Lauren Hall's win at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday capped off a successful month of racing for American women in Europe. The Optum/Kelly Benefit Strategies rider traded her trade team kit for the USA National Team stripes, and in her first Belgian race of the year hit the jackpot with a cagey victory from a select breakaway.
A win at Gent-Wevelgem was not initially on Hall's radar. Hall landed in Europe last Friday, and completed a four-hour reconnaissance ride on Saturday. The race was supposed to be a tune up to ease Hall and the other USA national team riders into the larger peloton, cobbles, and European style racing. With few expectations, Hall and her teammates proceeded to cover attacks and push the pace over the famed Kemmelberg. The team's effort enabled Hall to make the final selection, and out-sprint the surviving riders to take the biggest win of her career.
"Since I didn't make the Worlds team last year it put a lot of fire and drive into my winter training. I was really roaring to go this spring," Hall said after her victory. "I've done Flanders before, I've done Flèche Wallonne, I've done Plouay, but I didn't know what to expect coming into this race. When we came into the finish, as soon as I put my hands into the air I was like, ‘This is going to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.' I'm still at a bit of a loss."
March has been a roller coaster for the USA national team. The squad suffered a setback in early March after losing Jade Wilcoxson (Optum/Kelly Benefit Strategies) to a concussion at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Wilcoxson, the US National Road Race champion had high hopes for her trip to Europe, but 50 kilometers into the Het Nieuwsblad, a rider ran into a parked car, causing Wilcoxson to flip backwards and hit her head.
"For the next couple of days I was doing the dark room, no stimulus, feeling like I was on a boat program," Wilcoxson said. "We were hoping that I would recover enough for the last couple of races, especially the World Cup the Ronde van Drenthe. But, when you have a concussion that bad, and the brain is bruised that badly, it's dangerous to return to racing. Especially in the spring classics where the risk of crashing is so high."
Disappointed, Wilcoxson returned to the US to recover, regroup and prepare for the upcoming Women's Tour in Great Britain.
With Wilcoxson sidelined, Maura Kinsella (Optum/Kelly Benefit Strategies), stepped up to the plate and earned a sixth place finish at Le Samyn de Dames, and 15th at the Omloop van het Hageland.
"It's been a great first spring classics experience. I've learned so much about how to be a better bike racer and have gotten more comfortable in the middle of the 180 person fields," Kinsella wrote to Cyclingnews. "Thankfully I'm over here for two months so it's kind of like studying abroad in a foreign country to really absorb the language."
Outside the US national team program several Americans have been racing a full European schedule with their trade teams.
The top American performance in this year's World Cup series has been Shelley Olds' (Ale-Cipollinni) third place at the Ronde van Drenthe. "I'm not on a really big team, so I'm racing against the big teams with lots of good riders. It kind of changes the way you have to race," said Olds. "You have to be a little more conservative, you have to risk a little more, do what you can, and hope that it turns out good."
Olds followed up her World Cup podium with a win at the Italian UCI 1.2 GP Comune di Cornaredo. After her win at Cornaredo, Olds started to feel flat. At Sunday's Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup, Olds missed the lead group and finished mid-pack, five minutes behind the leaders. Though disappointed with Sunday's race, Olds early season performance, which includes a second place stage finish at the Ladies Tour of Qatar and two victories at Vuelta Internacional Femenina a Costa Rica, gives her a lot of momentum heading into April. Olds' spring campaign will conclude at the Tour of Flanders and Grand Prix de Dottignies on April 6 & 7.
After a successful year on Rabobank, Megan Guarnier switched over to top-ranked Boels-Dolmans with an eye on the 2016 Olympics. Guarnier's spring racing was interrupted after she contracted a stomach virus following the Het Nieuwsblad. Guarnier recovered, and despite feeling out of form, rode hard at the Ronde van Drenthe World Cup, helping teammate Lizzie Armitstead take the victory. Guarnier repeated her aggressive racing at Sunday's Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup, where Armitstead took third, and Guarnier finished 11th.
Guarnier's focus on a European schedule is singular in purpose. "I've got to take Rio seriously," Guarnier said. "It's right around the corner."
No Small feat
Not all riders are chasing experience, victories, and UCI points. In 2013 Carmen Small (Specialized-lululemon) successfully parlayed her European spring season into a US National Time Trial Championship. A feat she would like to replicate this coming May. After taking on additional family responsibilities last year, Small felt less fit than previous years, and slotted into a domestique role for the early European races. With several weeks of racing under her belt, Small feels that the team's chemistry, and her fitness, has continued to improve. Specialized-lululemon's early season efforts were paid off with Chantal Blaak's victory at the Drenste 8.
Small's main objective is to build towards nationals, and her spring racing schedule is a key part of that plan. "Spring is like a love hate relationship. I really love coming over here, but the races are so hard. They are not just physically challenging, they are mentally challenging. I actually look forward to it," said Small. "Last year the spring definitely helped me prepare. These races don't come close to anything in the states, as for the intensity and the speed you gain from racing here in the spring. These are the hardest we will do all year in terms of one day racing."
While some riders wrap up their spring campaign at the Energiewacht Tour, others like Guarnier, will be pushing hard until the La Flèche Wallonne Féminine at the end of April. With a full slate of Belgian and Dutch racing on tap for women through the month of April, American riders will continue to make their presence known.
"We get overlooked for obvious reasons," reflected Lauren Hall. "This just shows the racing level in the US has jumped significantly the last couple of years."