Race Report: Women’s racing in the City of Brotherly Love

So this report is coming a little bit late in the week, but I needed to get it up and out before the ever oncoming wave of the Next Race swept it aside.  Truth is the bike race in Philadelphia takes a little bit longer to digest — for riders and staff alike.  And we will probably have another write-up on it from our guest rider’s perspective. It is a significant enough event that it warrants a couple of blogs.  Even at the risk of becoming a slightly epic sweeping trilogy of race reports.

Philly from the Feedzone
— by Chris Reid

There are a couple of reasons why we took a team to the event now called the Philadelphia Cycling Classic. Formerly called the Philadelphia International Championships for men and the Liberty Classic for women, after decades of continuity it changed organizers and formats this year.  One reason is that the race provides a rare opportunity for the girls to race in an international level field and to stretch their abilities.

But the single biggest reason, beyond fitness, or development, or rider exposure is because simply put, Philly is the show.  It is beyond doubt, the single most storied race in North America.  An American woman had never won there (though they have come agonizingly close on no less than nine occasions).  No man has won it more than twice.

As a young bike racer growing up and waiting for my print copy of VeloNews to arrive at the bike store, I read about and envisioned this race of mythical proportions that was waged annually.  The very names of the course section on the Manayunk Wall, and on Lemon Hill, and Strawberry Mansion Rd. (the three signature climbs in the event) had their own mythology.  When I was just entering the sport, a young Lance Armstrong announced his arrival to the cycling world with by winning the Triple Crown at Philadelphia – and with it a million dollar paycheck. The first year I ever had a licence in 1995 the Liberty Classic was won by a pre-fame Clara Hughes.

It was pretty exciting then, that when I finally attended the race 15-odd years later that the race actually lived up to the hype in my mind.  It is a rare occurrence to encounter the daydreams of your youth and find that they still hold a little magic.

Women’s bike racing is an often marginalized sport, with promoters sometimes indifferent to showcase professional women’s cycling the way it deserves. Even at our home race in Gatineau the women started a half hour earlier this year to make for a longer regional men’s race.

Which brings us back to the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, and its feared Manayunk Wall.  This years race offered equal prize money for the women.  And rather a lot of it, with the winner taking $5,000 and additional $5000 prizes for the Queen of the Mountains and $2,500 for the top sprinter (the sprint line was cruelly located shortly before the Wall). Eighteenth place at Philly took home the same money as Shelly Olds did for winning in Gatineau.

Now obviously we don’t come for the money.  Doing so would be a significant accounting error. It was unlikely that a Stevens rider would win any cash.

No, what draws us to this event is that the bigger picture that the money represents — that big time women’s pro bike racing is possible, and for at least one day it is alive and thriving on the streets of Philadelphia. Cars stopped to wish the girls luck the day before as the pre-rode, and live coverage was already showing on the television as we had breakfast in the hotel.  It was at this race in 2005 with the National Team that Jenny decided that she wanted to be a professional cyclist.  After years in the sport it took actually seeing an event of this magnitude to make her believe that it was possible.

The reason we take the team to this event, is the hope that it will inspire some of them to believe that it can be both attainable and worth pursuing.  That they will come back and double down and make the huge commitments that this will require.  In many ways the girls were lucky, this year was a good one for Canadians (who have won the race on two occasions) – with Olympian Joelle Numainville finishing second. Perhaps the success of women whom they race against at home will show them a pathway to the upper echelon of the sport does indeed exist, if at times it can seem an uphill battle.

The crowds that had already assembled for 9 a.m. dwarfed those at any other women’s race in North America.  They would only grow as the day went on, until the late afternoon when the crowd at Manayunk hit Hors Categorie levels of frat house-fuelled cycling fandom. The feeling at the finish as an American woman finally won on home soil, in this 20th running of the event, was the sort of electric moment that sports announcers salivate over.

If possible, moving the start/finish to the top of the Wall (and beginning the race straight down the Fall from Wall) seemed to squish the madness into one place, exponentially increasing the mayhem in the crowds that gathered in heat pushing 100F.

And just how did the girls fare?  We will have their perspectives up on the site before too long.  But in summary: They came, they saw, they raced hard, and they learned.  Fifty percent of the team made it through one of the hardest races on the continent – a seemingly humble statistic until you realize that many development and regional teams are lucky to have any riders made it to the line at all.

At the end of the day both Annie Foreman-Mackey and Catherine Dessureault put out Balboa-esque performances to go the distance and finish in the fifties.  This is a great accomplishment in their freshman appearances at the event.

Guest rider Steph Bester rode hard all day only to have her group pulled on the last lap – the 8% UCI time cut can be a cruel blade at the end of a hard race.  Hélène Pilote-Fortin was unfortunately caught up in the near-ritual first lap crash.  Though disappointed in having her race cut short, she escaped unscathed (unlike another rider who broke their collarbone) and will be in action this coming weekend.

As the fictional Philadelphian Rocky Balboa says, sometimes the secret in life isn’t how hard you can hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep coming back.  And Stevens Racing will certainly be back next year.

Philadelphia with a Number On
By Catherine Dessureault

Catherine Dessureault
Catherine Dessureault

It’s very exciting to have a team that allows me to race in UCI events like the Philly classic. There are three reasons for my excitement: it’s a complete race with hill climbing, sprint competitions, it’s an international level of racing and it’s one of the few races, if not the only one that has same prize money for men and women.  It is a very popular event and big names are on the starting list. That means I was a little nervous getting there and racing with those girls.

We got there on Friday night late and I went to bed as soon as I got there. On Saturday, we went for pre-race. I was really excited but really nervous at the same time as the hill is a power climb but I knew that the positioning in the race would be the key.

I woke up ready to give my very best on Sunday morning. I knew it was going to hurt but I was ready. In the first lap, I was stuck behind a crash and had to stop then chase back to the peloton. I reconnected at the bottom of the climb and the first time up was hard. The next lap I was recovering a bit from that effort and I was starting to feel OK. I was able to position myself at the front to get up Manayunk wall for the second time so I wasn’t far behind and the chase back went well. On the third time up I had no chance to reposition myself and as I was suffering up the wall I saw a big group going away. After the climb we were a small group of 15 riders trying to chase back but even with riding in the caravan, we were unable to get back so we rode together with very few of the group working. At the end, I tried to help my teammate Annie to get first up the hill to get a few better places and to practice a lead-out to the finish. Unfortunately her tank was already empty and she couldn’t give more on the climb and we both rolled over the line together.

Sometimes, results don’t mean as much as the experience we get in the races. This last weekend, I learned a lot of things and I will try to apply these lessons to my next races.