Report by Katie Lambden
Greetings from Altoona, Pennsylvania, where Team Aquafina is competing in the premier women’s stage race in the U.S. Throughout much of its approximately 20-year history, the promoters of this race have touted the event where women’s racing gets as much attention—if not more so—as the men’s events. Not only are the distances of races the same, but there is more prize money for the ladies than the hombres! (That’s a first!) We actually ace an extra day, suffering through seven stages instead of six.
Pre-Race Community Ride
Our team, composed of four core Aquafina members plus two wonderful guest riders, met up in town on Sunday (the day before the race start). As a way to get the community more involved in the Tour, Altoona-based Aquafina rider Tina Skelley-Kunstbeck helped to organize a citizens’ ride on Sunday. We arrived at the health center designated as the meeting place for the ride to find a large sign advertising “Ride with the Pros! Meet and ride with Aquafina Women’s Cycling Team.” Wow—what an ego boost for us. After the ride, we spent what was left of the day settling into our host’s home in Hollidaysburg. The house is huge and beautiful, and we will be very comfortable indeed in these rather sumptuous quarters. We are also lucky enough to have a team manager for the race in John Alsedeck. He has a lot of experience managing teams, and knows ‘Toona well. He’ll be driving the caravan car, doing our grocery shopping, and trying to keep us in line.
Here’s a round up of the action from the women’s pro peloton from the Time Trial and States 1-4.
Katie Lambden, photo by Chris OBrien
STAGE 1: Horseshoe Curve Time Trial
The race started the next evening with the Stage 1 time trial at Horseshoe Curve. The day dawned wet and rainy, and despite the fact that the skies had all day to clear, the clouds stubbornly insisted that they were there to stay. The race didn’t start until 7 p.m. for the women (6 for the men), and by then it was raining even harder than it had all day. Liza’s bike, delayed in transit from Idaho, arrived just 30 minutes before our departure for the TT. Her mechanical skills are good, though, so she had it put together in no time and we were off to the start.
Thank goodness Tina had a pop-up tent, so at least we could warm up on our trainers with some protection from the elements. Many riders had to ride up and down the street in the downpour, wrapped in raincoats or even plastic bags! Suffice to say that the conditions were less-than-ideal. However, the course was safe and had only one major turn, so the stage wrapped up crash-free and pretty uneventfully despite the weather and falling darkness. Our star finishers for the day were Michelle Kiesanowski (our young guest rider on loan from New Zealand) in 35th; and Kristen LaSasso, self-professed non-time triallist, who rode to a 40th place finish even without aerobars. The rest of the team were all within about 30 seconds. We packed ourselves into the cars and drove back to our host house to get warm and dry, eat a light dinner, and get some good rest for the next day.
STAGE 2: Johnstown Circuit Race
Tuesday’s race, the Johnstown Circuit Race, was 3 laps of a 24-mile course in and around, yes, you guessed it, Johnstown, PA. Once again, the race was dominated by driving rain, although this time the weather had more of an effect on the race. There were many sharp turns both leaving and returning to town each lap, and these turns became trouble spots as the peloton struggled to scrub speed with wet rims and brake pads. I skidded out with my rear wheel a bit on two occasions, although luckily I was able to “keep the rubber side down” both times. Not everyone was so lucky, though, and the stage was plagued with crashes. How many of these were a result of the rain-slick roads and how many a result of first-day nerves is hard to say, but there were 3 or 4 pile-ups over the course of the day. Aquafina girls were mostly lucky, except for poor Michelle, who was caught right in the middle of a tumble and went down. She bruised and cut her knee, but was otherwise thankfully unharmed. This was terrible luck for her, though, as she had been keeping excellent position at the front of the pack, staying in what is typically the safest place to be. It just turned out that there really was no safe place to be in this particular race!
The few attacks of the race were shut down, and it came to a sprint finish. We discovered our team sprinter in Liza Rachetto, our second guest rider. This studly spud from Boise, Idaho just returned from racing in Europe and is showing some fine form. She was 16th in the sprint with no help from any of us, giving us great hopes for some top-10 finishes from her the rest of the week.
STAGE 3: Johnstown Altoona Road Race
The third stage of the Tour de ‘Toona is the grueling, 100-mile course from Johnstown to Altoona. I, for one, was nervous about this race as I have very few 100-mile days in my legs, let alone race days! I had never competed in a race this long and neither had Michelle, our other newbie racer. The other team members had raced ‘Toona before, so they gave us pointers on the stage. “There’s a hill about 5 miles in: you need to be near the front there.” “Oh, and at the sprints and the QOMs, you really need to be right up toward the front.” “Don’t be at the back at Blue Knob—you need to start at the front.” Okay, okay, I think we got it. Stay near the front to avoid being gapped off!
The weather gods must have been appeased by the carnage of the previous day’s race, because the storm clouds parted and the sun came out for the first time all week. The race started quickly, but there was really no attrition until the first sprint at mile 18. Michelle had the worse luck possible, flatting a mile or so before the sprint. Tina stayed back to help her chase on, but the pace was so high in preparation for the sprint that the pack was gone before she got her wheel changed. The two of them chased valiantly, but never regained the group. This is one of the most frustrating experiences one can have, especially in a stage race. So much time can be lost riding 80 miles alone instead of with the peloton.
