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Nature Valley Grand Prix - NE

USA, June 14-18, 2006

Tougher NVGP builds to hilly climax

One of the most important US domestic stage races, the Nature Valley Grand Prix kicks off this Wednesday, June 14, in Minnesota. The five-day event has been reconfigured for 2006 in an attempt to increase the drama of the battle for overall honours. The stages this year will be become progressively more vertical as the week wears on, changing the type of rider who will be in contention for the overall winner.

The men's field includes strong squads from Health Net, Jelly Belly, Toyota United, Navigators Insurance, and Kodak Gallery - Sierra Nevada. The women's field is equally strong, with squads from Colavita / Cooking Light, TEAm Lipton, Webcor-Platinum and Victory Brewing.

Organisers say the 2006 fields are the strongest yet in terms of individual riders as well as overall quality. The men's field will include current and former US national champions Dave McCook (Jelly Belly), Tim Johnson (Health Net), Phil Zajicek (Navigators Insurance), Frank Pipp (TargetTraining) and Ben Jacques-Maynes (Kodak Gallery - Sierra Nevada) along with three-time Canadian national champion Gord Fraser (Health Net) and two-time Mexican national champion Jose Garcia (Toyota United). The women's field is equally strong, including Olympic gold medalist Sarah Ulmer (Jazz Apple) and current and former US national champions Tina Pic (Colavita / Cooking Light), Christine Thorburn (Webcor-Platinum), Laura Van Gilder and Kristin Armstrong (TEAm Lipton).

The NVGP starts on Wednesday June 14 with the Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial, a new 4.5 mile event along the Mississippi River. This is a relatively flat, out-and-back course with a gradual climb as the riders approach the turnaround.

The first road stage is likely to be one for the sprinters as the 60-mile Cannon Falls Road Race on June 15 rolls through the Minnesota countryside. There is little shelter on much of this course and winds may play a major factor, but with no major climbs organisers are predicting a field sprint finale.

The midway point of the race is the Minneapolis Downtown Classic, in the heart of the entertainment district. This is definitely one for the sprinters, with a flat, fast L-shaped course. Technical corners and high speeds can favor small breakaways and the leader's jersey has changed hands here in the past.

The penultimate stage, June 17's Mankato Road Race starts in Mankato and then winds through Blue Earth County, with 80 miles of relatively flat riding in wide-open country where wind could be a major factor. The race goes vertical when the riders return to Mankato, entering a challenging 2.3-mile finishing circuit. This circuit includes Main Street Hill, a stair-stepping 0.6 mile climb that averages 14 percent. With four laps on this tough circuit, the Mankato Road Race will establish the riders to beat for the overall title.

The final stage is nominally a criterium, but the 's 1-5 mile circuit features two climbs, including Chilkoot Hill, the climb to the finish that averages 18 percent. This is likely to be the decisive stage as the brutal course rips the field apart on the last day.

NVGP kicks off women's series

The Nature Valley Grand Prix will also be the first event of the 2006 Women's Prestige Cycling Series, which also includes the International Tour de 'Toona and the Bermuda Grand Prix.

Webcor-Platinum returns as the team to beat in the 2006 series. Their roster includes 2005 series champion Christine Thorburn and 2005 series best young rider Erinne Willcock. Team scoring provides bonus points for riders under the age of 26, so Webcor-Platinum's early season acquisition of Alisha Lion, runner-up in the 2005 young rider competition, puts them in a strong position to repeat as the top Series team in 2006.

Thorburn may be challenged for the early lead by Colavita - Cooking Light's Tina Pic and TEAm Lipton's Kori Seehafer. Pic, primarily known as a sprinter, finished a close second in last year's tough Nature Valley Grand Prix and is currently ranked #1 on USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar. Seehafer, a product of the Minnesota racing scene, finished third at the Nature Valley Grand Prix last year.

Willcock will be tough to beat for the Series Best Young Rider competition. She's showing good form this year, as evidenced by her recent win at the Joe Martin Stage Race. Likely challengers include teammate Alisha Lion and Victory Brewing's Lauren Franges.

The sprinter's title is up for grabs this year. Ina Teutenberg appeared to have a lock on the title in 2005, but then dropped out of the running when her team failed to send a squad to the Bermuda Grand Prix. With Teutenberg racing in Europe this year, the sprinter's competition is likely to be a three-way race between Colavita's Tina Pic and Gina Grain and TEAm Lipton's Laura Van Gilder.