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Cycling - 03. June 2008.

Road to Europe for U.S. Women, Part 2: True Grit & Determination

By: Kathie Reid
This story is a follow-up to an article detailing an experimental program through which USA Cycling arranged for three women to gain European racing experience without taking the usual National Team path.
When Megan Guarnier (Los Gatos, Calif.), Emily Zell (Sausalito, Calif.) and Melissa Doherty (Laramie, Wyo.) were invited by Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s Director of Endurance Programs, to race in Europe, these relative newcomers to the sport were keenly aware of two things: They were being given an opportunity typically reserved for women who’d proven themselves at the highest levels of domestic racing, and the racing would be intensely challenging.
Miller was also aware of two things: Though not yet seasoned enough to be full-fledged National Team members, these were women who exhibited the potential and grit necessary to eventually succeed in the European peloton, and their first experience in Europe needed to be a positive one or they may not want to go back.
While originally scheduled to spend April racing in French Cup races on a composite team directed by Chris Georgas, a Canadian living in France, due to a variety of injuries and illnesses on the National Team already in Lucca, Italy, all three women ended up racing as alternates with the National Team before heading to France. They raced in Italy’s Costa Etrusca at the end of March and Guarnier spent even more time with the National Team, racing in Italy’s Alfredo Binda World Cup, Belgium’s Tour of Flanders, and Holland’s Drenthe-Dwingeloo before joining Zell and Doherty on the composite team for a final French Cup at the end of April.
Racing with “the Big Girls” in Europe
Though the three women have experienced success in the American peloton – Guarnier and Zell have been teammates on Proman, a domestic professional team, while Doherty raced for the University of Wyoming – they all realized that racing in Europe would be a new world … and they were not disappointed.
In describing her two days of racing with the National Team at the Costa Etrusca, Doherty, who had never been to Europe, said, “When I first got there, it was just very chaotic … I was confused about what was going on because everything is different.” In her initial confusion, she even missed her first sign-in when she had to stay back with Miller to get her team radio fixed. And the actual racing? “It was hard from the start. I lasted probably an hour both days, and then got blown off the back.”
Zell had a similar reaction to the intensity of the Costa Etrusca. “It was so hard, obviously, and I did not have the greatest races,” she said. Like Doherty and Guarnier, she realized that racing with the European women’s peloton – with fields as large as 150 to 200 in many races – would be physically and mentally intense, and that she was there simply to begin to learn how to survive. The Costa Etrusca came just one week after a nearby World Cup, “so a lot of the same women just stayed in Italy and raced those races,” she explained. “The girls on the National Team said those two days were as hard as the World Cups.”
Guarnier did end up racing in World Cup races since she was with the National Team longer. Like Doherty and Zell, she loved it, but was also amazed at how tough it was. “It was a little awkward for me to be the weakest link all the time,” she said. “That was the mentally tough part, just day after day.” Though her “team player” instinct drove her to want to contribute to team tactics, she did realize that she was doing what she had to – learning to survive each day, and improving little by little.
By her last race with the National Team, Gaurnier managed to stay on the front for the first time and was ecstatic. She explained that Brooke Miller was trying for an intermediary sprint, so the American women were at the front keeping the pace high. “Even though I wasn’t able to send off an attack,” she explained, “I was actually at the front … within the top 15 girls every time an attack went. And then for a section, I was actually on the front, and it was really cool! I was like, ‘This is where I always want to be! This is where all the big girls always are!’ And that was really fun,” she said with a laugh.
All three women greatly appreciated the opportunity to race with and learn from the National Team that, at different times, included Lauren Franges (Asheville, N.C.), Carmen McNellis (Durango, Colo.), Chrissy Ruiter (Bend, Ore.), Alison Powers (Boulder, Colo.) and Brooke Miller (Shaker Heights, Ohio). They recognized that the more experienced women understood that their energy would mostly be spent just trying to hang onto the group. “Everybody is so understanding of where you’re coming from,” Guarnier said. “They’ve all been there.” Zell agreed, “the National Team girls were amazing, great, so kind and patient, and really supportive. It was awesome.”
Racing in France
Doherty and Zell left the National Team first, heading off to France and Georgas’ composite team with whom they raced in three French Cup races. Though they said it was still difficult, they both perceived that it was not the same level as the Costa Etrusca. “It was still kind of crazy compared to the U.S.,” Doherty said. “But it was more low-key … I could take part in the race and not get completely blown away.”
Zell felt she was more of a player in these races, too. And she also felt that the level of racing, still higher than in the U.S., pushed her to limits she’d not attained previously. “I’m happy with my performance in the French races. The first race, I was able to make the first group, so that was really good.” She had a bad crash in this group while it was hailing and raining, and said she dug deeper than she ever had “to get back to that group and finish the race despite being in the crash and despite the pain.” While she feels she has dug deep before, she has long felt she can do more. “There’s some kind of wall that I haven’t cracked yet,” she said. “So I came really, really close in France that day. So that’s good, to always chip away at that.”
