Although it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), winner of the Sunset Road Race at this year's Redlands Bicycle Classic and second overall, may owe her continuing cycling career to a horrific crash that shattered her elbow at the same race just one year ago.
The 32-year-old rider from Boulder, Colorado had already decided that 2011 would be her last season of racing when she went down during the Redlands criterium, causing multiple fractures to the olecranon bone in her right arm. She spent four days in a southern California hospital, recovering from a surgery that required 11 screws and a metal plate to piece her damaged limb back together.
"I honestly was pretty unmotivated going into the 2011 season," said Powers, the 2009 NRC champ who was racing for TIBCO-To the Top at the time. "I had two teams in a row, with Team Type 1 and Team Vera Bradley Foundation that folded the women's teams. We don't do this for the money anyway, but when it seems like the sponsors don't even care no matter the results or anything, and the team folds, it's really un-motivating."
Already doubting her career trajectory, Powers faced six weeks of immobilization and an equal amount of time in painful, challenging rehabilitation. But in an ironic twist, it was the difficult months off the bike that helped convince Powers she wanted to return to the sport.
"I started working almost full time with my broken arm, and I didn't really like it, having to go somewhere everyday," Powers said. "The lifestyle that you have as a bike racer is amazing, getting to just ride your bike. I have a side job as well, which is coaching, but it's very flexible. It just made me appreciate how cool racing bikes is."
Before she could test her new resolve to return to racing, Powers had a lot of work to do getting her body ready for competition at a high level.
"I had to be immobilized for a long time to let the bones heal," she said. "And the worst was getting my range of motion back. Either luckily or unluckily, however you look at it, I had already had a bad knee injury 10 years ago, so I knew exactly what to expect. I knew how much it was gonna suck, but I also knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel."
Three months after the surgery, Powers was back on the bike, training outside again and thinking about racing. She entered a local criterium in Boulder to test the waters.
"The doctor would have killed me had she known I was doing that," Powers said. "I suffered so badly. My fitness was so bad. I finished seventh and was just so proud of myself for racing and not getting dropped and for being able to do it again."
Powers traveled to Las Vegas for the Tour de Nez NRC criterium, where she finished a respectable eighth. She raced again at the Aspen Women's Classic and at the Chris Thater Memorial criterium.
"I suffered every race," she said. "It was so hard, but I'd only been riding my bike for like six weeks."
With 2011 coming to a close and Powers holding a new-found enthusiasm to give another year of racing a try, finding just the right team for 2012 became a top goal. Powers said the fit had to be right, or she wasn't going to race.
"I'm at a point, you know, 32 years old, I want to have a good time riding and racing my bike," she said. "When this opportunity with NOW and Novartis showed up, I had to take it. Some of my best racing buddies are on the team, It's well organized and the sponsors are awesome. It was the only team I was going to sign with. If I didn't race with NOW I wasn't going to race bikes."
Powers signed a one-year deal with the NOW and Novartis team of former national champion Kurt Stockton, who Powers calls "amazing". Stockton's confidence that Powers would return for 2012 and still be able to deliver the goods was quickly repaid at Redlands when she took the final stage win from a select group and finished second overall, just three second behind winner Megan Guarnier of TIBCO. Powers said she would have liked to have won the criterium on the course where she suffered the injury just one year earlier, but she wasn't quite there yet.
"The day of the crit I was like, 'It would be a fairy tale if I won the crit today,' but I didn't have the confidence to do that, and obviously I didn't do it," she said. "But the day of Sunset there was no more pressure. I had won Sunset before, and I had the confidence that I could do it."
The Sunset Road Race uses the same finish line as the previous day's criterium, providing Powers with the opportunity to exorcise the demons from her crash on the same road last year.
"I actually cried on the podium," she said. "Last year I thought I was quitting, and this year I won the race."
It was a stark turn around in just 12 months. And achieving this year's success in the same place as last year's drama has pushed Powers to consider sticking with it even longer than she initially planned when signing with Now and Novartis.
"I was still – even in January – I was thinking I can do this one more year, just one more year," Powers said. "But I tell you, we had the most amazing training camp in Santa Barbara, and we got to hang out there, and I was like, 'Wow, I don't mind coming to Santa Barbara and hanging out. I can do this next year'. And then with the success and how much fun we've had the last few weeks, I've been thinking maybe I could do this for another year, because this is really awesome. I'm having fun, and that's what matters."