This story forms part of our North American week on Cyclingnews.
It's been over a year since a professional race was held in North America, and the riders from the US and Canada have had a distinct disadvantage compared with their European counterparts. This week, Cyclingnews highlights the racers and their journey through the coronavirus pandemic, the salient issues in the continent and the races that make the scene. This conversation with US National Champion Ruth Winder took place during the Trek-Segafredo team camp in January.
Cyclingnews: It has been quite a year for the American riders, how did last year treat you? You came out strong with the Tour Down Under victory but then everything came to a screeching halt.
Ruth Winder: Last year feels like two different years in one year if I'm being honest. When I think back to January, February, March, the person that I was then, and the athlete that I was in the spring, it just felt completely different. I felt really good at the beginning of the year. I'd been working hard to put my physical and mental parts as an athlete together and I felt really strong. Australia was a great way to start the year. I never imagined that I would win Tour Down Under. It's still really cool to be able to say that I won that race. It feels super special.
I only did one race (after) in the spring but I remember feeling super comfortable and confident in my team and my ability and just feeling like I had a good head on my shoulders. It felt like a really strong way to start the year.
Then with coronavirus and the uncertainty and everything that came with it just made coming over to Europe feel really so odd after we'd been socially distancing for so long to get on a plane and then start racing again. It felt really hard to switch back into that world for me. It felt harder to be a professional athlete when the season restarted.
CN: I've been hearing the same from a lot of the Americans, that it was mentally a struggle to get back into the races. Did you feel like it disrupted your usual preparation schedule?
RW: It was just the uncertainty of it all - we were constantly in this flux state of are we going or are we stopping, going or stopping. What's it going to be like when we get there? Is everything going to be cancelled when we get there? Will I be able to come home? Or stuck in a hotel for two weeks with everybody? Am I just helping the spread of the virus? Are we as athletes thinking that we're above everybody else? What's the right thing here?
It wasn't so much that I felt like I couldn't follow a specific training plan because when I was home in Colorado in the summer, we were allowed to be outside. I was allowed to train really well. I was able to do everything that I would do. I couldn't go to the gym, which was the only change but I could do everything I needed to do at home.
It just felt like there was more pressure mentally than physically. With all of the uncertainty of everything, I couldn't ever create a clear and confident, concrete plan to go forward with. I think that that's something that maybe hurt me a little bit more.
CN: I heard you spent a lot of time baking...
RW: I did a lot of baking for a lot of friends, and that was really fun to do that. I found what my limitations were in baking for friends and but it was really good. I would have 30 people or something that wanted baked goods from me and I just realized that it was just too many people to deliver to in a day. It was taking me over four and a half hours to ride around to everybody's house. So I had to cut back on my baked deliveries at some point.
CN: Could this be a future after your cycling career?
RW: Baking is been a love and a passion of mine for a while and I've always thought it'd be fun to work in a bakery one day but I don't really know what that's like, so maybe one day I'll find out.
CN: You joined in the Everest Challenge trend, too.
RW: I did do Everest Challenge, it took me about 13 hours. It was awful. I don't have very many nice things to say about it. And I'm totally fine with that. I think that it was really cool and Boulder, I had a lot of people cheer me on and I think that was the coolest thing for me to take away from that Everesting challenge. I'm not the kind of person who does it and thinks 'I've just achieved something great'. I'm kind of the kind of person that's like, why did I just ride up and down the exact same road for 13 hours?
I'm not really sure what I got from that but what was cool was the whole time I had one or two other people around me, riding with me, coming out to cheer me on along the side of the road, over the social media people were cheering me on.
CN: It seemed to me that people were so starved for entertainment - it became clear that sport is a form of entertainment first and foremost.
RW: I think when we had that lack of bike racing and lack of sport going on in the world, I think, that was my motivation to do it. I love sport for the way that it brings people together. I don't feel a lot of personal achievement from riding up and down the same road a bunch of times but the fact that it got so many people excited for a day was really cool. That feels like really kind of amazing to me.
That's like where my motivation as an athlete comes from a lot. I see that this is for entertainment. I do it so that hopefully somebody else's enjoying it.
CN: The Trek-Segafredo team definitely put on a good show all year last year, both in TDU and with Lizzie Deignan taking the WorldTour overall. The final stage of the TDU was super fun to watch in particular, with you fighting for the time bonuses.
RW: That was a stressful criterium - I have a good team and I just had to follow their wheels, but it was stressful.
This team is really something special. On enough the bike, we're a really strong team in our personalities and it just really shows with our performance. We had a really good year last year winning WorldTour overall and everything as a team. It was a good year. I think we're looking to build on that again this year.
CN: You've got some new sprinters on the roster now, too.
RW: Our sprinter Lotte [Henttala] had been a little sick and didn't have a very good year and we didn't really race with her very much. When we hired Chloe [Hosking], I think we're all pretty excited to have a sprinter and also Amelie [Dideriksen], who we also hired as. Now we have to two sprinters.
CN: Have you been working on those lead-out trains?
RW: In my personal history from UHC and Sunweb, I've done a fair bit of lead-out trains, so I'm excited to be able to do that again.
CN: The Giro Rosa has been downgraded this year from WorldTour to 2.Pro. Does that make a difference for the team or its goals?
