By Kathie Reid
Fans of women’s cycling are familiar with Americans like Kristin Armstrong, Christine Thorburn, Tina Pic, and Amber Neben not only because of their success on domestic professional teams, but because they have been a part of USA Cycling’s increasingly successful National Team program. Traditionally, women have been selected to race for the team over in Europe only after proving themselves with top results on domestic professional teams.
photo US Cycling
However, things could be changing. The outstanding depth of talent in American women’s racing combined with a fortuitous set of circumstances has led Jim Miller, Director of Endurance Programs, to take a chance on an experimental program. In April, while the American National Team is racing in World Cup races, three relatively unknown – and as yet, unproven – American racers will race in National Team jerseys in a series of French Cup races.
And the Stars Aligned
Chris Georgas is an American who directs a women’s composite team in Limoux, France. The team is often composed of racers from New Zealand and Canada, and he is like an “independent contractor” or “gun for hire,” Miller explained. “Without investing in a full-fledged European program, [countries] can send him two or three riders” who he houses and enters in European races to “get the experience they need so they can go home and race for the national team.”
Miller has known and respected Georgas for years. A few months ago, Georgas e-mailed Miller and offered him a few spots on the team for some French Cup races in April – no payment required, just an opportunity to send a few girls and try out the program. Over the ensuing days and weeks, things just fell into place, and Miller is sending three women.
Coast-to-coast talent, from the shores of California...
Emily Zell, a 30-year-old former triathlete, turned to bike racing four years ago and races for California-based Proman. Team manager Nicola Cranmer told Miller about her when teammate Shelley Olds declined an invitation to ride with the National Team this year. In discussing Olds’ decision, Cranmer asked if Miller would be interested in Zell. In her first full season as a cat 2 in 2007, Zell had some great early results before a crash derailed the rest of her season. She started this year with a second place overall at Valley of the Sun. Miller was intrigued, and with Georgas’ offer in mind, told Cranmer that if Zell could pay her own way over to Europe, he may have something for her.
He then set out to find one or two other girls. “I didn’t want to send one girl on her own because you’re taking some chances,” he said. “I think that for the women, if they have a good experience the first time they race in Europe, then they want to come back.” While he has complete faith that Georgas will give them a good experience – “He’s like a father figure and he’ll take very good care of them” – he realizes that racing in Europe is challenging on many levels, and the familiarity of American teammates would be beneficial.
Melissa Doherty, a 22-year-old from Laramie, Wyoming, found cycling her senior year in high school after growing tired of running injuries. She entered some bike races, fell in love with it, and joined the race team at University of Wyoming where she is now a senior. Having done well on the collegiate scene, she sent her race resume to numerous European UCI teams, and secured a spot on Rapha LifeForce in Great Britain to begin summer 2008.
A mentor suggested she contact Jim Miller to find a good coach, and he directed her to Frank Overton, a Boulder-based coach who also assists Miller with the National Team in Europe. A Wyoming-native himself, Miller also began keeping tabs on Doherty. “She comes from a high school in Wyoming that’s notorious for cranking out Division I cross country runners, and she ran varsity…all four years…I know that she has some sort of engine, but she hasn’t been racing bikes long enough to really show it,” he said. He believes, though, that with two to three more years racing, people will know her. In February, Rapha LifeForce folded. Miller knew that Doherty had a ticket to Europe that her aunt had bought her. He e-mailed her and told her to hang on to that ticket – and then he had two women to send to Georgas in France.
…to the Adirondacks of New York
Megan Guarnier grew up swimming in her home state of New York, and had intended to take up triathlon at Middlebury College in Vermont. When a hall-mate suggested she enter a bike race her freshman year, though, she found her true passion and, at the age of 22, has now been racing bikes for four years. She quickly accrued good results for local teams, and a regional composite team, Tria, introduced her to team tactics in stage races like Altoona. Last year, she joined Terry Precision Cycling, and competed in her first UCI races. She relocated to California earlier this year after college graduation, and is racing for Proman.
Miller invited Guarnier to USA Cycling’s Talent ID Camp last summer, where he was impressed by not only her testing, but her entire demeanor on and off the bike. A self-described “notorious results seeker,” Miller followed her progress moving into this season, and was impressed enough by what he saw to invite her to do a few races as an alternate with the National Team. When the opportunity with Georgas presented itself, he figured he would send her to France for a month, as well.
