The battle on the pavement in the 114.6km elite women's road race of the USA Cycling Pro Road Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee developed to a crescendo in the final 11 kilometres between two recently-crowned winners on gravel. Which Lauren would have the truest grit for the stars-and-stripes jersey on Sunday?
Lauren Stephens (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank), the 2021 winner of Unbound Gravel 100, would make the pass of breakaway leader Lauren De Crescenzo (Cinch Elite), the 2021 winner of Unbound Gravel 200, at the base of the technical descent of the final climb and power to a solo victory. De Crescenzo had attacked with 48km to go and remained in control of the lead until that pass, pushing on to finish eighth, 1:19 behind Stephens.
"Eighth place in such an amazing field is no joke! I'm proud to be back among the world's best cyclists. For me, it was more about the performance than the end result and I hope what I did was inspirational. I want people to know that this real Lauren is gritty," De Crescenzo told Cyclingnews, who also finished seventh in the US Pro time trial event on Thursday.
Gritty indeed. The 30-year-old who now lives in Atlanta, took an extended break from pro racing after she suffered a traumatic brain injury and broken bones in a serious crash during the 2016 San Dimas Stage Race, which had her in intensive care at two different hospitals for three weeks. She was out of racing for two years until she used several gravel races to get back in the saddle, winning the first two – Old Man Winter Bike Rally and Crusher in the Tushar.
In 2020 she set an Everesting record - climbing Hogpen Gap in the north Georgia mountains a total of 24 times in 9 hours and 57 minutes. In 2021 she signed to race part-time with the new Cinch Elite racing team, founded and coached by former WorldTour pro Tom Danielson to compete in a selection of road and gravel races.
[Danielson, one of three riders to give testimony in USADA's investigation of doping by Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team in 2012, served a six-month ban for admitting to doping. He tested positive for testosterone in 2015 but was given a reduced four-year ban after convincing USADA that the result was due to a contaminated supplement. His ban ended August 3, 2019. - ed]
Soon she'll be able to change "part-time" to "full-time" related to Cinch Elite, as the team has offered to match her salary from her current full-time employer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so she can focus on bike racing and her goal to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games.
"Yes, Cinch matched my salary so I can fully commit to cycling. It's been quite the balancing act; the real job, racing at this level, getting married, supporting my husband in residency … the list goes on! I've never been able to focus 100 per cent on cycling. Even when I was a pro racer the first time, I always had a series of odd jobs and side hustles," she explained to Cyclingnews.
"I'm 30 years old, so now is the time to send it. Epidemiology will always be there when I'm ready to go back. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
De Crescenzo said the initial one-year contract goes into effect in September so she is still focused on her work at the CDC, finishing a research paper about emergency department visits related to traumatic brain injury, which has been in the works for two years. "Science takes forever," she noted.
The next big target for De Crescenzo is the 144-mile SBT GRVL, but accomplishments in Knoxville are not in her rearview mirror just yet.
"When I was solo off the front, I was using the same zones that I used in Kansas. My husband Jim [Snitzer] was in the feed zone, handing me bottles and ice cubes, and screaming 'I love you'. That inspired me to go even deeper. The fans lining the course on the climb made it feel like I was in the Tour de France. I was riding with my heart," she said about her Sunday breakaway, where she had a 2:03 gap over the peloton at one point.
"The first lap everyone was having a hard time fighting for position. I was having some PTSD in returning to pro road racing since my horrific crash in 2016, so Andie [Fasen] and Tracey [Jacobs] helped calm me down before and during the race. They helped me move to the front of the field so I would be ready to follow anything that might go up the road," De Crescenzo said. "And just knowing that I had two girls whose goal it was to position me and keep me safe was the confidence I needed.
"I saw a break go in the first lap and I knew that's where I needed to be. I worked with the breakaway riders until 30 miles to go and could sense the pace was dropping. I knew that's when I needed to make a move."
At Unbound Gravel she took the lead with about 55 miles to race, using her aero bars to push through strong winds and win solo, more than five minutes in front of defending champion Amity Rockwell (Pinarello Scuderia).
"I rode away from Clara [Honsinger of TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank] and Holly [Breck of Rally Cycling] on the climb and thought maybe I could hold off the rest of the peloton for 30 miles. Given my recent trip to Emporia, 30 miles really didn't sound that far."
Stephens would bridge up to her teammate Honsinger and use that momentum to then catch and pass De Crescenzo.
"When Lauren caught me the last time up the climb, it looked like she was sprinting. She probably conserved more energy for that attack. My tank wasn't totally depleted since I was staying in the zones, but my tank did not have enough gas to follow that move.
"Lauren rode her race and I rode mine. If Trek, DSM, Canyon and Legion didn't all chase, I would've never come back."
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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling for people of all abilities and ages. Tyson has been recognized for communications excellence with 10 Phoenix Awards, presented by the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp - and was recognized by a national media outlet as the first female depicted in a pro baseball card set (Ft. Myers Royals). She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times. Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France). Her favorite mountain bike rides are in Park City, Utah (USA).
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