SANTA BARBARA, California (VN) — Alison Powers is back, happier than ever, and ready to trade her trophy case of runner-up accolades for stage race wins in 2013.
In 2012, Alison Powers (NOW-Novartis for MS) won the Cascade Classic. It was a revelation for her. She is a former national champion in the time trial and won the season-long National Racing Calendar in 2009, but Cascade marked the first major stage race victory for Powers.
“I’ve never won a big stage race like that,” she said. “I’ve gotten second, like, 500 million times! I get second all the freaking time!”
The breakthrough came at the end of her first season of racing with NOW. Powers credited director Kurt Stockton and the team’s atmosphere for helping her achieve a string of successes on the bike in 2012.
“Alison doesn’t race for second. She doesn’t like second,” said Stockton.
Robin Farina, Powers’ team captain and 2011 national road champion called Powers a gifted rider. “She can push herself beyond what other people can do,” said Farina.
Powers began her athletic life as a ski racer. By high school graduation, she was a member of the U.S. Ski Team and headed for the World Cup, specializing in the speed events of downhill and Super G. A knee injury derailed her career on skis, however, and she bought a road bike during her recovery.
“I liked it, getting on the new road bike,” she said. “I got on it, and I could just pedal and let my mind go somewhere else. It just felt freeing.”
A summer trip to Europe to train for skiing flipped the switch for Powers. As she drove into the mountains, she started to think that maybe she would rather ride a bike up the passes than ski down them.
“I remember driving up the [Passo dello] Stelvio and I was looking out the window, and I was thinking, ‘I want to ride my bike up this,’” she said. “It’s not good if you’re a ski racer, if all you want to do is ride your bike!”
Leaving ski racing behind, Powers, then 24 years old, decided to head back to Europe with a bike.
“I rented a car, and I took my tent, and I rode every single pass,” she said. “I had such awful fitness! I mean, awful fitness! I’d ride up the pass and then ride back down to the car and be exhausted.”
But she rode every one of those mountain passes she had seen from the car window in northern Italy and dreamed of pedaling up.
Nine years later, Powers is still pedaling bikes. After an elbow injury forced her to miss most of her 2011 season with Tibco-To The Top, she joined the NOW squad in 2012, and has found a perfect fit with the team.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had bike racing,” she said. “I look forward to going on trips. I look forward to racing.”
That happiness has translated into new success for Powers, who has been a time trial specialist for much of her career.
“For me personally, it didn’t matter what race it was, I was on the podium,” she said of her 2012 season. “It wasn’t just time trials; it was crits and road races and stage races and that was amazing.”
Powers credited her team’s strength and its willingness to work for her for some of those results. “I know how I win races, and how teammates can be helpful, but you don’t always get the teammates who are able to do that,” she said.
Powers has also found a mentor in Stockton. She described the NOW director as a talented teacher, whose advice has helped her become a better bike racer. During last year’s team camp, she discovered the wealth of knowledge Stockton brings to the team, thanks to his own racing career that included a U.S. Pro championship title in 1990. The lightbulb came on for Powers during a session devoted to sprint training.
“We did sprint training, and right away, I had a bad attitude. I’m not a sprinter, I hate this,” she said. “He and his brother [Darin Stockton] were trying to teach us, and I was like, bad attitude, bad attitude, bad attitude.”
But Powers managed to learn in spite of herself. Before that practice session ended, she won one of the practice sprints, a first for her. “Maybe these dudes know what they’re talking about,” she recalled thinking. Since then, Powers has listened carefully to what Stockton has had to say. “It was like, every race, ‘ok, you did a good job, and this is what you can do better, this is still what you can do better,’” she said.
“When I signed Alison to NOW and Novartis for the 2012 season, I didn’t know her that well other than by her results,” said Stockton. “[Working with her] re-instilled my faith that in this day and age, there are still top-level athletes who are very meticulous and precise, while at the same time maintaining a balance so as not to be completely consumed by cycling.”
Regaining the TT edge
As an athlete and person, Powers likes to learn new things. In the effort to push her talent further, Powers has devoted this past winter to improving her already solid time trial skills. In 2008, she won the national time trial championship, and she would like to seize that prize again.
“With [Evelyn Stevens] and Amber [Neben], that’s hard,” she said. A stronger time trial will also help her avoid those dreaded second-place finishes at the stage races.
For the first time, Powers has had a time trial bike at home over the winter for training. “Usually, you get your bike and it’s like March,” she said. That leaves little time to train on the bike before going to the races and makes it difficult to dial-in a fast position. Last season, Powers got a training TT bike and kept it through the winter.
The decision to make sure Powers had a bike at home came from Stockton and he negotiated with the team’s bike sponsor, Specialized, to make it happen.
“I could not reasonably expect Alison to improve and be properly prepared for time trials without having this tool at her disposal,” he said. According to Stockton, the team exchanged 2.5 road bikes for every extra Shiv time trial frameset. Stockton considers the trade-off well worth it. “We reaped the benefits beyond all our expectations.”
As she focused on her time trial training over the winter, Powers adjusted her fit. Though she spent time in the wind tunnel a few years ago, she struggled to ride well in the position her wind tunnel tests had dictated.
“Last year, I just knew the power from my time trial bike to my road bike wasn’t even close to equal,” Powers said. “I was very uncomfortable and felt like I couldn’t breathe. [It was] just not powerful.”
A trip to Retül changed all that. At Retül, the fitters used sensors to measure Powers’ fit on the bike. Then, they went to work adjusting her position to improve her power output. “They changed my position a lot,” she said. “It’s awesome, I can breathe, my legs feel powerful; it’s really nice.”
In yet another change, Powers hired a new coach after the 2012 season after four years of coaching herself. She said she was “stuck” and felt she needed some new input into her training. Now she is working with Bruce Hendler at AthletiCamps, and has found it to be a change for the better to have an outside advisor to help her sort out her training. She continues to run a part-time coaching business of her own, but is beginning to see the results of her personal coaching change. “Training at home, holy shit, the power numbers match right now what they did last year during the season,” she said of her work on the TT bike.
At the recent Merco Classic, Powers finished second, by 14 seconds, to Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) in the time trial stage. Powers viewed the result as an encouraging sign. “I actually felt like I had a decent chance against Evie, rather than being like, ‘Evie is going to win.’”
Targeting quality races, not NRC points
After spending a week training in Santa Barbara, NOW will head to the San Dimas Stage Race and the Redlands Classic. Though Powers finished second in the NRC rankings in 2012, NOW is not overly concerned with chasing points in the national events.
“It’s nice on our team; we don’t give two shits about the NRC,” said Powers with characteristic frankness.
Instead, the team picks its races based on the prize money and the quality of the courses. A race that offers equal prize money for women, like Tulsa Tough, for example, takes priority for the team.
“We [can] go to races that are more supportive,” Powers said “And the ones we like!”
Looking ahead, Powers would like to see women’s team sponsors engage the teams and riders more consistently. “The people who support women’s cycling — and not just my team — it’s really, really awesome,” she said. “But I don’t think they use us in a good way.”
She wonders, for example, why sponsors’ advertising often uses images only from the men’s teams.
“It’s very discouraging for me, to be Twittering and Facebooking about particular sponsors, and all they Twitter and Facebook to promote is men and triathletes,” Powers said. “It’s like, why do I even bother? I’m not getting any ‘good job’ for winning a race. I feel like that’s the missing link.”
Powers would like to see tighter connections between women’s teams and their industry sponsors. But for now, she is focused on preparing for the coming season and is looking forward to traveling to the races with her NOW teammates.
“It’s time to win stage races and win yellow jerseys and not just settle for second or third,” she said.