Olivia Ray (Rally Cycling) rocketed up the final straight to win the Grant Park Criterium on Sunday and claim to the richest single-day prize purse, $21,000, in North America for pro women. Skylar Schneider (L39ION of Los Angeles) then duelled Maggie Coles-Lyster (DNA Pro Cycling Team) over second spot, with the L39ION rider taking it in a photo finish.
In the men’s pro crit, Tyler Wiliams (L39ION of Los Angeles) sprinted from a four-rider leading group to take his second win in the opening weekend of USA Speed Week. More than a bike length behind, Benjamin Wolfe (Best Buddies Racing) followed in second, Oscar Sevilla (Team Medellin EPM) placed third and Spencer Moavenzadeh (ButcherBox Cycling) faded to fourth.
Now in its 16th year, this is the first time the Grant Park Criterium has been part of USA Speed Week, offering eight races over 10 days. The regional competitions opened with races in Spartanburg, South Carolina and Athens, Georgia, which are also featured as part of the USA CRITS national series.
Schneider won the two opening nights of racing for women, with Coles-Lyster earning podiums as well. Ray, the New Zealand criterium champion, was fourth in Spartanburg and fifth in Athens, but the win at Grant Park in Atlanta was her fourth victory of the season.
“It’s pretty awesome. We had big plans for Athens and it didn’t work out so today we had to give everything, and we did,” Ray told Cyclingnews after the sprint. “It worked out really well, with Holly [Breck] taking the lap before [prime], and then us winning it. It was good.”
The women’s race had 79 entries, with Ray supported by three other Rally Cycling teammates – Madeline Bemis, Holly Breck, and Olympic bronze medallist Emma White while Olympian Lily Williams was a late scratch due to illness. The field stayed tightly packed for the majority of the contest, L39ION of Los Angeles and DNA Pro Cycling controlling a high tempo at the front.
With repeated circuits up the punchy incline on “Swimming Pool Hill” prior to the uphill finish, only 31 riders remained with five laps to go. Ray conserved energy on a hot, humid afternoon for the final burst of speed.
“We tried so hard at Spartanburg and Athens, but it just didn’t work out. We never stopped fighting. It felt pretty special to get a win after working so well together and made the weekend a success.”
Riders noted tension in the peloton of the final race, which was due largely to the amount of money up for grabs. Race organisers with L5Flyers Cycling Team said the move to significantly multiply the prize money for women, typically equal to the $5,000 purse for men, was a move to spotlight the women and let young girls know “they have a place to race.” It is also the only race during Speed Week to feature the women as the final race of the day.
“Early on we had two L39ION women register, Kendall Ryan and Skylar Schneider, and that prompted us to do something big. So that gave us some momentum to do what we did, to showcase the women, let’s celebrate them. And then it attracted a lot of the other teams, like Rally who has brought in their bronze medal racer from the Olympic Games. It’s been great to see the women get excited and it has created a real positive energy,” said Stacy Robinson, member of L5Flyers Cycling Team and co-director for Grant Park Criterium.
She said they “threw a dart” on selecting $20,000 based on La Course by Le Tour de France offering €20,000, and the increased purse was made possible by local sponsors.
“We just put a stake in the ground and said $20,000. Ninety per cent of our sponsors are local businesses around this neighborhood. They have been supporting our race for a number of years, but many quadrupled what they gave us in previous years based on the news of the women’s race.”
The five remaining races on the Speed Week lineup offer equal prize purses of $10,000, split by the pro men and pro women, while Athens offered a $14,000 total pro purse and Spartanburg $15,000, also equally split.
Prior to the women, the pro men competed for an hour with 59 riders taking the line as the pavement dried from an earlier downpour. Four L39ION of Los Angeles riders hit the front in the opening quarter of the race and strung out the peloton through Grant Park, a three-corner course with a sweeping bend on the back section through Grant Park.
Bernardo Suaza (Medellin EPM) and Thomas Gibbons (Automatic Racing) were in the front group with Tyler Williams, Alec Cowan and Ty Magner of L39ION of Los Angeles at the mid-point of the race. Then the composition of the lead group changed 20 laps later to include Spencer Moavenzadeh of ButcherBox Cycling and Danny Estevez (Best Buddies Racing) with Sevilla and Wolfe in the mix.
With five laps to go the final break of four got away to decide the podium.
“We have a really strong team, so we always want to have numbers in the front and I had a feeling it was going to play out similarly to yesterday [Athens] where there would be a breakaway for the selection. I realised probably 20 minutes in that I had legs to be in the front,” said Williams, who won the Athens Twilight Criterium just 18 hours prior.
“These courses are pretty suited to me. They’re a little bit harder, different from what we have been doing the rest of the year, with the hills. They’re not just four-corner, flat crits. It’s a change of pace.
“Confidence counts for a lot too. It’s good building momentum, especially going to Joe Martin [Stage Race] with the team. It’s a big goal. I haven’t done a UCI stage race in three years now. I’m excited to see what I can do there and what the team can do there.”