The Specialized-lululemon women will toe the line in Sunday's team time trial world championship as the outright favorites for a repeat victory, but even as the team undefeated in the discipline this season, the riders are leaving nothing to chance. The team has been together in Tuscany for more than a week, and had their first official preview of the course, along with the rest of the men's and women's TTT fields on a closed course Saturday morning.
American Evelyn Stevens is part of the returning core group which took home the title in Valkenburg last year, together with Ellen van Dijk and Trixi Worrack, and they are joined by Lisa Brennauer, Katie Colclough and Carmen Small. The sextet have an advantage of having raced the past three team time trials together in the Open de Suède Vargarda TTT, the Holland Ladies Tour and the Lotto-Belisol tour, emerging victorious each time.
Although the team has looked at the course previously, Stevens said it was nice to see it with the roads closed during the pre-arranged team practice.
"We went a nice speed and did a few efforts, and then tried to take some of the corners at speed, but nothing too crazy," Stevens said, adding that most of the preparation came before their arrival. "We made sure to do every team time trial that there was. Racing is the best way to prepare for this event. You can train it, but it's important to go full gas, and it's hard to do that unless the roads are closed in a race."
With just one event for UCI trade teams at the world championships, the team time trial is the most important race of the year for the women, and their sole opportunity to get important television time for their sponsors. For that reason, Stevens expects that the competition will be more fierce than any other race.
"It's going to be hard - Rabobank, Orica, there are good teams. We know we have to perform perfectly to do well. You can't discount anyone. For the sponsors and the women's teams, we get on television and it's a huge highlight."
While Rabo-LivGiant and Orica-AIS are the most commonly predicted teams to stand on the podium with Specialized-lululemon, Stevens said the American team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies could be a dark horse. "They'll be strong. You never know what people can pull out in a big race."
Nearly undefeated in individual time trials this year, Ellen van Dijk is the team's motor, and on a course without big climbs, the long, straight, flat section between Montecatini Terme and Florence will suit her strengths.
"I like it," van Dijk said of the course. "The first part is pretty easy, the last part is pretty technical. It has everything but hills, it will be fast."
The key to the team time trial will be pacing, though each rider knows her own strengths it will be impossible to communicate during the race. Stronger riders might take slightly longer pulls, but experience will be a big factor in the race.
"It's hard to pace yourself because it's 42km and you have your own speed and the speed of the team, so it's kind of challenging. But that's part of the TTT, and what makes it exciting."
All for one, one for all
Small-McNellis, one of the new additions to the team for the year from the Optum team, has had a breakout season in the individual time trial, winning the US national championship and earning her spot in her team's TTT squad. She attributed her success this year to the focus that Specialized puts into the discipline, and not just in terms of equipment.
"They foster that part of the discipline. we have the best equipment, we take it seriously and go to the track, do testing. They invest time and energy into it. But the culture of the team also has a lot to do with it.
"I've been improving every year in the time trial, but the mind set, the confidence - once you have that one good time trial, you realize you can hurt that bad. Plus the motivation on this team - the women are so gifted and you strive to be able to help the team."
That desire to perform to one's best abilities in order to help the team is motivation, but also the cause of nerves in the team, each rider not wanting to let her teammates down. For that reason Small said she hasn't even thought about the individual time trial or road race yet, and is doing everything for the TTT.
"I can't even think about the ITT, you have to be so focused, you don't want to mess up for the team, you want to be on that day. I've put all my energy so far into this day."
Even though world champions in the TTT do not earn rainbow jerseys, just a small emblem on their 2014 kit, the two Americans on the Specialized-lululemon squad have an extra incentive, Small said:
"Evie and I are hoping we can win it because we're registered as a US team so we can hear the American national anthem. Last year they were registered in Germany, so they heard the German anthem. It's the little things that keep you motivated."