RW: Some races have their own prestige to them and I think the Giro has been the longest women's stage race for so long that I think so many racers are still going to go and it's so good to mean just as much if you wear the pink jersey. Obviously, it means a bit more if it's WorldTour and we would like for it to be. Women's cycling is still growing so much that just because the race isn't on TV, for us, it doesn't feel like less of an achievement. Although we really want our races to be on TV.
Sometimes when you're just racing around Italy and nobody's watching you're bit frustrated with it all. The Giro itself on a personal level will still feel really special to the racers. We have so many Italian sponsors on Trek that it's still a really important race for us. Particularly Elisa [Longo Borghini] - she's a very proud of Italian we will still support her fully at that race.
CN: What about Paris-Roubaix? Will you be racing that?
RW: I will not race Paris-Roubaix. The cobbles on the flat like that are not necessarily my cup of tea. I love watching it and I'm excited for the girls that get to race it, but it won't be on my calendar. Cobbles just don't sing to me. I'm really excited to race Flanders, and them being uphill definitely changes the cobbles a little bit. The Roubaix cobbles aren't the same. But I think it's really cool that they added that for the women and are a lot of riders I know that are super excited to race it.
CN: What do you think of the prospects for a Women's Tour de France?
RW: I think that that's awesome. For us to be able to say to somebody that doesn't know cycling 'I went to race the Tour de France' - even if it's not quite the same thing or whatever level it's going to be - it's going to be cool. The more races we add to the calendar, the more races that are on TV, I'm just all for it.
CN: Would you like to see the women race a three-week stage race eventually?
RW: If it's all completely televised and the stages aren't super long... There's nothing wrong with racing for three weeks, but I would prefer first to see a shorter stage race that is completely 100 per cent televised and we have all the other steps in place before I'm going to ask for a three-week stage race. It's not that it wouldn't be cool one day to have but I think that we need to take some smaller steps to get there first.
CN: The men's stages get a bit dull after 200km... what length would be ideal for the women in your opinion?
RW: I think it depends a lot on what kind of race we're talking about but between like 120 to 140 kilometres for us is pretty good.
CN: The Giro Rosa last year had one stage that stretched to well over 170km after the neutral roll-out. Was that too long?
RW: It's not that we can't do it. But if we're looking at cycling as entertainment, making the racing longer doesn't necessarily make it more entertaining. I want us to be able to be on the TV and I want our races to be exciting because with that we get better sponsorship and with that, we get better salaries and the sport becomes more popular and more people on bikes - the whole thing is just better. Physically, sure, we can race longer, but I don't see how that's necessarily benefiting the whole sport of cycling.
CN: It's an Olympic year (again), surely that's on your mind going into the season.
RW: It's hard not to think about. I'm really trying to go into the spring to have the best spring that I can have and, if as a result of that, I get selected for the Olympics then I'm going to be ecstatic. But it's one day of the year. Making the Olympic team is a big deal but I need to focus on having a really solid start to the year in the spring.
CN: If you're selected, do you expect your experience to be different the second time around?
RW: I maybe have a different opinion than people that have never been and I try and be really conscious of that too, when I talk about the Olympic Games. When I went before it was on the track and it was kind of like everything - nothing else mattered, you were just everything for the Olympic Games. And in the end, I went and I was the fifth rider and they didn't ride me on the team. I felt like maybe that was a little bit of a political reason more than a physical reason and it kind of tainted my whole Olympic experience to a degree.
I realized that I just spent however many years building up to this moment and then it was this day. You really have to enjoy the years before and the races before. When I decided to not do any more track racing and just do road racing, one of the main reasons was because there are so many races in a year. You can have such a successful career. You can never be a World Champion and you can never be an Olympic champion or never go to the Olympics, but that doesn't mean that your career wasn't a success.
I still have that in my mind - my career can still be - and it has been - a really big success up until this point. The Olympics are a really amazing cherry on top and of course, everybody wants to go and I would love to go, I don't see it as the be-all and end-all of whether my career defined as a success or not.
CN: Do you see the Giro Rosa being so close to the Olympics as a plus or a minus?
RW: The Giro is great prep for a lot of things and I think that most of the riders that would make the Olympic team would also be at the Giro. We would all probably be in the same boat. But I'm not wanting to count my chickens before they've hatched. We'll see if we get there if, when, and but COVID.
CN: You've gotten an extra year to wear the stars and stripes jersey, I'm sure you'd like a chance to win it outright again this year.
RW: It just feels weird [wearing the jersey two years in a row]. I don't feel ashamed to be wearing it but it just does feel odd. But then, I didn't race a full normal season in the jersey last year, and I remember being at the beginning of the year and thinking, heck, I don't get to get to race the normal spring. In the end, we had all the races but it didn't feel like the normal spring races. I really hope that the national championship can go on and I would love to help either Tayler try and go for it or take another opportunity for myself. I would much prefer Nationals happen and it not happen.
CN: What other goals do you have for 2021?
RW: We've got a strong US squad for Worlds in Flanders. Most of the World Championships in the last couple years have just been 'let's see who's going to get to the top of this climb first', which doesn't always suit us as a team that well. I think racing around the Flanders region is going to be really amazing for the USA Cycling girls. And that's the big goal for me as well.
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