The race that almost never happened is not only alive and kicking, it’s one of the biggest tests of a young season. 

The West Branch Classic rose from the dead last week, as race organization decided to go ahead with less than the necessary registrations. Operating on a wing and a prayer, the race is back for 2012 with a renewed sense of purpose. For racers around the state, West Branch is no longer just the race before Mount Pleasant, it’s the race we need to keep.

Some of the most versatile riders in Michigan have signed up for the Classic, which looks to be a wonderful change of pace from the other races this spring. The West Michigan Stage Race’s road course totaled just over 800 feet of climbing, less than a single lap at West Branch. Frankenmuth is famously pancake-y, and the Classic offers up the only other summit finish in the state aside from the Cherry-Roubaix. The sprinters will have to wait a week until Mount Pleasant, but the all-arounders and climbers will have this one circled in thick, red ink.

West Branch really, truly is about the finishing climb. The Mur, as we’ll refer to it, is 1.25 miles long at just over 5%. That length and average gradient include the long run up to the steeper sections, which hit about 11% for just under a mile. There is a short false flat at the top to the line, but in years past, the winner is usually determined on the slope and wobbles to the line with locked-up legs and starry eyes. It’s a very vertical game of chicken; the first person to attack will run out of steam. So will the second. The best formula is to be the last to go and still have a bit of gas going over the top.

The rest of the course features gradual, rolling climbs that do not do too much to break up the back. The peloton often hits the smaller ascents at over 25mph, with the only exception coming on the second right turn as the road turns up. Aside from the finish, it’s the only place for climbers to make a move, especially if the wind isn’t too strong.

In the Pro race, the light turn out will make for some dramatically close racing, with Bissell AVG Nuvo’s trio of Alex Vanius, Alexey Vermeulen and Derek Graham providing a three-pronged attack. Vanius is fresh off a win at the Melon City Criterium (and this spectacular article from kolo t.c.) and is the odds-on favorite for the victory at West Branch, though Vermeulen and Graham are extremely dangerous options as well.

The Top Banana Competition returns at the West Branch road race, and it is interesting and exciting to see that current leader Mike Anderson will be in attendance, gunning for some points to pad his lead with. Mike Tachella of Ada Bike Club will also take the start, as are Andrew Florian and Jason Young of  Team PriorityHealth. In a field just sixteen riders strong as of 5/29, having even just one teammate is a massive advantage, but will put a lot of responsibility on Bissell and PriorityHealth.

For the Pro Women’s race, consider last season. Hagerty Racing outnumbered the field and threw Lauri Brockmiller up the road, forcing the other women to pull along the ever-dangerous Susan Vigland. You can guess that Vigland dominated, even with some other events which we will set aside for now. For 2012, however, consider the tables decidedly turned. Einstein Racing now offers up Mackenzie Woodring, Johanna Schmidt and Amanda Ryan against just Susan Vigland, making Traverse City teams the lone racers of the day. Undoubtedly there will be some late registrations, but even if the field doubles, it’s still going to be Einstein’s race to lose. No word yet if Brockmiller will make a return to West Branch, though no one would like her to make the trip as badly as Susan Vigland. Einstein has three options on hand, though Johanna has the most to gain in Top Banana points. Surely every team is basing their season on the chance to win $1.87 worth of bananas at year’s end.

Check back this weekend for race photos, recap and even video of the West Branch Classic.