FARO, Portugal (VN) — The phone call from Specialized-lululemon came as a complete surprise to Carmen Small. The 32-year-old had planned to race one more season with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, where she rode in 2012, but the offer from Specialized changed her plans. Now Small is set to race her first full season in Europe in 2013 with the one of the top-ranked teams in the world.
“Really, this was kind of a shock,” Small told VeloNews in Portugal earlier this month. “I was going to do one more season, but it was always going to be with Optum. So then I got this phone call. I was like, ‘oh for sure, sign me up! Why would I say no to this?’”
Small’s 2012 season was the best of her career. She won the National Racing Calendar individual title and celebrated her first European victory at the GP Città di Padova in Italy. She also finished second at the SRAM Tour of the Gila, made the podium in the time trial, road race and criterium at the U.S. national championships, won the overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, and finished second overall at the Cascade Classic.
“I think it’s been a development throughout her career,” said Rachel Heal, Small’s director at Optum. “But you know, she won a race early on in the season in Italy and that kind of set the tone. I think this season, more than any other, she actually believed in herself.”
It was an impressive run for a rider who has devoted most of her career to supporting her teammates’ ambitions. “That’s how I started. I started as a worker, worker, worker,” Small said. Small credits her experience for others with giving her a solid understanding of race tactics and her all-around strength on the bike. “To me, it was the best way to do it, because I got to know bike racing. I was always at the front of the race!”
Small’s willingness to sacrifice her own ambitions has gained her a reputation as the consummate teammate.
“She gives 200 percent in every race she does,” said Lisa Hunt, who worked with Small at Tibco-To the Top in 2011. “She’s a true team player. She puts her heart and soul into every single race.” Hunt also praised Small for her appreciation of the team staff, saying “she’s the first one to make coffee in the morning for the staff.”
Though she has ridden as a devoted teammate, there have been hints along the way of Small’s potential. In 2010 while racing for Colavita, she won the overall at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race, the Sea Otter Classic road race, and a stage at Gila. Small also finished third in the road race at nationals and was a major protagonist on the Awbrey Butte circuit in Bend, Oregon. In 2011, Small divided her time between racing in the U.S. for Tibco and in Europe for the national team.
An offer from Optum for 2012 altered the trajectory of her career. The team hired her specifically to ride as a team leader.
“I knew signing that there would be a lot of pressure on me. It was my turn to get some results,” she said. “It was really good to have that pressure on me. I think everyone knew I was capable of those results. But it’s hard sometimes to really say, ‘can I do that?’”
The Olympic year added to Small’s motivation. With the goal of making the team, Small started her season in January at the Tour of New Zealand. Then she headed to Europe for a six-week trip with the national team.
During her time with the national team, Small celebrated the first European race victory of her career in Padova. It was a major breakthrough.
“To me, it was a huge surprise,” said Small. “Like, ‘holy crap! I can do this! I just won a bike race on my own!’” At Padova, Small beat out top-level international riders such as former world champion Giorgia Bronzini, Emma Johansson and world time trial champion Judith Arndt.
Though she won in Padova, it is characteristic of Small’s dedication as a team rider that she considers the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen — a race in which she rode as a domestiques — the best race of her career.
“I was racing for Kristin Armstrong and she came in second and I was a part of that second place,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily a podium result, but in my mind it was an incredible race. I did everything and more, and felt fantastically strong.”
In order to start four riders in the London road race, the United States needed to scoop up UCI points in the early season races.
“I knew we needed four slots if I was going to make the team,” said Small. The United States received its four slots, but despite her hard riding for the national team, Small did not make the Olympic squad. “I did everything I could over here (in Europe),” she said. “I was a good teammate, and I won a race when I was allowed to race for myself.” But it was not enough.
Turning disappointment into results
The Olympic team announcement came in June while Small was wearing the leader’s jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. It was a big disappointment after her efforts in Europe. “It was pretty hard to find out at Nature Valley that I didn’t make the team,” she said. “I found out on the third day. It was pretty hard… I was like, ‘let’s win it.’”
“Something like that, when it’s a big goal and it doesn’t happen, you kind of either throw your toys out of the pram and give up, or you find something else to focus on,” said Heal. “Carmen’s a great team player and she wouldn’t want to let her teammates down by throwing the towel in.”
Small went on to win the overall at Nature Valley.
Because Nature Valley carried a 2.1 ranking in 2012, Small’s victory gave her a significant lead in the NRC title race. A third-place finish at the Cascade Classic sealed the title for her. Though missing the Olympics stung, Small was satisfied with her season.
“I came back to the States, and I was second at Gila to Armstrong,” she said. “Then I won Nature Valley, I was third at Cascade. I couldn’t have done anything else.”
Now Small is preparing for the next big step in her career with Specialized. She will spend the majority of her season racing in Europe, and she is looking forward to the challenge.
“I really like Europe. I love the racing over here,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity to come to the best team in the world. I’m really excited about it.”
Team owner Kristy Scrymgeour sees a big role for Small in the coming season.
“We like her because, over the years, she has been an excellent team player,” said Scrymgeour. “She has a great leadership personality. I think she showed her true potential in 2012 and I believe she has a lot of room to improve even further.”
After her near-miss with the 2012 Olympics, Small is heading into the next phase of her career with renewed motivation.
“I thought it would be like, ‘okay, let’s wrap it up. I gave 100 percent, I couldn’t have done anything else,’” she said. “Now it’s like, ‘you were so close, so let’s see what I can do.’ Let’s see what I can do.”