It's a daunting way to begin a bike race. At the starting line of Sunday's Stillwater Criterium, the final stage of the North Star Grand Prix, riders stared directly into the forbidding asphalt face of Chilkoot Hill and steeled themselves for the first of many gut-busting climbs.
That steep grade couldn't intimidate Carmen Small. She tackled a bigger obstacle late last year, when she and her husband became full-time parents to two teenage nieces in the midst of a family crisis. Though Small feared she would have to retire from racing, Team Specialized-Lululemon owner Kristy Scrymgeour assured her that she could balance her new role with her established one — and Small erased any remaining doubts with a third-place finish Sunday that earned her the women's overall title.
Lizzie Williams of Team Vanderkitten won the final women's race of the five-day, six-stage North Star Grand Prix. Small entered the race with a 14-second lead in the overall standings over Alison Powers of Team UnitedHealthcare and Leah Kirchmann of Team Optum. While Powers finished second Sunday, Small crossed the line only two seconds behind her to capture the overall championship.
Ryan Anderson of Team Optum secured the men's overall title with a third-place finish in Stillwater, maintaining a 16-second advantage over runner-up Luis Amaran of Team Jamis Hagens Berman. Travis McCabe of Team SmartStop won Sunday's men's race, edging Gerry Druyts of Team 3M.
"This is a great win," said Small, who is caring for her nieces while her sister — the girls' mother — struggles with addictions. "I couldn't train as much as I would have liked to, but you just have to figure it out. It's a challenge.
"This is a good confidence builder for me. I haven't had the best start to the season, but I've been slowly coming into form. It's good to know I can do this thing in my personal life and still have success in racing."
After rain and wind pummeled riders in Saturday's Menomonie road race, a stormy Sunday morning gave way to a bright, breezy afternoon for the conclusion of the Grand Prix. Hundreds of spectators lined the 1.5-mile course, which tests riders with sharp curves and a second climb in addition to its infamous hill.
The Chilkoot ascent quickly thinned out the field in both races. As the women navigated 14 laps, Williams sprinted to the front with five laps to go, gritting her teeth on each approach to the hill. Her lead grew to 50 seconds, but the pace behind her quickened in the final two laps, with Small and Powers cutting into Williams' margin as they battled with each other.
Small, who won the women's title in 2012 when the race was named the Nature Valley Grand Prix, credited her teammates and her improved sprinting for the victory. "Leah and Alison did a really good job attacking me in the last two laps," she said. "I wanted to die a thousand deaths. It was hold on for dear life."
Anderson praised his teammates, too. Early in the 23-lap men's race, as others rode more aggressively, the Optum crew stuck together at the front of the chase pack. When McCabe took the lead with two laps remaining, the Optum riders boxed Amaran in, preventing him from challenging as Anderson sprinted up for third.
"We tried to keep the team together as long as possible, and it was fortunate we did," said Anderson, who won the overall title in his North Star Grand Prix debut. "The team was really good all week. It's a special win."