For the uninitiated, a little background on this race course is necessary. Copperopolis—because of where it falls on the calendar, its ear-catching name and its bumpy roads—has a reputation for being the Nor Cal answer to Roubaix. The middle third of Leesville Gap deserves the reputation Copperopolis has and then some. Leesville’s roads are terrible—there are miles of wheel destroying potholes interspersed with sections of quicksand like gravel. Smack dab in the middle of all of this nastiness, is a climb of over a 1,000 feet, which is second in difficulty to only Mt. Hamilton on the Nor Cal road racing circuit.
Knowing what was in store, the 20+ rider field set out at a leisurely pace. In fact, the only break attempted in the first 10 miles was a nature break. The resulting delay led to a field of men catching the women just as the bad pavement began, enhancing the chaos that always ensues at this point of the course. There were not any distinctive attacks, but constant pressure at the front left only twelve riders in the lead bunch at the base of the climb. After the first steep ramps there were only three: Heather Van Sickle and Nicole Justice (both of Stevens), and Heather Nielson (Touchstone). By the top of the climb this trio amassed a lead of 45 seconds over chaser Molly Van Houweling (Metromint). Passing the summit 20 seconds later were Lisa Mueller (Metromint) and Elle Anderson (Touchstone). They were followed closely by Ellen Sherill (Metromint). Sherrill soon met misfortune, getting an ill-timed flat just after the neutral support car had pulled around her.
It seemed possible that the motivated front trio would take advantage of the splits behind and simply ride away. The difficulties of the course and complimentary strengths of the chasers prevented this. Anderson wielded her excellent descending skills (also on display at Pescadero and Nevada City) to bring Mueller across the gap to Van Houweling. The three combined forces, swerving through the gravel pits together to catch Van Sickle and Justice after just a few miles. The fast and fearless Nielson had moved off the front by this point, but an organized chase from the Metromint and Stevens teammates brought her back in relatively short order. Mueller’s chasing efforts, in particular, stood out.
Soon the group of six reached the only significant hill remaining on the course. Van Houweling went to the front and pushed the pace on this 3 minute bump. Unfortunately, her teammate Mueller, railed by her earlier efforts, was the first to fall off the group. Anderson also succumbed near the top, but righted things on the descent, and rejoined the four riders up front. The five stayed together through the feed zone and onto the windy and flat ten miles of chip seal that lead into the finish.
Van Houweling, the only rider without a teammate (oops), did not like her odds in a sprint, and began to attack on the first cross-winded stretch. Initially, the Stevens and Touchstone riders had no trouble pulling her back, with Van Sickle taking on much of the workload to protect her teammate Justice. Repeated efforts by Van Houweling, combined with a few counter-attacks from the others, slowly had their intended effect, however. Anderson was the first to fall off the pace. Then another flurry of racing action on the home stretch caused a final split in the remaining group of four. Van Houweling and Justice pulled ahead of Van Sickle, who herself had distanced Nielson.
The front duo cooperated until Justice took the lead with a kilometer remaining. She seemed to be setting herself up for disappointment at the line by providing such a long leadout. But as Van Houweling pulled up on her side, Justice put in one final effort and raised an arm in decisive victory. It was a well-deserved first win of the Nor Cal season for this up and coming Stevens’ Rider. It was also great payback for the work of her consummate teammate Van Sickle, who finished in third. Nielson rolled across in 4th and Anderson in 5th, for a strong Touchstone showing. Mueller finished in 6th with a strong solo effort to the line.
For additional reportage, excellent pictures, and post-race comments from Justice, don’t miss Imager’s great report below.
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