CP: This year as a member of Optum and the US national team, you have stepped up to an even higher level of racing with stops at the most prestigious races in the US as well as an early European campaign with the “Block 1” National team trip. What have been a few highlights of the season so far and has it been a smooth trajectory over the past few years to the top of women’s cycling?
AC: The experiences that I’ve had in 2015 racing for Optum Pro Cycling and the US National Team have exceeded even my wildest dreams as a cyclist. The biggest highlight of my career is Optum winning the Team Time Trial National Championship. There is nothing more satisfying than putting in endless hours of work on every detail of team time trialing from communication, to length of pulls, to gauging start effort, to suffering limits, and having it all come together with a win. Earning a national title with teammates that I’ve trained with, suffered with, roomed with, slept on airport floors with (!) is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Racing the spring classics in Europe with the US National team is another experience that I look back on almost with disbelief that I had made it to that level. I had chills on the start line of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Ghent (not only because it was 40 degrees and threatening to rain!) as I heard the helicopter above filming the race, looked down at the USA jersey that I was wearing, heard the loud cheers of the fans, and realized that I was touching shoulders with the best cyclists in the world. The magnitude of that experience is still sinking in.
When dabbling in bike racing in 2011, I never anticipated that 4 years later it would be my full time job. That said, when you do something that you love so passionately, it feels like a natural progression to see how far you can take it. From Steamboat Velo, Vanderkitten, Optum and USA Cycling, I have been lucky that doors have continued to open for me as I’ve expanded my racing from a local level to a National and ultimately International level.
CP: Optum is one of the strongest Professional women’s programs in the United States - What aspects of the team have made it successful in terms of race results as well as enjoyable for you to be a part of? Was winning the team time trial National Championships a example of the team firing on all cylinders?
AC: Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies is ranked top 10 in the world for women’s professional cycling. After spending 5 months racing for Optum, it’s clear to see how the team is so successful. The high expectations of the racers and staff were established at the first team camp in January. We spent 2 weeks in Borrego Springs, CA where we met with sponsors, dialed in our equipment, and had a very specific training plan that included race simulation, lead outs, TTT practice, camp champ hill climbs, etc. My take-away from camp was that every one of my teammates was an incredibly strong rider, and our director, Pat, had selected each person based on a specific contribution that they could make to the team.
Similarly, our staff includes a soigneur, Phoebe, who previously worked with men’s professional cycling teams and handles everything from daily massages, to water bottles, nutrition, following in team car, etc. Our mechanic, Ben, travels to every race and has all of our bike measurements (almost committed to memory) and ensures that our race bike, TT bike, spare bike and home bike are all up to par. Pat, a former World Tour Professional Cyclist, knows everything there is to know about racing tactics, training, teams, etc. He diligently selects teams and races, plans logistics and effectively communicates race tactics.
From the racers, to staff, to equipment, to support, everything about Optum is world-class, which paves the way for success in races.
CP: You are listed as an “all-rounder” on your team profile – What roles do you typically fill during a key race? Can you give an example of how you might work in a race to achieve team goals and tactics?
AC: My job on the team is a support rider. The course dictates who we will work for. Leah Kirchman is a world-class sprinter, and strong enough to win regardless of the finish (bunch, hill top, etc.).
Typically, we will work for Leah and another racer. My role is to stay near the front to cover attacks in the races. This means that if any threats go off the front, I need to chase them down and neutralize the move. Assuming I’m still in the race at the finish, my role is to lead out our GC riders. Getting a lead out right is tricky, and something that we’ve had varying degrees of success with. Every team is fighting for position and attempting to get their sprinter to the front. The timing is critical as well, since dropping a sprinter off with 500 meters to go typically isn’t going to end well. When a lead out does work, as it did in Joe Martin and Tour of CA, Optum takes a stage win, and it’s magical!
CP: From your experience just a few years ago as a new road racer, what advice can you give to riders who are just starting out as new members of Steamboat Velo and maybe doing their first Steamboat Stage Race this year?
