By Neil Geoghegan, firstname.lastname@example.org, @DLNSports on Twitter
WEST CHESTER >> The parade of cycling winners at the 11th Iron Hill Twilight Race Series on Saturday evening in downtown West Chester ranged in age from 16 to 50, with the pre-race favorite dominating the marquee Pro Men’s Criterium.
And the undercard champs featured the winningest women’s cyclist in the world, as well as a 16-year-young wunderkind in the amateur race.
But the biggest winner?
“This place is phenomenal,” said Daniel Holloway, who successfully defended his crown during the 70-lap main event, the eighth of nine races that make up the USA Crits Championship Series.
“We have winners in the Criteriums, the trike race and kids’ race winners, but the biggest winner is downtown West Chester,” added Mark Yoder, the president of the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce.
“That’s what we are about. Our job is to make sure West Chester is as good as it can be. At the end of the day we want to make sure people know about this great town.”
The unseasonably cool – and dry – conditions may have helped the event exceed its goal of drawing 20,000 spectators around the eight-block, 0.6-mile circuit.
“The weather is perfect and the crowd is awesome,” Yoder said. “We’ve had an uptick in rider registrations, the Benchmark Community Festival is full and we had the highest turnout of kids in five years.”
Holloway’s second appearance in West Chester bolstered the notion that the 28-year-old Californian is the nation’s premier Criterium cyclist. He was part of a six-man breakaway that lapped the main field with 28 laps to go, and then Holloway exploded through the final two turns on the last lap to easily beat Ryan Aitcheson and Frank Travieso to the finish line.
“With five laps to go, the adrenaline just pumps in,” said Holloway. “At a course like this, the crowd is just so loud, it’s just electric and that just adds fuel to the fire.
“The last two corners are just so dangerous, and I can go into those faster than anybody else and they end up having to play catch-up before the sprint starts.”
It was Holloway’s career best 22nd victory of the season, and his third of the USA Crits Series. With one race to go, Holloway is far and away the individual points leader. He officially edged Aitcheson by 1.623 seconds.
“The course is a four-corner rectangle but the corners are demanding,” Holloway said. “It’s certainly not wide open and smooth pavement. Even though it’s a very simple course on paper, every corner is unique.”
Holloway wasn’t the only rider to successfully defend an Iron Hill crown from 2014. In the most exciting finish of the day, Sweetwater, Pa., resident Laura Van Gilder grabbed, perhaps, her most gratifying triumph in West Chester in the 35-lap Avante Salon Pro Women’s Twilight Criterium.
Now age 50, Van Gilder inched past a pair of riders half her age, outsprinting challengers Amy Cutler and Tiffany Pezzulo in the final few yards to win in a photo-finish. Officially, she prevailed by a mere 43-1,000ths of a second over Cutler.
“I wasn’t sure I had won until they told me after we completed the lap after the finish,” said Van Gilder, who has 400-plus career victories on her resume, including five in West Chester.
“I thought if I could have the momentum over the top, there was a chance. It was a thrilling race. This just happens to be a course I really like. I have never won five times in any race, so this is a record.”
Also a winner in 2014, Van Gilder has now won five times in seven previous West Chester appearances.
“I’m thrilled,” she added. “I’m not getting any younger. I’m proud to be racing 25 years now.”
The cycle racing kicked off with the 30-lap Rothman Institute Amateur Men’s Criterium, and Kevin Goguen – a very promising junior – outsprinted two others to grab the win. A native of Hopedale, Mass., Goguen joined Thomas Detwiler and Alec Ratzell in a three-man lead breakaway that crossed the finish line about 25 seconds before the main field.
“This is the greatest crowd I’ve ever raced in front of,” said Goguen, who is one of 10 children and dreams of racing professionally. “This year I got off to a slow start after breaking my ankle in January. But last year and now that I’m healthy, I’m having success in a lot of races like this one.”
For the second straight year, the Iron Hill Twilight Race Series has been staged in early August, and Yoder believes the new date is catching on.
“This date really seems to work,” he said. “Being close to July 4th previously started to hurt us a bit. People know about the event and now they are starting to get used to us being in early August.”
The competitors had nothing but praise for the venue.
“The crowds were better than last year. The back-side was as crowded as the front-stretch and that’s very rare to find at a Criterium,” Holloway said.
“It’s one of the more technical races of the season because the circuit is so tight,” added Ben Renkema, who placed 23rd. “But it was a lot of fun with all of the spectators gathered in the downtown area. It all makes for a really cool Crit.”
Photos provided by: Scott Rowan — 21st Century Media