Diadora-Pasta Zara team director Diana Ziliute was back on familiar ground last week at the Exergy Tour in southwest Idaho. The 36-year-old raced at least three times at the HP Challenge, the previous incarnation of the biggest women's stage race in the US, and may be best known in these parts for winning the last stage of the final HP Challenge in 2002 from a two-rider breakaway with a then-unknown opponent named Kristin Armstrong.
"Exactly my emotion I can't remember," Ziliute said before the start of Exergy's stage 3 on Sunday. "I make a lot of races, but in general I have very nice memories about the HP tour. Not only the last race HP, but I make a lot of other HP races and I always find a lot of friendly people, very good organization and very nice stages."
Ziliute, a Lithuanian who now runs the Italian team of fellow world champion Giorgia Bronzini, made her own debut in the women's pro cycling ranks in the mid 1990s after winning the 1994 World Junior Road Race Championship. In 1998 she won two World Cup races, the overall World Cup Points title and the World Road Race Championship. She won the Grand Boucle in 1999 and then took the bronze at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Two years after Sydney she joined future Olympic medalist Armstrong in the winning breakaway during a stage on the outskirts of Boise. That race provided the results that launched Armstrong, who was racing then for the local Goldy's team, onto a pro team and her current path to the top of the sport.
"I have a lot of respect for [Armstrong]," Ziliute said. "Because at this moment, she [continues to] race. I stopped, but she race. She's always strong, and I hope that she can make very good results because I'm happy to see the riders I raced with in the past that they race today. When Ina [Teutenberg] or Kristin or Clara Hughes make results, I'm very happy, because I have very good memories."
Ziliute hung up her racing cleats in 2006 but stayed close to the sport, eventually landing her current spot with the Diadora squad. Despite remaining involved with cycling on the management side, Ziliute didn't run into Armstrong again until earlier this year in Europe.
"I see Kristin only for first time this year, because I don't follow every race with my team," Ziliute said. "I see for the first time Kristin this year in Belgium, and we speak a little bit. I make her my compliments because she made a very nice race in Flanders."
Ziliute also has been reacquainted with Idaho stage racing this year, although she said there have been many changes – for the better – at the new race. She said the money was always pretty good at the old HP Challenge, but the new race is better organized and better funded. "We have everything that we need: GPS, car, information, everything."
The changes to the race reflect the growing professionalism for cycling in general, and especially women's cycling. Ziliute said it has made cycling better for the riders, management and sponsors, but it has also made it harder to find good results, especially for up-and-coming riders like Armstrong was in 2002.
"Riders are more professional, because I think in this last period riders can't be not professional and make good results," she said. "It was always professional, but we could make good results by picking races where maybe the stronger riders of the world don't go. Now where we go there is always stronger riders, and it's more difficult to win."