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Bentonville, Arkansas, is a small Midwest town with a population of just under 50,000, but it is quickly becoming a hotbed cycling destination in the United States. The small town kicks off the three-day Natural State Criterium Series (NSCS) with the USA CRITS race getting the action started on Friday night. The neighbouring towns of Rogers and Springdale host the Saturday and Sunday races respectively.
The town of Bentonville, population 50,000 and headquarters to Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has quickly become a hotspot for cycling in past years, thanks in large part to Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of the late Walmart founder Sam Walton.
The Walton brothers have spent considerable time and effort to put Bentonville on the cycling map. They worked to create a large mountain-bike trail network around the town. Last summer, their investment group, RZC Investments, took a majority stake in Rapha, strengthening their strong tie with the cycling community for the considerable future.
Beyond the Walton brothers, the three-day Natural State Criterium Series (NSCS) is produced by the Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks, also known as BikeNWA, the leading advocacy group for road cycling and bike commuting in Northwest Arkansas. So, while the Waltons have done extensive work to attract mountain bikers, BikeNWA is making strides to bring those that like skinny tires to towns like Bentonville. All proceeds from the NSCS support programs and advocacy for a more bike-friendly region.
After racing on the wide boulevards of Harlem, the narrow streets of Main Street, Bentonville, may come as a shock to a few riders. The circuit on the opening night is tight; the narrow course and tight corners means there will almost certainly be crashes, making the front of the peloton the safest place to be — and prompting a nonstop fight for position.
Bentonville’s L-shaped course configuration could cause mayhem. The constant left and right turns make it easier for a breakaway to get out of sight. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”It’s possible the peloton could lose ground quickly.
The course is short, at just under a kilometre, which complements the short duration of the races. (Pro women race 50 minutes and pro men race 60 minutes.) Intense and fast racing is very much expected.
The women’s pro race will be a doozy for Friday’s USA CRITS event, with nine of the top-10 riders in the overall series standings on the start line. The must-watch battle of the night will be between ISCorp and Colavita-Bialetti. Both teams have four riders in the top-10 overall classification, with Samantha Schneider and Tina Pic the team leaders, respectively.
ISCorp’s Schneider won her third race in the series at the last USA CRITS event in Harlem, which brings her strike rate for 2018 up to 75%. The one blemish was in Oklahoma City, where she missed the winning breakaway due to poor positioning. ISCorp swept the podium in Harlem, so there is no lack of confidence among the squad at the moment.
Harlem was an important race for ISCorp, as Schneider had lost the series lead to Pic after Oklahoma City. Schneider’s win and Pic’s 10th-place finish meant the ISCorp rider went from two points behind to having a 67-point lead in the overall series standings. Caroline Baur, the U25 classification leader, is quickly becoming vital to Schneider securing the series overall title. The Swiss rider seems to always be by Schneider’s side, protecting her and providing the last lead out for the sprint to the line.
Pic won a crazy night of racing in Oklahoma City at the third stop on the USA CRITS circuit, but a tough race in Harlem did not help her in the overall standings. She’s second overall, but has a solid domestique in Christina Gokey Smith, who sits fifth overall in standings. Gokey Smith is a powerful second option to Pic.
Rachel Langdon (Gray Goat Mobile-Bullseye Total Media) has an incredible 18-lap lead in the CyclingTips Lap Leader competition after a large haul in Harlem. While she finished 15th in Harlem, Langdon’s attacking style sees her continue to rack up points every race. She sits third overall in the standings and is only 13 points behind Pic.
An important rider to watch this weekend in Arkansas is Leigh Ann Ganzar (Wolfpack-Hyperthreads), who will be donning the stars and stripes as recently crowned US national criterium champion. She sits down in 17th place in the overall standings, largely because she has raced just two of the four USA Crits events this year. Ganzar’s surprise win at the national championships shows she is most certainly on-form and could be a dark horse to make a late run at the orange Colavita leader’s jersey.
David “Gutt” Guttenplan (Support Clean Sport-Guttenplan Coaching) has had a long road back from being hit by a car more than two years ago while out on a training ride. On Friday, he will don the orange Colavita series leader jersey for the first time. Guttenplan is on a mission to win the series title and after a large haul of points at the last race in Harlem, he looks to be well on his way to making his dream a reality.
Guttenplan is an aggressive rider, always on the lookout for the breakaway. This has cost him finishing points in the past, as he often burns too many matches before the sprint. He finished 10th in Harlem, but gathered up many points during the race by leading laps or winning the mid-race point sprints. Guttenplan’s team strength was a question mark through the opening races of the season; but last time out, the team rode strongly to help keep “Gutt” at the front of the peloton.
Notably, Holowesko-Citadel and the likes of powerhouse sprinters John Murphy and Miguel Bryon will not be present in Arkansas. Also, fast finisher Daniel Holloway (Texas Roadhouse) will not be racing, as he continues his preparation for the track season with the U.S. national team.
Conveniently, viewers can catch all of the crit races without missing any of the Tour de France coverage, which starts on Saturday. The two events offer a great juxtaposition of local and international racing for cycling fans. All three days of the NSCS will be streamed live on usacrits.tv. Coverage of Friday’s USA CRITS race begins at 4:30 p.m. EST on Friday with the amateur races, before the pro men toe the start line at 8:20 p.m. EST. The pro women begin at 9:30 p.m. EST.
The pro start times get earlier and earlier as the weekend progresses. On Saturday, the pro women’s race starts at 5:40 p.m. EST and the pro men race at 6:30 p.m. EST. For Sunday’s final NSCS race, the pro women start at 2:00 p.m. EST and the pro men start at 3:00pm EST.