A week into the 2016 season and Katie Hall (UnitedHealthcare) has already popped two bottles of podium champagne, first on Thursday, when she attacked Cuba’s Arlenis Sierra to win the fifth stage of the Tour Feminino de San Luis in Argentina, and then again less than 24 hours later, after fending off attacks across the race’s 79-kilometer final stage to earn her first-ever GC victory.
For Hall, 29, it was a perfect start to her third season as a pro, indicative of a talent that has, for much of her short career, been concealed behind a lack of racing experience. She’s a rising star, able to climb with the best in the world, and is slowly gaining the race skills to match her engine.
Like many female pros before her, Hall found cycling late. Her first road race was in 2011, riding for her collegiate team at UC Berkeley as she pursued a PhD in molecular toxicology (she’s since turned that into a masters degree so she can focus on racing). A few years in the collegiate ranks, and then racing for amateur team Metromint Cycling, led her to a UHC contract. Her 2014 season was a learning experience, and with results that reflected her move into faster, tougher racing.
Sparks of Hall’s climbing talent showed last year in San Luis, where she took her first major stage win in a strong international field. She won the mountains classification and finished fourth overall, too. She was strong again at the Tour of California, where she won stage 1.
But Friday’s San Luis overall victory marks a turning point for Hall. It was a win that took more than just a big engine, as she was forced to defend a slim lead through the final stage with just three teammates at her side. Hall can now be considered a legitimate GC threat in any climb-heavy stage race.
“I was worried about late attacks from some of the strong time trialists who were also high on GC, but I knew my teammates were strong and would be there to help me,” she said of the final stage. She was patient, used her teammates well, and finished on the same time as the stage winner, ahead of a split in the main bunch.
“We weren’t the only team that was down riders, but Iris [Slappendel], Coryn [Rivera], and Diana [Peñuela] were so strong that I was never really worried,” she said. “There were lots of attacks but only a few people we really needed to worry about so we focused on them and were willing to let others go up the road.”
Hall set up her overall victory with a late attack up the final climb on stage 5, a long slog up to Mirador de Potrero de los Funes. She crossed the line 17 seconds up on Sierra and 23 seconds up on eventual second place Malgorzata Jasinksa (Ale-Cipollini).
“We tried to get one of our other good climbers up the road in the tailwind and crosswind sections but nothing stuck,” Hall said of the team’s tactics on the day. “There were some strong attacks but Diana, Coryn, and Iris were all over them and I didn’t have to do anything until the climb. Coryn put in a last hard effort in a crosswind and shredded the field approaching the climb. Ale-Cipollini attacked, and I chased. Three came with me but I was able to drop them on the hill and finish with a small gap.”
Combined with her strong ride in the stage 4 time trial, where she was second behind Lauren Stephens (Tibco-SVB) by 43 seconds, the gap created on stage 5 was enough to hold onto overall victory a day later.
“It was nice to win here because it was my first repeat win, and it’s nice to feel it wasn’t just chance [last year],” she said after final stage.
Hall will leave the mountains behind and tackle the spring classics next, with an expected start at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Thanks to its current UCI ranking, Hall’s UHC team is guaranteed an invite to all of the Women’s WorldTour one-day and stage races, so she’ll have plenty of chances to show off her climbing legs, and GC-winning tactical sense, later in the year.