One of Zell’s proudest moments came in the last race, the Chambray, where Guarnier joined her and Doherty. World champion Jeannie Longo was in that race, as was the current French national champion. “I was missing home … as great as the trip was, and I just wanted to end it with a bang,” she said. She was at the front of the race early on. “Before I knew it,” she said, “I was attacking the field of so much talent. I looked back and I had a break … and there was Megan … she was … one of the last ones to snap off with me … so it was great.” While they were in the break, Doherty was back in the main field with a New Zealand teammate, working at the front of the main group. As the break dwindled, Zell and Guarnier worked with several other women until Longo eventually caught them. The Americans felt satisfaction at ending the trip on such a positive note.
Returning Stateside More Focused and Determined
All three women went to Europe with the intent of accomplishing a variety of personal goals, and they all returned having done that – and then some.
Doherty is the least experienced racer, having raced primarily at the collegiate level. She went to Europe hoping to not only gain valuable experience, but to make contacts that might help her find a team for the future. She hadn’t, though, expected to sign with a team on the trip – but Georgas helped her do just that.  He noticed on her race license that she didn’t have a team. “I know a good team with the race program that Melissa needs to develop her potential,” Georgas explained by e-mail. “So I put them together.” Doherty will return to France in June to race with a French women’s team, Montauban, through September. “It’s a perfect situation because the girls on the team are more my level,” Doherty said. “And they’re about my age, so I think we’ll be able to work together.” They will take her to a variety of UCI races, including the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale.
Guarnier hoped to gain valuable experience in Europe, too, but also was intent on “putting her legs out there” for the National Team. Of course, she realized once there that her challenge would be to simply survive with the pack. But, she said, in addition to learning many important things from the National Team, “It changed the way that I thought about training and how hard I have to train. What I can actually do.” She was amazed by how hard the National Team women push themselves on training rides. “It changed how hard I thought I had to go, and I know I need to train harder. I need to push harder every day … That’s basically the biggest thing [I learned], is how much work I have ahead of me … I think I can do it, and I’m excited to be able to do it and bring myself to the next level.”
At 30 years old, Zell found cycling later than Doherty and Guarnier, but realizes she has time to aspire to higher levels of the sport. This trip, though, succeeded in pushing her more confidently in that direction. “I think that more than anything, it really gave me a lot of clarity and focus,” she said. She has made some major changes since returning in order to devote more time and energy on her racing career. This includes switching teams and signing with ValueAct Capital – who she raced with for the first time at Tour of the Gila where they took the overall win – as well as quitting her job so that she can travel to more races. She said that she thinks the intensity and aggressiveness of racing in Europe will “either knock you down and you’ll never want to go back … or it completely inspires you to focus more, and to shift those priorities to make sure you’re taking the steps to get back there.” She is thrilled to be taking those steps.
And Zell’s assessment – that European racing either makes or breaks you – is shared by Miller, who carefully designed this experimental program so that women would have a good first experience. He intends to continue the program in some form, sending two or three women over at a time to race with Georgas’ composite team as an intermediary step before possibly racing more extensively at the National Team level.
“The big thing was for them to come here, see the level of the races [that the National Team participates in], and then go to some French Cup races and actually be able to participate, and get off the front,” he said. “I think they did exactly what I’d hoped would happen.”
About USA Cycling   
Recognized by the United States Olympic Committee and the Union Cycliste Internationale, USA Cycling is the official governing body for all disciplines of competitive cycling in the United States, including road, track, mountain bike, BMX and cyclo-cross. As a membership-based organization and sanctioning body, USA Cycling consists of 64,000+ members, including 57,000 competitive cyclists, 1,500 coaches, 4,000 student-athletes, 2,200 officials, 350 professional cyclists, and 200 certified mechanics. USA Cycling also sanctions 2,500 competitive and non-competitive organized cycling events throughout the United States annually, as well as 1,800 clubs and teams. Associations of USA Cycling include the United States Cycling Federation (road, track & cyclo-cross), the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (mountain bike), the BMX Association, the National Collegiate Cycling Association and the United States Professional Racing Organization. USA Cycling is also responsible for the identification, development, support and promotion of American cyclists through various athletic initiatives and programs including the USA Cycling National Development Team, the USA Cycling Women’s National Team, the USA Cycling Junior Development Team, Talent Identification and Regional Development Camps, domestic and international race calendars, direct athlete funding and support programs, and educational camps and seminars. USA Cycling also fields and supports U.S. National Teams for various international events, including the Olympic Games, World Championships, Pan American Games, Continental Championship and World Cups across all levels and disciplines of competitive cycling. USA cycling further supports grass roots and locally-based initiatives through its 32 Local Associations and comprehensive network of licensed and certified coaches and officials. Additionally, USA Cycling conducts National Championship events for amateur and professional cyclists, awarding more than 600 national titles annually to men and women in junior, U23, masters, elite, professional and paralympic categories throughout the various disciplines of competitive cycling. To learn more about USA Cycling, visit www.usacycling.org. For media-related or general inquiries, please contact USA Cycling Director of Communications, Andy Lee at 719-866-4867 or alee@usacycling.org.   

This Article Published 2008-05-23 14:10:14 For more information contact: asmith@usacycling.org

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