BOISE, Idaho (VN) — Walking around the staging area of the Exergy Tour this week, it was hard not to run into legends in women’s cycling. And not all these legends raced their bikes this weekend. The first-year stage race was literally peppered with world champions, Olympic medalists and all-around superstar female athletes, many now working behind the scenes to support the sport they love. These women are playing a big role in moving women’s cycling forward, arguably even beyond the prominence the sport enjoyed when the Women’s Challenge shuttered in 2003.
Take Diana Ziliute, for instance. Ten years ago, the Lithuanian world road champion was racing these roads in the HP Women’s Challenge. This week she was back as a technical director for Diadora-Pasta Zara, the current team of another world champ, Giorgia Bronzini.
“I’m very happy,” Ziliute told VeloNews. “When I stopped racing the HP tour, a lot of our European riders missed the race. I really liked the HP tour years ago. Of course, my experience now, it’s not the same. I don’t race bikes, but always it’s very fantastic to come here.”
According to Ziliute, the Italian team came to the Exergy Tour hoping to get a stage win and some final preparation for the 2012 Olympics for Bronzini and Inga Cilvinaite. That didn’t happen after Bronzini’s crash in the final 2km of stage 1, but Ziliute said she was still happy to be in Idaho again and was impressed by the level of the organization of the race.
“This organization, it’s the best,” she said. “HP, it was very good, but now I see the little details and I can think that we are in a men’s race, not a woman’s race.”
Another legend behind the scenes — or starring, rather — was Clara Hughes. Twenty years ago, the Canadian was racing and winning on these roads. Now… well she is still racing and still winning. In 1994, Hughes took home the leader’s jersey at the Women’s Challenge. In 2012, she finished third in the GC behind Specialized-lululemon teammates Evelyn Stevens and Amber Neben.
“In some ways it makes me feel really old, but in other ways I feel like that young cyclist coming here. It’s exciting, and people are so nice here and that’s what I remember from every single year I did this race. It’s a really special part of America,” she told VeloNews.
A story about cycling legends is incomplete without mention of the powerful German sprinter Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Specialized), who won the Exergy Tour’s third stage on Sunday, and Anne Samplonius (NOW-Novartis for MS), who took second behind Hughes in the 1994 Women’s Challenge and was the first rider to come in under 23 minutes in Saturday’s time trial. They are, among others, women who raced in Idaho years ago and are still bringing in top results.
“(The Women’s Challenge) was the race that every team, every female bike racer worldwide wanted to be invited to,” said Patty Peoples, media liaison for the Exergy Tour. “The caliber of the field, and also the fact that it was women’s only. We weren’t second fiddle to the men. It showed us what we should expect and demand of the other races for the women.”
Peoples, 55, raced the Women’s Challenge in 1988 and 1989 and has continued her career as a top-level athlete with a win this year in the sprint-distance race at the National Duathlon Championships. The Exergy Tour has united many of the international women who shared the Idaho experience in the 1980s and 1990s, said Peoples.
“We ended up being friends for many years after moving on to directors, staying involved. There’s quite a few ex-racers here, we all raced together, and not necessarily on the same teams,” she said. “And we’re actually probably better friends now.”
For Connie Carpenter, or “Mama Phinney” as she is now known in Italy, the Exergy Tour is a brand new event, blazing a new trail for the future of women’s cycling. The 1984 Olympic road race gold medalist and multiple-time national champion shared the announcer’s microphone at this year’s Exergy Tour, and joked that she was winning gold medals when most of the women currently racing were still in the womb. This is the modern leadership in the sport, said Carpenter. The Tour is a game-changer.
“The Exergy Tour is a huge step forward. When I raced in my first races, when I was given prizes, I was often given an envelope with eight one-dollar bills in it. And that was for first place.”
This week’s total prize purse in Idaho: $100,000. A huge step forward, indeed.