Edwige Pitel has very little left to prove on a bicycle. The 50-year-old Frenchwoman is a two-time French road champion in 2007 and 2016 and has won her national time trial title three times. She won the Tour de Bretagne in 2003 and the Tour Feminine en Limousin in 2005. The all-rounder with a time trial pedigree has also taken three wins at the Chrono des Herbier in 2001, 2004 and 2005.
Pitel has a palmares any rider would be proud of and could retire with distinction, but she simply loves racing and shows no signs of slowing down this week at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, where she is currently fourth overall and poised to make a run at the general classification podium during Sunday's challenging Gila Monster stage and its 1,710 metres of climbing.
Pitel raced previously in the United States in 2009 at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic in Oregon, where she topped a pro women's field that included ValuAct's Leah Goldstein, beating Goldstein by 11 seconds to take the overall.
"Well, actually, that was the memory from 2009, and I always wanted to do some more races like that in the States, but when you come from Europe you don't want to come for just one race," Pitel told Cyclingnews after Saturday's downtown criterium in Silver City.
"You need to find a bunch of races, and I found I could come do Joe Martin, Gila and Redlands in a row, so that's a good one to do. So I came over for six weeks to do the races I've never done before."
Pitel, who has a PhD in mathematical sciences from Imperial College London, didn't start racing until she was 37, but she says after 14 or 15 years of racing many of the same events year after year, she was looking to try something new.
"I wanted to do something else, and in 2009 I really had a good time in the States, and I always had in my mind to come back," she said.
Pitel is guest riding this week at Gila for QCW Cycling, a Pennsylvania-based women's team comprised of category 1 and 2 elite-level riders. She got off to a quick start during Wednesday's opening stage that finished with the 11km Mogollon climb, taking third behind UnitedHealthcare's Katie Hall and Rally Cycling's Sara Poidevin.
Pitel was hoping to bide her time during stage 2 and save her energy for the stage 3 time trial and Sunday's Queen stage, but disaster struck when she went down in a crash near the finish of the 119km day and badly injured both her knees. Pitel rather miraculously recovered and finished 11th that day, but she attended the podium presentation to collect the mountains jersey she won with heavy bandages and both knees wrapped in ice.
"It was very stupid because I felt really good on that stage and I had the jersey and I was really in my head keeping energy for the time trial and the last day," Pitel said. "Then 5k from the finish on a straight downhill on a four-lane road, there's no way you can crash on that straight line, but one girl just didn't keep this line and crashed in front of me, and with the speed downhill I just couldn't avoid her and I went over her."
Pitel could barely walk after the stage and she wasn't sure she'd be able to start the next day, but she kept her knees wrapped in ice, took an anti-inflammatory and slept through the night with her legs elevated. Pitel was determined not to give up on the race. Of the three US races on her schedule, Gila was her favourite because of the all the climbing and the altitude.
"When I woke up, I said, 'Oh, my right knee is OK. That's one.' But my left knee was not good. So I had one. I was 50 per cent, and I had to push more with the right knee than the left one," she said.
"I thought I have two days with the time trial and the criterium, which is quick and short, so that's basically when I said I have to bite my teeth for one hour, and that makes two days to recover and hopefully I feel good [on Sunday] to be able to fight with the big stage."
Pitel's injuries hobbled her during the stage 3 time trial in Tyrone, where she finished 12th and slipped down to fourth overall. Pitel had difficulty climbing the stairs to the podium, barely able to bend her left knee.
She finished with the field in 11th place during Saturday's criterium and is now poised to make a run to regain her podium spot on Sunday, trailing race leader Hall by 2:46 and runner-up Poidevan by 2:32, but she's just 37 seconds behind third-placed Leah Thomas (UnitedHealthcare).
It would be an amazing result given her battered body and considering she's twice the age - or more - of most of her competitors this week.
"I don't think about my age," she told Cyclingnews. "It is other people who keep reminding me that I'm twice as old as the girls I'm racing with. But when I'm racing I don't think about it. I'm focused on the race and I feel like them. I try like them and I find some strength in my legs and I keep fighting."
Pitel said the secret to her longevity, aside from her late start in the sport, is that she keeps her fitness level and motivation high all year long, never taking a long break that would require an even longer comeback.
"If I was stopping for a long time at this age it would be more difficult to come back when I have a long break," she said. "It's also more difficult to recover. You need more time, so I have to do things differently. But I know my body, and I train with this in mind. I try not to have too much downtime because when you have too much it's difficult to come back again."
For now, however, Pitel's thoughts are squarely on the Gila Monster and what she may be able to accomplish on the final day.
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