After the first QOM at mile 36, the pace calmed down somewhat. Ten miles further on, the heat of the day had made itself felt and everyone was looking for water. Domestiques from every team dropped back and held up empty bottles to signal their team cars to come up. Teams with cars at the front of the caravan were lucky, but those of us whose cars were further back had a hard time. Even though the peloton wasn’t moving fast, they were getting farther and farther away from where I rolled along, vainly waving my bottle in the air. Finally I took some neutral water from the commissaire’s car and began chasing back to the pack. Even only half way into the race, my legs were complaining under this slight extra effort. I tried to put the Blue Knob climb at mile 73 out of my mind. Luckily for me, after I regained the group and distributed water to some of my teammates, the leaders of the peloton called a pee-break. Girls swung off to the roadside, flinging bikes down with abandon and peeling off sweaty shorts. Crouched on verges, in ditches, even driveways (!), probably about 40 women took advantage of the opportunity to answer nature’s call. This was the first pee-break I’d witnessed, and I’m disappointed to report I did not have the need to join in. At least the break gave me a chance to rest my legs, weary already with 60 miles yet to race.
The pace stayed calm, with no attacks, until the infamous Blue Knob climb three-quarters along the course. As we entered Blue Knob State Park, I think my heartrate went up just anticipating the pain ahead. Liza helped me out throughout the day by encouraging me to move up in the group, and the advice was always good. No one really attacked up Blue Knob, but the climb took its toll, splitting the pack into who-knows-how-many pieces. I saw the first group of 15 or so go over the top, then a second group of around 10 with Liza. I was in the next small group. I struggled over the top, totally blown, only to find another little hill waiting! Within a few minutes my little group was caught by the strong-girls-who-don’t-climb group consisting of Lauren Franges, Laura Van Gilder, and another few Genesis gals. They drove us hard down the descent and once we were on the flat/rolling section following, forced everyone to work. Unfortunately, I was so shattered from the climb that it was taking me way too long to pull through, and the effort of trying nearly blew me up. I was gapped, then came a twisty descent. By taking the corners like a madwoman in desperation, I managed to catch back on. It was another 10 or 15 minutes of hard chasing before the end of the caravan was in sight. Unfortunately, I had a growing sense that my body was out of fuel: I hadn’t had a chance to eat or drink during the furious chase.
I was within 20 yards of the peloton when I bonked badly. Bonked or blew up—I’m not really sure which, but at any rate I couldn’t close that 20 yard gap to save my life (or my race!). The caravan was passing me by again, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I finally had time, at least, to drink some of the watered-down Pepsi from the last feed. I could barely turn the pedals. Those last 15 miles were a death march that I just survived. A few stragglers dropped on Blue Knob or the ensuing chase caught me and seemed to pass me as if I weren’t moving at all. With 10K to go, I found myself, all alone, on a gravel road leading up. I wondered if I was even on the course, but luckily another group of about 10 were coming up behind me. The sugar had worked its magic by then, so I was able to make a feeble effort to join the end of the group. And so we limped into Altoona. I ended up around 7 minutes back, but Kristen and Liza had made it in with the front group. Not only made it in, in fact, but Liza sprinted to a 6th place finish! Elisa was only three minutes behind my group, and Michelle and Tina came in only a bit over half an hour down, despite having ridden more than 80 miles outside the protection of the peloton.
Aquafina’s Elisa Gagnon, photo by Scott Schaffrick
Overall, as painful as the day had been, our team did amazingly well. We’re now situated in 6th place in team GC, and Kristen and Liza are 21st and 22nd GC, respectively.
STAGE 4: Hollidaysburg Circuit Race
I never would have believed after yesterday’s suffer-fest that I could race today, let alone race hard. But this 20-mile circuit, repeated 3 times, was definitely not easy. The climbs were not long, but were steep and sudden, and my legs complained bitterly each time the road went up. Our game plan was pretty much to stay out of trouble and try to keep in the group for what would inevitably be a bunch sprint. There were a few attacks by Victory Brewing and Basis, shut down quickly by Quark and Rona. Michelle attacked once too, but the big teams took her as seriously as they should, and I believe I saw Genevieve Jeanson leading the chase to reel her in. The pattern of the circuits was fast at the start, lull in the middle, and fast again the last 10K into the final hills and the sprint line. There was a long, twisting, very fast descent into town, then some sharp corners and a set of railroad tracks just before the uphill finish. I had to chase back on with Liza at the end of the second lap; thank goodness the pack slowed up after the sprint or the race may have been over for me. I didn’t have many matches to burn today!
The last half of the last lap I remember feeling a sense of foreboding about the upcoming hills. John was on the radio, telling us when the bridge was coming (important to move up), when the attacks should be coming (important to move up), and when the hills were coming (important to move up!). The advice stood me in good stead for the first two of three hills, but by the third rise I was toasted and watched a gap open in front of me. I thought I may have been able to catch on during the descent, but it seems that everyone was screaming down the hill as crazily as I was, and when we got to the first corners in town I was still 50 yards away from the pack. I was alone in no-man’s-land the last mile, and the group behind me had basically caught me by the time I pushed past the finish line, hurting as much as I ever have before.
Kristen and Michelle finished in the lead group and Liza was just 10 seconds behind. I was a little over 30 seconds back, and the rest of the team just a bit more. Overall, we narrowed the gap to the 5th placed team on GC by around 20 seconds. If we keep whittling the gap every day, we could easily finish 5th in team GC, which would be a terrific result for our squad. This would be the first small-budget team behind the likes of Quark, Rona, Genesis, and Victory! That’s our goal for the rest of the week, along with moving Kristen and Liza a bit further up the individual GC.
We finished the day with massages (ahhhh) and shared a giant stir-fry for dinner. As we settled down for the night, Liza broke the peace with a yelp of dismay when she took her cycling shoes out of the bag she’d tossed them into after the race. “Anyone have suggestions for stinky shoes?” she asked. As a matter of fact, we did: one of our sponsors, Weleda, makes a wonderful spray deodorant with sage and lemon oils. It’s the best stuff for sweaty shoes, and I think we’ll all be happier now that Liza’s using it!
Thank you Katie! We look forward to the next Aquafina race report!
For more information about the team please see their website.