I dream in Colorado flags.
I have a package of miniature ones that I use to tag all my belongings with - cell phone to coffee mug to hair dryer. I have a slightly larger one I carry in my luggage for luck. It got to come onto the podium on the final stage of this year's Giro Rosa - I guess it is my version of packing a "just-in-case" fancy dress. When I decided to dress in a "Captain Colorado" costume (see photo) for the press conference before the start of the USA Pro Challenge this year, I actually had to do some picking and choosing, because evidently I own far too many pieces of Colorado branded apparel to wear at one time.
On August 22, 2015, however, something happened that was greater than any of my dreams. As we approached the final kicker into Fort Collins on the second stage of the inaugural women's edition of the race, my friends since high school, Tom Jennings and Lieschen Gargano, stood alongside the road to cheer. Tom was clad only in running shorts and a giant Colorado flag worn as a cape, ready to run screaming alongside my breakaway up to the final crest - at which point, Kristin Armstrong (the eventual winner of the race) turned to me and said, "You win - I guess Colorado is pretty awesome..."
I did win - but the true victory was back in March when the women's race director, Sean Petty, e-mailed me to tell me the big news. This was really, finally going to happen. I've said before that the hardest part about racing is simply that it often requires that I leave Colorado (yes - I am a big baby). Racing without leaving the state was, elegantly put, simply the greatest thing ever.
After a few years on the road, you start to absorb rules and taboos about how to conduct yourself at races - one of the giddy pleasures of racing in my home state was breaking some.
I got to ride home from some stages with my parents (we drove that same highway from Fort Collins home after innumerable swim meets growing up). Regardless of outcome, I let myself feel lucky simply to participate in the event - and what's more, I was somehow able to keep that mature, "winning isn't everything" mindset while racing. (Now, some athletes would claim that they can do this all of the time. I contend that they are either a) lying or b) significantly more mature than I). My friends who came to watch our final circuit race in Golden claimed that I was the only one who was really smiling the whole time. I said thanks, and didn't let them know that it might have been because the "Go Mara!" sign that they were passing around was being held upside down on at least half of the laps. Finally, along the cyclist growth path many of us have our pride deflated as we are informed that while that sprinter or mountains jersey, while very pretty, wasn't actually the jersey that you were supposed to be going for. At this year's Pro Challenge I won the QOM jersey - I did not win the overall. While I have had directors in the past who would hang their heads in shame to hear me admit it - I was beyond proud and thrilled to get to be Queen of [MY!] mountains.
Here is the cliché part - where I talk about what a big step forward this was for women's cycling. Well... it was. The final men's stage was a road course from Golden to our state capital of Denver. For a variety of reasons, the women instead had a hilly circuit race in downtown Golden ahead of the men's start. You know - give the people something to watch while they ate their brunch. The claim was that Golden had the "best fans in the world" - well, by the end of our race, I began to fantasize that the crest of the hill was Alpe d'Huez - fans pressing in so tightly you begin to wonder if the cyclists will make it through. I doubt that a single woman racing that day had ever experienced a crowd like that.
Perhaps I am weak to admit this, but for myself, and I suspect perhaps for some of my competitors, it is possible to doubt the value of your career choices when you race in remote places, and even your mom can't find results. For any profession, we all need, every once in a while to hear, "you matter". The Pro Challenge told that to us with no doubts - it might be enough to get me through the rest of my career.
I would like to pretend that "we don't need the boys" in order to find vitality for our sport, but in reality, I confess that the model of piggy-backing a women's race alongside a men's has some great advantages - at least if I (we) can show some humility along the way. Traditionally, the fact that the men finished with a big road stage, including a significant climb up Lookout Mountain, while we were stuck with a dinky circuit in town honestly would have ticked me off. However, realistically this was the best possible set-up for the promotion of the women's race. You see, traditionally these fabulous and devoted fans in Golden would line up for the men's start, only to see them ride out of town never to return. In contrast, this year they got to see the entire women's race, could hear loudspeaker stories of who was in the peloton and watched the eventual champions of the entire race be crowned. For the women's race to continue and expand, we need communities that support longer road closures and greater impacts on their daily convenience. I hope that the citizens of Golden came away from the 2015 edition with (perhaps?) an even greater connection to the female racers than the male - giving up a full road stage (since it was absolutely my choice anyhow) for that? Indescribably worth it.
Because the men's final stage did finish in a different city than ours, their final (televised) podium ceremony was held elsewhere - in Denver. Seeking the broadest recognition possible for the female athletes, our intrepid director, Mr. Petty, requested we drive to Denver post-race to be recognized on the final podium. Inconvenient? Yes. But let's be real - I would do anything for this race. Sean's request demonstrated his genuine commitment to advancing the women's race, and deep down appreciated it.
The Abbott elders taught me long ago that you can't expect a gift from someone the following year if you neglect to send your birthday thank-you cards. So: to Sean Petty and his team, thank you for making this come true. To the Amy Dombroski Foundation, thank you for advancing Amy's legacy and allowing me to race in your colors while my Wiggle-Honda teammates were contesting the Sweden World Cup. To the teams who showed up to make this first-year race a success - some of whom flew riders over from Europe just for the event - thank you for taking a leap of faith and finance to bring together a field that any race in the world would be proud of. To the communities of Breckenridge, Fort Collins and Golden, my gratitude for accepting the burden of an additional race with enthusiasm. To my family, friends, and the wonderful enthusiastic people of my state, thank you for supporting me for so long in a venture that was invisible to you, and thank you for being there with flags waving (literally) to support a race I have dreamed of participating in my entire career.
I told reporters after the race ended that regardless of the future of the competition, it had been one of the best weekends of my life. Still true. I also said that in terms of advancing the cause of women's cycling, the USA Pro Challenge had the chance to not only be an amazing weekend, but also the start of something huge. I only hope that by this time next year, the 2015 Pro Challenge will have been eclipsed and relegated to being only became the second best weekend of my life.