And then there were three...
Doherty, Guarnier and Zell all recognize that the opportunity that has been handed to them – to race in Europe in a USA National Team kit as relative newcomers to cycling – is an incredible one. Doherty spent some time in Italy during college, but has not been to France. “I’m really excited to go ride over there. Even just training on the days we’re not racing will be great,” she said. “And the food, the culture, I think I’ll be gaining a lot.”
Overton, Doherty’s coach since December, also recognizes the uniqueness of this chance. “For Jim to have put together this little trip to the French Cup races for the younger girls, it’s an amazing opportunity,” he said. Because these races are a step down in competition from where the National Team usually starts in Europe – the World Cups, for instance – Overton sees it “as an intermediate point, rather than jumping into the deep end.” Guarnier, who has never been to Europe, is also awed at this opportunity. “This is why I’m cycling, to be able to really push myself,” she said. “I really wanted to race in Europe…This is one of the steps in my dream of cycling, and I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.”
Guarnier is coached by Canadian Julie Hutsebaut, a teammate and director from Terry Precision, who herself has raced extensively in Europe. “Going to Europe will show her another way of racing that complements the U.S. women’s national circuit, which is getting stronger every year,” she wrote in e-mail. “I am really happy that USA Cycling noticed her and is providing her with this unique learning experience that should be decisive in her cycling development.”
At 30 years old, Zell recognizes she has come to the sport later than some, but also knows that women can be hugely successful in cycling well past her age. “I know I’ve got talent, and I know I’m a strong rider,” she said, and while she realizes being invited to France is a huge accomplishment, she recognizes it is just a beginning. “I’m still looking at this as a chance, as almost a try-out still…I still want to show them what I can do.”
Zell is coached by Giana Roberge, who is also her teammate and director on Proman. Roberge has not only raced in Europe, but has directed teams there. She wrote in e-mail that she sees Zell’s incredible potential, and hopes she will “stretch her boundaries by racing with some of the best women athletes in the world.” As her coach, she hopes that Zell “is able to take part in the ‘European experience’ in such a way that she comes home stronger, smarter, and more in love with the sport of cycling than ever.”
And a little National Team action to top it all off...
Miller initially invited Guarnier to race a select few races with the National Team before heading to France for the month to join Doherty and Zell for five French Cup races. Due to a variety of circumstances, including the broken collarbone sustained by National Team member Katheryn Curi Mattis, she is now slated to spend the majority of her time in Europe with the National Team, and will only join Georgas’ team for the last French Cup race – Chambery – at the end of April. Zell will race all of the French Cup races with Doherty, but will also race in the Costa Etrusca in Italy with Guarnier and the National Team at the end of March.
Guarnier and Zell are well aware of the benefits they will gain by racing with National Team members Katharine Carroll, Chrissy Ruiter, Lauren Franges, Carmen McNellis, and Alison Powers. “I can’t wait to work for them, to just put my legs out there for them,” Guarnier said just one day before heading over to Europe. “I’m excited to meet them, learn from them, and get to know them as people. They are the kind of people I have put on high pedestals … and to be able to be on their team? I’m really excited about that.”
Zell is also familiar with the accomplishments of the National Team women. “They’re women I’ve heard about and raced with before in the States, and it’s an honor … I’m just hoping I can hold my own and help them in any way possible. I’m looking forward to riding in support of them.”
Into the future...
Miller is optimistic about the outcome for not only the three women headed to Europe, but for the impact their trip could have on furthering the women’s development program. “I hope it works well and it’s something we can [continue to] do,” he said. While the depth of talent in U.S. women’s racing has strengthened his National Team, it has also made getting on the team much more competitive. “You have to be one of the top 10 to 15 girls in America now,” he said. “It’d be really nice to have an alternative where you could have a kind of development team where younger girls … could come and get some experience. And will hopefully make it onto pro teams in America because of it.”
Guarnier, Zell, and Doherty may just pave the way.
This Article Published 2008-03-25 15:16:49 For more information contact: [email protected]