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Warming up before the time trial.

Warming up before the time trial.

First-year rider Ben Wolfe gives a moment-by-moment look back at the Valley of the Sun stage race, the team’s first of the year.

The 2013 race season is officially under way for the Jelly Belly p/b Kenda Cycling Team. After wrapping up a great two-week training camp in sunny San Marcos, Calif., where I met my new team, took tons of photos, got amazing swag, and had some great team bonding experiences, we all got down to the business of racing at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race in scenic Phoenix. We were motivated to start the season strong and deliver some great results.

After a six-hour van ride across the desert to Arizona, we arrived at host housing and were greeted by our most inviting host, Bill. After a quick bite and some coffee, we kitted up and headed out for a short ride on our hot new Focus Cayo Evo race bikes! Christiaan was first to put his bike to a real speed test when he raced the neighborhood kids around the block … It was close in the end and we had to go to the camera for the photo finish. Those kids show promise!

After the neighborhood crit race and the spin were over, our awesome host Bill had a tasty pasta, chicken and salad dinner waiting for us to dig into. Stomachs full, legs ready, we all eased into relaxation mode, watched some television and eventually called it a night.

Friday’s time trial was the first official day of racing for the 2013 season and my first race as a pro! We were all excited to test our legs and check out how the winter homework went. We pinned the numbers onto our new Pactimo skin suits, ate breakfast and were out the door! We arrived nice and early to the start so that we could relax (notice the trend) and get a solid warm-up in before the start.

All aboard the Focus TT machines with new 3T disc wheels we were ready to smash it! We all went out and gave it what we had and finished with five riders in the top-20. Ian finished ninth, Nic was 10th, Luis was 12th, Brad was 13th and Sean was 14th. That out of the way, we were ready to throw down at the Stage 2 Road Race.

Our plan for the stage was essentially to team time trial into the crosswind section and cause a field split. We had a solid plan, now we just needed the wind to be in our favor. We arrived at the race course and immediately got excited: WIND! Knowing that this meant we were going to ride hard in the crosswind section, I got kitted up, threw on the 60mm 3T dish wheels (which handled like a charm) and set out to warm up, which not many guys do for a 160k road race.

Once the race started, the team got together (as best we could) before the turn to the crosswind section and put the hammer down. After a few rotations through, we saw that it wasn’t doing the damage to the field that we had intended, the wind was more of a headwind than a cross wind. We persisted and Nic and Morgan did manage to get up the road with a few other guys. Nic grabbed all the KOM points available and won the KOM jersey for the race!

It all came back together in the last 25k and we knew that from that point on, we were going for the stage win. This is where my description of how the race went gets a little fuzzy (I was on auto-pilot to just do what I was told). We worked very well together in the crosswind section, keeping the team together and making sure Sean, Luis and Christiaan were ready for the finale. With about 6-7k to go, Brad took a flyer to put the pressure on the Jamis-HB team to chase. They felt the pressure and Brad got caught with 3k to go, right at the base of the finishing hill.

From this point on, my work was done and I dropped off the back but the team didn’t drop off: First Ian launched a move, then Luis, then Luis again, putting more pressure on the Jamis team and setting up Christiaan for the sprint. With 200m to go, Christiaan opened up the sprint. Ben Jacques-Maynes inched past him in the final few meters to take the win. We finished second, sixth and seventh on the stage. The first proper race on the Focus Cayo Evo showed it is a true racing bike and to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ridden a stiffer bike in my life. All in all a great day at the office for the team.

The third and final day of the race was the criterium in downtown Phoenix, an absolutely beautiful city. The course was an eight-corner, pancake flat course. We were “keen to win the stage” as Christiaan put it. We took a lap and the back half of the race course felt more like a sector of cobblestones in the Paris-Roubaix than a U.S. criterium. I was worried about flatting or even breaking a wheel on any of the potholes, crevices or reflectors on the course.

The race started fast and never slowed down, with attack after attack. After several failed attempts at breakaways, one dangerous move got up the road, all the major teams were represented — except for us! Of course that meant we’d have to get on the front and chase, team time trial style. After 5-6 laps of us chasing, the gap came down from 30 seconds to nil and the racing started again with attacks from everybody, including the Jelly Belly boys.

Our plan was to go for the stage win by setting up our own Brad Huff, one of the best sprinters in the business. We wanted to take over the front with a few laps to go and lead Brad out into the last corner for the win. We fought our way up to the front and it turned into a drag race between the two strongest teams in the field. Going into the last corner, Brad opened up the sprint! He came up behind JJ and then hesitated for a moment before he jumped again. In the end he lost momentum; it was a very close race with Brad finishing a close second to JJ Haido.

We were happy with our results, two second place finishes, the KOM jersey, and the Best U-23 rider, Luis. We are motivated and confident that we are headed for a strong season. We look forward to some great racing and some great results for all of our sponsors who make this possible for us!