Linda Villumsen was understandably overcome with emotion on Tuesday after winning the gold medal in the elite women's time trial at the World Championships in Richmond, Virginia. It was understandable given the fact that after so many near misses she had finally landed the rainbow jersey. After all those podium places and disappointments the New Zealander had done it. But at what cost?
Take a close look at the photos from the time trial and you’ll notice something isn’t quite right. She looks fast and aero, of course, but take a closer look at that all-black outfit and all-black bike. That last part is key because her bike shouldn’t have matched her national kit and she should have been riding her blue and white trade team Wilier time trial machine, supplied by the UnitedHealthcare team. The decision by Villumsen to defy team orders and ride a non-sponsored piece of kit almost cost her her job, and behind the stunning ride was an argument between her, her trade team and her national federation.
Mike Tamayo, who runs the UHC programme, confirmed to Cyclingnews that the management contemplated firing Villumsen after her winning ride, such was the anger at her personal choice and the difficult position it had created for the team with their sponsors.
“It was discussed in order to protect our sponsors but it wasn’t something that was acted upon. We considered all of our options with all of our sponsors,” he said.
Rumours that Tamayo ripped up her contract on the spot at the Worlds, and that the management actually fired her before backtracking, have been flatly denied, while Cyclingnews has not yet been able to talk to Villumsen directly.
“We found out that she wasn’t riding our team bike on the eleventh hour. It was very last minute. Our understanding from Cycling New Zealand’s performance director was that she couldn’t get the front end of her position low enough on her team bike and that they had to use a different bike and she had to use a smaller bike that our team does not make. It was more a matter of fit than one of technology.”
Villumsen’s race bike that day is similar to a Trek time trial machine but Tamayo would not confirm this, while there has not been an official on the record comment from Trek to deny this.
“We weren’t happy right away. Our job as a trade team is to protect our sponsors. So of course it caught us off guard but it was more the timing than anything else. It was last minute and it didn’t give us much opportunity to discuss it with our sponsors and make sure that they knew what was going on. That was the most troubling part of it.”
Villumsen is somewhat of an enigma within the sport. Talk to some of her teammates or those that work with her and they’ll describe a dedicated, hugely detailed, friendly but often shy and nervous rider. She works closely with Marco Pinotti and when she is on form she’s undoubtedly one of the best riders in the world.
According to Tamayo she knew UHC would reprimand her if she defied team orders and she took a huge calculated risk in riding a non-regulation bike. Win and it would be hard for UHC to dismiss her and a year of riding in the rainbow jersey, but lose and she would weaken her position within the team. From the outside, and without speaking to her, it seems as though she felt that her non-regulation bike was that important to her. One could call it gutsy and brave but that’s certainly not how the team saw it.
“She wasn’t told that she was released from the team,” Tamayo was keen to stress.
“We were exploring all different kinds of scenarios the night before and the morning of the race, while also trying to focus on the race. So as you can imagine we were trying to give her the space to focus on the race. Linda has not been released or terminated.”
When asked if that was ever the case, and that if UHC has made the decision to release her from her contract, which runs through to 2016, Tamayo said: “There was not a point where we said that she was off the team. Linda is part of this organisation. We’ve been working with our sponsors to make sure that everyone is happy with the current situation.
“That’s being assumed right now and there were a lot of frustrated emails going back and forth as we tried to figure out how to move forward but there was nothing that came from my inbox of phone calls that said she was terminated.”
So for now Villumsen stays with the team, although this story is not yet over. Tamayo has confirmed that his new World Champion will be disciplined for not following their policies. That could mean a fine at the very least but as it’s her first offence – although it’s on the world’s biggest stage – it looks as though she will escape major punishment.
“We’ve been discussing that. Our sponsors are looking for a bit of an apology from Linda but we have as a team internal policies as far as fines for athletes as being not sponsor correct but we’ll deal with that internally and not publicly. She could be fined within the team.”
So perhaps Villumsen’s gamble has paid off but when asked if he would have fired her if she had not won the Worlds, Tamayo paused before saying: “I don’t know if can answer a hypothetical, honestly because technically the way our handbook is written for her first offence of not being sponsor correct we would not terminate her. That’s the way the policy is written.”
The Cyclingnews podcast from day 3 of the Worlds featured analysis of the women's time trial along with an interview with Villumsen. Listen below and subscribe here.