Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes has returned to the professional peloton after an eight-year hiatus from the sport to follow a successful professional speedskating career. The six-time Olympic medalist has chosen the SRAM Tour of the Gila, held as her first stage race back into competitive racing. Her real objective however will be next year at the 2012 Olympic games in London where she hopes to take gold in the time trial.
"I want to progress, but the ultimate goal is to have the race of my life in London in the time trial," Hughes said. "I always went for that at the Olympics on the ice or on my bike. I always wanted to be better than I’d ever been and there is no difference now."
Hughes, 38, began competitive bike racing in 1991 and is a multiple time former Canadian national champion in both the road race and the time trial. In addition, she has won medals at both the Pan American Games and the Commonwealth Games. She was a strong overall contender in some of the most prestigious women’s stage races in the world and a former silver medalist in the UCI World Time Trial Championships. She retired in 2003, but felt that the time was right for a return before the 2012 Olympics.
Her Olympic palmares is staggering; with bronze medals in the road and time Trial races in Atlanta 1996. In speedskating she secured a bronze in the 5000m in Salt Lake City in 2002; gold in the 5000m; and silver in the team pursuit in Turin in 2006. In her most recent participation she won bronze in the 5000m in Vancouver in 2010. She is the only woman in the world to have won multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympic Games.
"I quit speedskating after my last stride, crossing the finish line in Vancouver at my home Olympics in the 5000 metres," Hughes said. "I had the race of my life and I was like, "it doesn’t get better than this at home, so..."
"I feel like with the knowledge and experience I have now, after ten years of speedskating, with a phenomenal coach from China, I feel like I have a better understanding of physiology and how to approach sport in a good way," she added.
"Now, I have a new coach, Chris Rozdilsky, out of Montreal. I have a different approach and I feel like it is one that works for me and will bring me to by best ever."
Hughes returned to cycling on the track this winter as a member of the Canadian women’s team pursuit at the UCI Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. Her first appearance in a road race was at the SRAM Tour of the Gila, held in the high deserts of New Mexico, where she placed third in the opening stage behind US National Champion Mara Abbott (Diadora-Pasta Zara) and Flavia Oliviera (Pactimo Cycling Team).
"I’m going to the PanAm Championships right after this and it’s good to race at altitude," Hughes said. "To be honest, this is a race, in the thirteen years I raced, that I never did, The Gila. I’ve been here with my husband bike touring and I always wanted to do this race but it never fit with my schedule. When I decided to come back I told my coach that I wanted to do Gila. I love the landscape here and there is incredible energy in this landscape. I’m stoked to be here, finally. It took be 21 years to do Gila."
"I have no idea where I’m at but I do like the altitude and I live in Utah now so I like the thin air," she added.
"I’ve been doing the track for most of the winter and I’ve done one bike race since 2003 and my last race was at the Olympics in speedskating. It’s really fun to be back in road racing. I get to test myself against some really good riders here and see how it goes. I was surprised to get third but it’s just the start and I hope to get better."
Stage three will host the grueling Tyrone 25 km time trial where Hughes will be able to test her progress in the race against the clock against some of the best in the business most notably, Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, Kristin Armstrong (Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12).