If the past 12 months have taught Carmen Small anything it is this: Expect the unexpected.
In May 2013 the Specialized-lululemon rider lined up for the Chattanooga debut of the Volkswagen USA Pro Cycling Professional Road & Time Trial National Championships focused on success in the Memorial Day road race. Instead she walked away the national time trial champion — narrowly besting a field that included pre-race favorites teammate Evelyn Stevens, Kristin McGrath (Exergy 2016) and Alison Powers (Now and Novartis for MS).
“You know I didn’t have, like, stellar preparation,” the Durango, Colorado, native told VeloNews at the finish. “I certainly didn’t come here with an attitude like ‘Hey, I’m going to win nationals.’
But sometimes life throws you a curveball.
It’s a lesson Small learned vividly toward the end of 2013 as she and her husband (professional mountain biker Ben Sonntag) assumed custody of two teenage nieces while the girls’ mother — Small’s older sister — struggled with addiction issues. The choice that followed may have been even harder: She would give up racing to care for the girls.
Fortunately, Specialized-lululemon team owner Kristy Scrymgeour had different plans for the new mother of two.
“Kristy said, ‘You don’t have to go. We will work with you and if you find you can’t do both then you can pull the plug,’” Small told VeloNews. “She was very supportive, which was huge. I was very lucky to have that. Because otherwise I wouldn’t be racing my bike right now.”
As she approaches Saturday’s title defense in Chattanooga, Small admits that her time trialing has suffered as a result of her personal circumstances.
“I wasn’t able to leave over the winter and I have a whole new set of responsibilities. That ‘s going to influence my racing. I mean, how could it not? But I don’t regret any of it,” Small said.
“It’s just hard as an athlete when you aren’t as on top of your game as you want to be. It’s a mental challenge. It’s a physical challenge. But I knew going into the season that it would be.”
After a frustrating TT performance at the Amgen Tour of California, Small admits she may not be a favorite to repeat as national champion. But don’t feel too bad for Small — for what she claims to lack in TT form, she appears to have discovered as a sprinter.
At the Silver City Tour of the Gila, Small — participating as a guest rider for DNA Racing — racked up both a stage win and enough sprint points to win the PNM Sprinter’s Jersey. Then at the Amgen Tour of California, Small outkicked Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare) and Brianna Walle (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) to win the women’s circuit race.
“It was really good for my morale,” said Small of her sprint victory in Sacramento. “It was on the (Adobe) TourTracker so my whole family got to watch it on the Internet. I had half of Durango watching and there were thousands of people there in Sacramento. So it was a really good win.”
Could her recent success on the road mean a change in approach toward this weekend’s nationals? Here Small insists she’s taking things one day at a time.
“Just because I’m not feeling as strong as I did this time last year doesn’t mean I’m not going to go out and give it my all in the time trial. I still need to go out and see what I can do.”
As for Monday’s road race, Small says she’s in Tennessee to help her team — whether as its leader or in support of a teammate.
“We’ll figure that out on Sunday, I guess. I’m just here to win races.”
But win or lose, Small can take satisfaction in knowing that a year full of curveballs has not only helped her grow, but touched others as well.
“[Sharing my story] has been really beneficial in that so many people have reached out to me who are in similar situations,” said Small of her family’s challenges. “I’ve been really surprised by the response, to be honest.”
“You know, having addiction in the family isn’t a nice thing to talk about — but maybe it happens in more families than we think it does? If I can help someone else in that situation to see some light or have the strength to go on, then for me that’s just huge.”