Leah Kirchmann: No place like home

For most riders in the pro peloton, the month of May offers a more relaxed time in the schedule compared to the hectic pace of most of the spring. For the North American riders in Europe, this time is usually an opportunity to go home for a visit! After four months away, Canada was calling my name. An added bonus was that I would be able to take part in a few larger profile events while on North American soil, those being the Amgen Breakaway from Heart Disease Women's Race empowered by Sram in California and the Grand Prix Cycliste Gatineau in Canada. There is no denying the power of a home field advantage in competition, so I would say Coryn Rivera and I had a little extra motivation for these races.

My trip home just so happened to coincide with the 24th edition of Paris to Ancaster, an iconic race on the Canadian race calendar in the province of Ontario. The race is marketed as 'Canada's Spring Classic' and takes place largely over gravel roads, through farmer's fields, and includes some technical off-road mountain bike sections, which as I found out, become quite challenging after a night of pouring rain! The cold weather, incessant wind, and wet conditions made for a challenging day, but I had fun getting muddy, seeing lots of friendly faces and bumping elbows with some of the top CX riders who made the journey north to the event. I recommend checking out the event, especially if you want to get a feel for what riding a Classic is like without leaving the continent (though we ride fewer trails and more cobbles).

After my brief appearance at home in Canada, it was time to head to California. The Women's Race started with two stages at altitude in South Lake Tahoe, followed by two stages around and in Sacramento. The stages in the mountains were stunning, and the racing was fierce all week. South Lake Tahoe is one of my favourite destinations in all of California. It feels great to be surrounded by snow-capped mountains, breathing in alpine air and riding with incredible views of the lake.

It was surprising that the final GC came down to bonus seconds on the final stage after some challenging days, with Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) taking the win by only one second over Katie Hall (UnitedHealthcare). Without an outright GC favourite on our roster, we had some fun and raced aggressively. A highlight for Sunweb was delivering Coryn to victory on Stage 3 as a result of a perfect team lead out. It is not often that lead out tactics work out perfectly, so we will savour that win for awhile. Another podium finish on the final stage for Coryn was a fine way to end the Tour. I was thrilled to have my parents there watching us race, and it was special for me to reconnect with so many people in the North American cycling community who have played a role in my career over the years. To cap off a great week of racing, the Rivera family hosted a post-race BBQ to ensure the Europeans ended their trip in the most American way possible.

The following weekend, I switched out my Sunweb jersey for the Canadian National Team jersey to race in the Grand Prix Cycliste Gatineau, Canada's highest-ranked women's UCI event of the season. I felt a bit old, but also wise since I have started in all eight editions of the race. Despite some early mechanical issues at a critical moment in the race, the team rode well bringing me back into contention and they delivered me in perfect position to sprint for my first win of the season (and as a bonus, my teammate who led me out finished in second place). It's a great feeling when experience finally pays off!

The podium celebration is what really stood out for me the most at this year's event in Gatineau. The organizer had local youth riders present the awards to the winners. The young girls were absolutely delighted to have this job. It was also a fun and meaningful experience to hand out the winning medals along with my national teammates the next day at their youth Quebec Cup races. The winning riders were so excited to have us there. Many of them asked for autographs on their medals and jerseys and they told us about their own Olympic dreams and aspirations.

The online media response I got to my post about this podium presentation tells me this idea of connecting youth with elite athletes is a popular one. The use of traditional podium girls is outdated. Why do we need a model in high heels handing out medals and kisses to riders on the podium? With more and more kids, especially girls, dropping out of sport at a young age, we should be doing everything we can to stop this trend. Elite athletes and Olympians can be role models in the community, and given the right platform, can inspire and empower the next generation.

Tradition is what makes cycling beautiful, but it is frustrating at times when change makes sense, as in the case with podium girls (and boys). I have a lot of respect for the organizers and individuals who are not afraid to break with tradition in order to modernize the sport of cycling. With the Tour Down Under also taking this approach with their podium presentations in January, it appears the idea is spreading, but has yet to gain traction in most other places.

I'm looking forward to the next race on the calendar that sets very high standards for women's racing, and does an excellent job connecting the community with the riders and the race, the OVO Energy Women's Tour in Britain!

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