning, nine-woman break on Stage 1, a stage that historically has ended with the pack intact.
When she realized the move was for real, she led a chase that consisted mostly of her riding at the front. Frustrating, to say the least, for the strongest woman racer of all time.
Determined not to be caught out of a decisive move again, Longo-Ciprelli, 42, did the one sure thing to guarantee she would be at the front of the finish in Stanley: attack early and lead the breakaway.
Longo-Ciprellis bulldog, go-for-broke race tactics spurred the move in part, but riding away from the pack is also nothing new for her; last year she won this stage solo.
Going away at the 25-mile mark, Longo-Ciprelli was joined 21 miles later by stage one winner Diana Ziliute (HP Lithuania/France) and Mari Holden (Timex), last years runner-up.
The three worked to maintain the one-minute gap over the chasing pack, but over 3,000-foot Banner Summit Holden was dropped. Longo-Ciprelli and Ziliute would finish 41 seconds up on the pack. By merit of the time gap, Ziliute pulled on the blue race leaders jersey, dropping Anna Wilson (Saturn) to second overall, 46-seconds down.
"It's not surprising for Longo to attack," Ziliute commented, "considering she was not in the break yesterday. She is a born genius and today I was on the same level as her. I never, in my dreams, thought that I could achieve that."
Stage 3, June 10, Elkhorn Circuit Race, 28.5 miles
An evening circuit race at Sun Valley's Elkhorn Village, with 18 laps around a 1.6-mile course, figured to give fans a good look at the best climbers in the race. Fans were treated to climbing, but also got a great view of the two best riders in the race.
Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, over three minutes down in the general classification after missing the break on stage one, knows that she will have to attack every chance she gets. The lithe climber also knew that the Elkhorn stage, with a steep, half-mile climb every lap, was a good opportunity to take time back.
Only the climbers would survive, and on a mostly up-and-down course such as this, a break had a good chance of staying away. After riding aggressively for the whole race, in the process shredding the pack of 114 riders to less than 25, Longo-Ciprelli finally got away with three laps to go.
Unfortunately, the one woman who looks to be as strong as her came along for the ride. Race leader Ziliute knows that all she has to do is shadow the strongest riders, of which Longo-Ciprelli is the one, so she quickly marked her move.
When the two attacked, there wasnt much anyone else could do about it.
"I saw them go up the road and thought, 'Oh no, not again!" said Mari Holden, herself a good climber and winner of the 1999 Women's Challenge Mountain Leaders Jersey. "It was a super-aggressive race from the start. I felt like I was chasing the whole time."
Holden stuck with Longo-Ciprellis move, along with Juanita Feldhahn (Jayco Australia) and Judith Arndt (German National), but lost contact on the last lap and finished with a pint-sized lead pack, which had already lapped nearly half the riders in the race.
The two leaders only gapped the lead pack by five seconds at the line, but put fear into the rest of the contending riders in the early stages of this race. Karen Kurreck (US National), current U.S. National Pursuit Champion, won the group sprint, taking third place.
Second-place Anna Wilson (Saturn) and third-place Ceris Gilfillan (British National) are thirty-seconds behind Ziliute in the overall standings.
Stage 4, June 11, Rupert to Pomerelle, 56 miles
Many expected this stage, with a 12-mile climb to the finish line at 8,000-foot Pomerelle Ski Lodge, to be decisive in the 2000 HP Womens Challenge.
Decisive it was, with one rider dishing out all the pain. Omnipresent Longo-Ciprelli completely obliterated the 114-rider field on the final, seven percent climb up 3,100-foot Mount Harrison, located in hot, south-central Idaho.
After a tepid opening 37 miles, the race leaders moved to the front for the uphill assault to the finish. Attacking from the base of the climb, Longo-Ciprelli indicated no doubt as to whether she had the guts to take back the three-minutes to race leader Ziliute.
Riding strongly at the front, Longo-Ciprelli jumped often, each time checking to see how the solidly built Ziliute was fairing. When Ziliute finally cracked, and her teammate Jolanta Polikeviciute dropped back to pace her, Longo-Ciprelli had an open road amounting to an uphill time trial ahead of her. Crossing the line, she had burst back into overall contention, taking back 2:44 on a group of five which included Ziliute.
"I knew there would be a tailwind, so I knew I had to push," said Longo-Ciprelli, the winningest cyclist in womens cycling history. "When I looked back and saw only Diana (Ziliute) and Jolanta (Polikeviciute), I attacked more. It then became a hill-climb time trial."
When the field had finally struggled in, with some of the top names over 20 minutes behind Longo-Ciprelli, the overall top ten had shuffled dramatically. Longo-Ciprelli moved all the way up to second place, and Kim Smith (Timex) moved into third, ahead of Australian Anna Wilson (Saturn) in fourth.
Stage 5, June 11, Burley, 15-mile TT
When asked whether or not she hoped to make up the 20-some seconds keeping her out of the blue leader's jersey in the stage five, 15-mile time trial, Longo-Ciprelli, who has won numerous world championships in timed events, said: "It is a short time trial. I am not sure I can gain the time back, but I will try."
The 1996 Olympic time trial silver medalist calmly took over the race lead with another scintillating performance, one that reduced former race leader Diana Ziliute to tears.
On a still day, Longo-Ciprelli finished in 31:43, ahead of American hope Mari Holden (Timex) by seven seconds; Anna Wilson (Saturn) was 17 seconds further back, followed by Ziliute in fourth place.
For Holden, the second-place ride was proof that she is nearing recovery from a struggle with chest congestion, one that required an energy sapping, five-day dosage of antibiotics earlier in the race.
"I am pleased, but I would have liked to have gone eight seconds faster," said Holden, who is the five-time U.S. time trial champion and frontrunner for selection to the U.S. Olympic cycling team. "Oh, well. I feel better, and it's been tough because I didn't really feel strong at the beginning of the race. And it's been frustrating because I was in two breaks (in earlier stages), worked hard and then got nothing for them."
Holden moved up four places to fifth overall with her strong ride, but is still 4:19 back of the lead. Dede Demet Barry (Saturn), another American who is fighting to gain the attention of Olympic road coach Henny Top, held the best time throughout most of the day, eventually finishing fifth.
The three-woman U.S Olympic cycling team will be named just after the finish of this race, on June 19.
Longo-Ciprelli, already with three stage wins, looks to be unstoppable, but she knows that her Office Depot team isnt nearly the strongest in the race. Without strong riders protect her from aggressive tactics, she isnt resting on her laurels: "There is more than a week and anything can happen. The big teams will not give up."
The three-time Olympic medalist, known for her solitary nature and stinging comments, seems to be on familiar ground, fighting it out on her own.
General Classification (after 5 of 11 stages)
1. Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, 9 hours, 37 minutes, 43 seconds;
2. Diana Ziliute at 6 seconds
3. Anna Wilson at 1 minute, 33 seconds
4. Kimberly Smith (Great Britain/Timex) at 3:00
5. Mari Holden at 4:19
6. Ceris Gilfillan (Great Britain/British National) at 4:30
7. Clara Hughes at 4:37
8. Jolanta Polikeviciute (Lithuania/HP European) at 5:38
9. Judith Arndt (German/German National) at 5:53
10. Lyne Bessette at 5:56