BOISE, Idaho (VN) — The break of two riders flew into Hyde Park, cheered on by the huge crowds that flocked to the city to watch the last day of racing. One of the riders wore the rainbow armbands of a former world champion on her Lithuania National Team jersey. The other, a local rider sponsored by a Boise breakfast bistro, was new to the sport. Neck and neck, the riders came into the finish together for the final sprint of the 2002 HP Women’s Challenge.
“She had me by, I mean, 200 hundred meters. I was on my hoods, I didn’t even go into my drops this time. I was just in awe. I didn’t know anything. And it was just so much fun,” said Kristin Armstrong who placed second that day behind 1998 world road champion Diana Ziliute.
Fast-forward 10 years, and a few things have changed. This Thursday, local heroine Armstong returns to Idaho road racing looking for the GC title in the inaugural Exergy Tour, a five-day stage race and the only women’s race in North America with a 2.1 designation by the International Cycling Union (UCI). She’ll be competing against some of the top female athletes in the sport, including current world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Diadora-Pasta Zara), Olympic medalists Nicole Cooke (Faren-Honda) and Clara Hughes (Specialized-lululemon) and winner of the 2011 Giro Toscana, Megan Guarnier (Tibco-To the Top). With the London Olympic Games looming on the horizon, the Exergy Tour will be the last chance for many of these riders to earn valuable international ranking points for their nations and themselves.
And it’s not only ranking points on the line. The Exergy Development Group is also offering a $100,000 prize purse, attracting some of the top teams in the world. The 16 teams starting the event represent nine countries, an international peloton that will bring the challenges of European racing to American roads on a level not seen since 2002.
“The racing in Europe is hard. But having those Europeans here racing is going to bring some of those elements here. It’s going to make the races faster, it’s going to make the races harder and it’s going to make the field deeper,” said former U.S. champ Meredith Miller, a member of the North American Tibco squad, one of the top programs in the country and VeloNews’ 2009 Women’s Team of the Year.
The race kicks off Thursday with a 3.2km prologue in downtown Boise. Look to Armstrong (Exergy-Twenty12), with her eye set on gold in London, and Hughes (Specialized), hot from her win at the Canadian Chrono Gatineau time trial, to set fast times. But with a short, power course, the sprinters like Bronzini, Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Exergy Twenty12) and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Specialized) should be in the running for the race’s first-ever leader’s jersey.
Stage 1 will take the riders into the foothills outside of Nampa, but it’s the next day’s 17km individual time trial that could prove to be the decisive day of the Exergy Tour. Specialized will field a powerhouse team with time-trial specialists Amber Neben, Clara Hughes, Evelyn Stevens and Emilia Fahlin. Other strong riders to watch include Alison Powers (Now-Novartis for MS), Shara Gillow (GreenEdge-AIS), Rhae-Christie Shaw (Exergy Twenty12) and (need we say it?) Armstrong. The 2008 Olympic TT champ won last week’s Amgen Tour of California time trial by over a minute and will be a favorite for the win.
The queen stage on day 4 hits the mountains, with over 3,700 feet of climbing. Riders with a time advantage coming out of the time trial will look to seal the GC on this last day of racing before the final stage in Boise. As the Exergy Tour’s only alpine stage, locals have it picked as the favorite day to watch. Look for names like Flèche Wallonne winner Evelyn Stevens, Carmen Small (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and
“Our mountain stage is going to be brutal,” said Adam Haynes, owner of Rolling H Cycles in Nampa, Idaho, and a local organizer for the Exergy Tour. “It’s remote, it’s off the grid and I’m excited to see the reaction of the athletes.”
The race concludes Monday with a 75km lollipop road race that starts and finishes in Hyde Park. The riders will head out on Cartwright Road, make three loops outside of town, and then head back to Boise for a fast finish that will determine the overall Exergy Tour champion.
Ten years ago, the HP Women’s challenge catapulted a young Kristin Armstrong to the front of women’s cycling. Now, the Exergy Tour could serve as the new proving grounds for the next generation of U.S. racers such as Tayler Wiles (Exergy Twenty12), Ashley James (NOW), Jackie Kurth (Primal-MapMyRide) and Lindsay Myers (Tibco) — not yet in high school when Armstrong rode onto the radar in Hyde Park a decade ago. As we saw in 2002, the GC winner won’t be the only one to define women’s cycling in the years to come.