Fort Bayard, New Mexico – Michael Rice scored his third top 10 finish in a UCI race this season for the Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team with a fourth-place result Thursday on Stage 2 at the Tour of the Gila.
Teammate Christopher Blevins finished 23rd in the "Inner Loop Road Race" and in the same time as Rice and stage winner Eric Young (Rally Cycling). But it was not enough to keep Blevins in the "best young rider" jersey he earned Wednesday. He now sits third in that classification, three seconds back of Stephen Bassett (Silber Pro Cycling) and tied on time with Bassett's teammate, Alexander Cowan.
Rice said he was not feeling any effects from a crash that kept him from contesting the finish of Wednesday's opening stage. The 21-year-old Australian said he was set up perfectly for the sprint that concluded the 122.6-kilometer stage which started and ended in Fort Bayard, New Mexico.
"All the big teams were organized and the boys set me up in good position," Rice said. "They supported me well into the last corner, which is where we crossed some cattle guards (bars set into the pavement). I knew it was important to be well-positioned over that last one and the boys put me in good position. In the sprint, I just went to the line as hard as I could."
In front of Rice, Young earned Rally Cycling's second straight stage win by beating out fellow American Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) and Jose Alfredo Aguirre (Canels Specialized) of Mexico.
A separate crash Wednesday with 10 km to go involved Axeon Hagens Berman's Jonny Brown and eventually led to his withdrawal from the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour event.
Brown went down when another rider overlapped wheels with him about 10 kilometers from the finish. He landed hard on his right wrist and elbow. While X-rays revealed no fractures, his injuries were significant enough to keep him from starting on Thursday, which was his 20th birthday.
"I have had some pretty sad birthdays, but this might top it," Brown said. "We had decided last night to wait until this morning to make a decision on starting. I tried to ride around the parking lot and couldn't even hold the bars because things were so swollen and stiff. I am very disappointed because I was feeling pretty good Wednessday. Now it is kind of unknown how long I am going to be out. I am definitely disappointed."
With his withdrawal, Axeon Hagens Berman is down to five riders after already starting the race two short of the maximum of eight.
Friday's stage will be a 26-km individual time trial that is expected to shake up the overall standings. Stage 1 winner Matteo Dal-Cin (Rally Cycling) leads McCabe and his UnitedHealthcare teammate, Daniel Jaramillo Diez, by 10 seconds. For Axeon Hagens Berman, Blevins and teammate Jhonatan Narvaez are best-placed overall. Both are 16 seconds off the lead and tied with 24 other riders.
Edward Anderson and Christopher Blevins obviously left a strong impression on the students at San Lorenzo Elementary School. On Tuesday, the two Axeon Hagens Berman riders visited the 100 or so students and talked about bicycle safety and the Tour of the Gila. But it was the tricks that Blevins and Anderson showed off, as well as a special cheer, that were most memorable.
On Thursday, both the men's and women's fields of the race passed by the school. While the students were inside for the men's race, they dismissed and stood along the race course in anticipation of the women's race. As if on cue, they shouted "Go Axeon" as each women's racer cruised by. While it might have drawn curious stares from some of the female competitors, it led to big smiles on the faces of school staffers who knew just how well their students had listened during Tuesday's presentation.
Header photo of Michael Rice by Casey B. Gibson.