For years, Amber Neben, the 2008 U.S. Olympian and a two-time winner of the Tour de l'Aude Feminin -- the world's most prestigious stage race for women -- heard great things from other cyclists about the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the popular five-day stage race in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
There aren't many multi-day stage races in the U.S. for elite women, and Neben wanted to try it. But neither Flexpoint, her Dutch-based team from 2005-08, nor Germany's Equipe Nurnberger Versicherung, for whom she rode in 2009, chose to compete there, and Neben preferred not to race by herself.
After switching teams last year, to Webcor Builders, Neben finally got to experience Nature Valley, finishing eighth behind winner Shelley Olds (née Evans). This year Neben is back at Nature Valley with HTC-Highroad, part of a loaded field for the June 15-19 event that includes Olds, four-time champion and 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong Savola (back after giving birth to her first child in the fall), world road race champion Giorgia Bronzini and Evelyn Stevens, Neben's teammate who finished second last year.
What brings so many big names in women's cycling to the northern Midwest? Enthusiastic crowds for one, especially for the criteriums in downtown St. Paul and the chic Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Though men also race at Nature Valley, women have always been the focus, according to race director David LaPorte. That's not always the case nationally, which makes events like this important for the future of women's cycling in the U.S.
"Cycling in general in America is kind of funny," Neben said. "It's not a mainstream sport like the NFL or baseball, but it continues to grow every year. It's had its ups and downs and that's expected. But the more successful an event like Nature Valley is, the more appealing it is for other areas of the country to put on something similar."
Said LaPorte: "Most races treat women like second-class citizens. They give the best time slots and the most attention to the men's race, and the women are an afterthought. Then they wonder why they don't get big women's fields. My opinion is the women will support the races that support them."
Armstrong, for instance, made Nature Valley her last race on U.S. soil before her retirement in 2009 and included it on her 2011 calendar.
Olds, of Diadora Pasta Zara, calls Nature Valley one of the best women's races in the U.S.
"It attracts the top-level teams in this country and some of the best riders and teams in the world," she said. "The fact that it's a six-stage race and a five-day event offers somebody from out of the country enough of a reason to come, because you get quality racing for five or six days rather than one day.
"And it's fun because of the location. Because they get really great crowds, the racers want to come here."
Nature Valley is one of only four events on the Women's Prestige Cycling Series. Neben won the first, the Redlands Classic, but lost the overall lead to Andrea Dvorak of Colavita Forno D'Asolo after the SRAM Tour of the Gila that ended May 1. Bronzini will race for Colavita at Nature Valley.
Though Nature Valley offers a larger purse to the men ($25,000) than the women ($15,000), LaPorte said that's based on feedback from the women, who he said prefer less costly entry fees and other financial considerations. Men's teams pay $195 per rider to enter and women $125.
"It makes me uncomfortable to offer less prize money," he said. "But if they ask me to do something and I don't do it, that's disrespectful."
This year's event begins with a time trial and a criterium in St. Paul on June 15. Stage 3 the next day is a 66.5 mile road race through picturesque Goodhue County, about 35 miles southeast of St. Paul, that finishes with six laps through Cannon Falls, Minn.
The Stage 4 criterium used to be in downtown Minneapolis, but street construction forced its relocation to Uptown two years ago. Crowd size doubled, LaPorte said, so the stage remains there. Crowds come because LaPorte markets the criteriums as "a big party with a bike race in the middle," selling food and drink and including a race for amateur cyclists.
The 81.3 mile Menomonie (Wis.) Road Race follows on June 18 before the event concludes June 19 with a challenging criterium in Stillwater, Minn., on the bluffs of the St. Croix River. Every lap of the latter includes a run up Chilkoot Hill at a 22 percent grade, billed as the steepest climb in North America.
"I'm looking forward to getting down to that last race and getting off that hill for the last time," said Robin Farina of team NOW and Novartis for MS Cycling, a consistent top-10 finisher in National Racing Calender (NRC) events who was 21st last year. "But the support around the race is pretty phenomenal."