The final half of Team USA’s “Spance” trip marked my second time to France. This trip was much better than the previous time, despite the weather not cooperating with my mental image of “Europe in Spring” (It’s 75° and sunny, which is my mental image for nearly every place I go.)
The format for the Urt International Paracycling Challenge was similar to the Bira in the fact that they’re both cripple races, and stage format. The Urt race started with a hilly road race followed by a mostly downhill time trial, a crit then a circuit race. Like the Bira, men and women started together for the road race, but we were split in half- Men’s C5-4 in one group and the women’s C5-1 and MC3-1 started together.
The road race was on a distinctly un-paralympic course- there were hills! Now, I’ve never thought of myself as a climber, and none of my past results exposed a hidden climber within. I was nervous, which is uncharacteristic of me, and I mean really nervous, more so than any race I can remember actually. Going in to France, my goal was to race with the men, as that’s how I’m going to get faster, and better race experience. After seeing the course, self-doubt started creeping in- what if I get dropped? What if I totally embarrass myself as a bike racer? Well, I told myself to “Nut up, or shut up and race your damn bike!” It’s just a bike race after all. It’s not something foreign. Once the race was underway, I made sure to have good positioning on the climbs and it paid off on the second lap- the group split and there I was in the front group. Woah, not expecting that. The 5 other guys in the group did double takes when I pulled through, apparently they weren’t expecting a girl. We stayed away, and the day was a huge confidence boost. While I’m not riding away from them, I can definitely hold my own.
The next morning’s time trial was definitely a course for me- 8.6k, slightly downhill, a few bumps mixed in, all ending on a little kick into a tiny town. It’s becoming a trend, but the Americans slayed the TT. To borrow a line from Clark, “Time trials and football- that’s what America does!” Of our six bikes, we won five categories which put all five of us in the GC leader’s jersey for the next stage. Once again, the other athletes on the podium were counting the American jerseys standing beside them. I have to admit, that’s pretty cool to see.
That afternoon, after getting lost in the French countryside looking for the next race, we finally made it to the circuit race. The course was rad- shaped like a bow-tie, it would definitely be a challenge. Luckily for us, we were in Europe where “cornering” hasn’t yet been discovered, we’re all crippled, and we would race in the worst rain we’ve ever ridden bicycles in.
To be fair, it was sunny when we started and the rain didn’t start until probably the 10th minute of a 50 minute race, so it wasn’t all in the rain. Once it started however, it was on. I kept my foggy glasses on because there was so much rain, I would’ve had to close my eyes. The uphill sections of the course were like rivers, with water cascading down the gutters and ruts in the road. The flat road had 3” of standing water which made it exciting riding through the rough roads. It was like a game of Memory trying to remember where the potholes are. And then the front wheel fell into a hole and you found it. In it’s always good timing, nature turned off the fire hoses and the sun came out as soon as we were finished. After peeling off soaking kits, we threw them all in a trash bag to be sorted and washed later. We just wanted to get warm, and get back to the hotel.
The next and final stage was another 50 minute, plus 2 lap race. Of all the races I’ve done, this is one that I’m most proud of. You don’t often get the opportunity to race as a team in paralympic racing, so when it comes around, you remember it.
I have the greatest teammates in the world, and I would do anything for them. When I came around a corner and saw Sam picking himself up after a crash, my brain kicked in to action mode. He only had an eight second lead on GC, and this crash could cost him the win. TAJ was there too, and after making sure Sam wasn’t hurt, we were like fighter pilots going into formation. The team time trial intervals we did at camp would really pay off now. My race was wrapped up, but Sam’s was in jeopardy. Come hell or high water, the gap was going to be closed. We rolled like a freight train to close the gap opened up after the crash. TAJ’s powertap said we rolled close to 30mph, and closed about a 2 minute gap in under a lap. After a final shove back into the pack, Sam was back in the group and my job was done. It was especially satisfying because he was able to take the stage win, and held onto his overall.
The awards ceremony provided us with the most unique prize we’d ever received- a ham! Each winner got a 25lb salt cured ham and French berets to go with the Spanish txapellas. It was definitely a great experience to go to Europe to race for two weeks. The team was absolutely amazing! Our winnings included 100lbs of ham, nearly 60 bottles of wine, and a bike box full of trophies. I learned that I can race with the men, the training we’ve all been doing is definitely paying off, and 2010 promises to be a stellar season for everyone. The world better be ready because the Americans are coming.