AC: A few tips for new racers:
It is better to go into a race under trained than tired. For races that you want to do well, do not go into them over trained. 3 days before the Steamboat Stage Race is not the time to improve your climbing skills.
He/she who puts out the most watts in a race does not (typically) win. Racing is all about conserving energy. Broadly speaking, that means sitting on wheels whenever possible. While this is fairly obvious at a high level, the more I race, the more I learn what it really means. For example, just because you’re a faster climber than those around you, doesn’t mean that you should move up on a climb. It might be appropriate to sag the climb knowing that you can move up easily on the upcoming downhill.
Eat and drink every 30 minutes. Obvious again, but very easy to forget during the chaos of a race. Be diligent about a nutrition plan. I try to eat 200 calories per hour. During hectic races, I can’t bother with opening packages, so my tactic is to open everything before the race, so it’s easy to access. Finish a bottle during the first 30 minutes of the race. Take feeds whenever you can because later in the race you might not be able to (someone attacks in the feed zone, you miss the bottle, you forgot that they were only feeding for 1 lap, etc.).
Know your competition. Knowing who the strong racers are, and what their strengths and weaknesses are is critical. If you are in a breakaway, you need to understand if you have a shot of winning or if you are with a world-class sprinter (if that’s the case, you might want to attack early). You need to know who might attack, but doesn’t have the strength/endurance to finish the race (you might not want to be in a break with that person). Know the field, and read the signs that they give off in the race.
Go hard when it matters, the pace will settle. I remember starting one of the hardest races in Europe and looking down to see my watts were at VO2 Max and thinking ‘I can’t sustain this pace.’ The reality is that nobody can, but it will become tolerable. Bike racing is digging beyond levels that you ever thought imaginable when it’s hard and conserving whenever possible.
Hone in your acting skills! Never let your competition know how you’re feeling. If you’re in a break and feeling good, slouch your shoulders, exaggerate your breathing and let them think you’re suffering. If you are suffering, take a deep breath and ride by like you’re not even working. Cycling is a battle of wills and the mental game is very real. That confident smile that you give your competition as you pass them on a climb might be the final gesture that cracks them!
Cliché as it sounds- maintain perspective, learn from every race, and enjoy it. A few years ago I crashed in a criterium in Vail. After watching the video, I was horrified to see that I could have avoided going into the crashed riders if I had just moved to the left instead of the right. My coach helped me put it in perspective. “Next time keep your head up, be quick, stay relaxed and know that just because there is a crash near you, you can often avoid it. Most importantly, its just bike racing!!!” The best races I’ve had are the ones where I start relaxed and open to the possibility that I might win and I might not finish and either outcome is okay.
CP: Looking from your perspective at the top of the sport in the United States, what are a few things that local race associations, race clubs, and promoters should be doing to further develop competitive cycling in the US and specifically women’s racing?
AC: Any sort of publicity that race associations, clubs and promoters can do is helpful in developing cycling. The more people understand about racing tactics and the stories behind the racers, the more interesting the sport becomes. Simple social media plugs are great. For example, blog, tweat, facebook special interest stories on a few racers, representing all categories.
On a professional level, women’s racing seems to be on an upward trajectory. Additions to the women’s calendar such as 3 stages at Amgen Tour of CA, USA Pro Challenge in CO, and Le Course (France), show a commitment to racing opportunities for women. Although salaries, race earnings and racing opportunities are not on par with men yet, there are extensive efforts that are moving women’s racing in the right direction.
On a local level, Colorado has a solid racing calendar that includes hill climbs, crits, stage races, one-day road races and time trials. While diverse racing opportunities exist, we need to encourage women to get out there and give it a try. Mentoring programs and clinics are a great way to get new cyclists racing. Something as simple as a friend suggesting that you drive to Golden to do a hill climb could be the catalyst that launches a career in professional racing!