Cecchini wins women’s race in her criterium debut

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Elena Cecchini, of Italy and the Estado de Mexico team, takes 1st place during the 2014 Winston Salem Cycling Classic Criterium Women's race in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday Apr. 19, 2014. (Bruce Chapman/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — With the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic now on the map as a UCI-sanctioned race, two young riders did their best to put themselves on the map in the professional criterium races.

In the women’s race, Elena Cecchini held off a group of heralded riders for a victory in her first criterium; in the men’s race, Brecht Dhaene of Astellas Cycling jumped into the lead group early and held off a late charge from the UnitedHealthcare team.

Entering the WSCC, neither winner was in the top 30 in the standings among riders in USA Cycling’s National Criterium Calendar.

Cecchini, riding for Estado de Mexico-Faren, made a late charge to win the hour-long race around a loop through downtown Winston-Salem.

Heading into the last lap, two riders from the UnitedHealthcare team, including defending champion Alison Powers, held down the top three positions with the Estado de Mexico-Faren racers chasing.

In addition, Shelley Olds, winner of Friday’s road race was among the contenders.

Given the reputations of her competitors, Cecchini said she followed their lead and tried to make her move at the last possible moment.

When the peloton emerged from the final turn of the race onto Trade Street, Cecchini, 21, was in front.

“I knew they were the favorite ones, so I only tried to stay with them and then I knew I had to become first in the last corner,” she said. “I just did it.”

Joanne Kiesanowski of Team TIBCO finished second, with Powers of UnitedHealth in third and Olds in fourth.

Despite the fact that Cecchini had never competed in a criterium, she felt comfortable with the racing style because of how she spends the offseason training for road races.

“It’s just my first time in criterium, but I’m used to them because I do a lot of track during the winter,” she said. “It’s like a track race here.”

Dhaene was slightly more experienced in criterium races; he competed in one last year in Belgium.

He looked the part of an old pro on Saturday, though, as he jumped into a group of three riders ahead of the peloton about halfway through the 90-minute race and held on for the victory, despite late trouble.

He admitted that he didn’t make the charge with victory in mind at the time.

“I was not hoping of making it to the finish, so I just jumped across to make sure the team would have somebody in there, and in the end, it worked out,” he said.

As he kept pace at the front, he started to believe that he had a chance to win his first UCI race, and it became clear as the group of three riders stayed ahead of the pack heading into the final two laps.

But disaster nearly struck, as his left leg started cramping during the last half of the final lap.

“I knew if I could make it … through the last corner, I was going to win,” Dhaene said. “So it didn’t matter at that time, I just embraced the pain and went as hard as I could in the last 50 meters.”

“Everything was falling apart.”

Luke Keough of UnitedHealthcare finished second with Daniel Holloway of Athlete Octane Cycling in third.

The group of three riders had built a lead of nearly 30 seconds, but the peloton made a late charge, including a contingent of UnitedHealthcare riders. With four laps remaining, half of the top 10 was made up of cyclists from UnitedHealthcare.

Dhaene said that he had no idea what was building behind him — something that he felt was a blessing in helping him keep his focus on the task at hand.

“I guess that was a positive thing,” he said, laughing.