In the women's cycling world, there is far less specialisation than in the men's, with riders generally taking on more than one role. But there are some "pure" sprinters - and the most successful by far are are Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Kirsten Wild. They've spent the season duelling against each other, each riding for the two biggest teams in the peloton. But although Teutenberg is staying with HTC for 2011, Wild had already made up her mind to leave the other super-team, Cervélo, even before they combined with Garmin and lost most of their riders. One of the reason she left was to be able to ride on the track as well as the road - she combines sprinting with expertise in short Time Trials, as well as track ambitions. I interviewed Wild as she had just finished her first training camp with AA Drink-Leontien.nl, and we talked about what it will be like adapting to a smaller team after super-budget team of Cervélo, the unique challenges of being a Dutch cyclist with her eyes on a place at the 2012 Olympics, and more!
Wild rode for AA Drink for three seasons, between 2006 and 2008, before she signed to Cervélo on a full-time contract. When the sponsor pulled out, the team became Leontien.nl - and it's exciting to see AA Drink back on board, this time supporting women and men on the road, in Cyclo-Cross and on the track. This was one of the many draws for Wild - she has ambitions to ride at the Olympics as part of the road and track team, but while riding for Cervélo, sponsor conflicts between her team and the National Team got in the way. Cervélo wanted their riders to ride their product, of course - the National Team has an exclusive agreement with a different bike manufacturer - and both teams insist that their riders rode their bike or no bike. There was no room for compromise in either side - and Wild was left with no bike, so no track. She sounds philosophical about this, focusing on looking forward to the future, but it must have been a disappointment.
Now she has the bike issue sorted out, she's faced with another barrier on her path to London: being Dutch. The Netherlands is probably the biggest nation in the world for women's cycling, with only Italy coming close for numbers and depth of talent, especially when it comes to sprinting and the track - and there will be fierce competition for places for the events Wild is aiming for: the omnium and the team pursuit and the road race. "We've got enough strong riders to have two teams", says Wild, "and both of them good!". Four of the top ten women in the 2010 Road World Cup rankings are Dutch, and to be 5th best Dutchwoman on the track would guarantee a place in practically any other nation's team. I suggest that the solution for the Dutch could be to find a grandmother from another country, and declare themselves temporarily Belgian, or some other cycling nation that would love to have their talent boosting their squad. Wild has already though about this. "I've looked at all my family", she laughs, "but they're all Dutch! I'd have to marry someone instead - but I don't know if my boyfriend would like it!" That leaves just the hard way, winning her place. Wild will ride for the Netherlands National Team at the Track World Cup in Beijing, and see if her performance will help her qualify for the Dutch team at the Track World Championships in March 2011.
The high standard of Dutch cycling is generally a benefit, however. "It's good education, as a cyclist, to be riding at that level since age 18. There's a huge range of races at all levels, and while it might be harder to get to get picked to ride at the elite level, once a rider's there, she's more than ready to compete with the best. Coming from a country like the UK, where coverage is practically non-existent, it's strange to hear Wild talk about how there's still a way to go in terms of raising awareness of the sport in the Netherlands. It is changing - Marianne Vos is a household name, and multiple World & Olympic Champion Leontien van Moorsel is a driving force of AA Drink-Leontien.nl, and is working hard to continually promote the sport at all levels.
"Leontien van Moorsel works very hard - she's really famous here, not just as a sportswoman - and she brings the media attention", says Wild. "Leontien says you can complain about the lack of media coverage, but you have to work on it yourself, too". Announcing AA Drink coming back on board as a sponsor on national television is just one example of this - and the leontien.nl website shows many more. How Wild will feel about the media interest that comes with the team? "It's good for the sport, and for me personally", she replies, "But I'm also an athlete - I want to focus on the sport, not the things around it - it always needs balance".
The core of the team will stay the same as the Leontien.nl team of the last few seasons, including Irene van den Broek and Chantal Blaak, who rode alongside Wild the last time it was AA Drink, and Podium Café favourite Marijn de Vries. Joining the team for 2011 will be former Junior ITT World Champion, Trixi Worrack, who's had a relatively quiet 2010 season, after her team, Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung, lost its sponsorship and collapsed (you may have heard of the Skyter debacle) but whose palmares include stages in the toughest races, and the GC of all the races known for being cold, wet and hard, like Thüringen Rundfahrt and Gracia-Orlová. Another new rider will be Linda Villumsen, another TT expert and GC contender, who after 5 seasons with HTC, is ready for a chance to race for herself. Add Wild to this mix, into a team which has prided itself on developing young Dutch talent, and it looks like there will be another big team on the block.
Of course, Wild has been used to riding for Cervélo, who, with HTC, were the super-teams of the women's peloton, in terms of resources, and their roster of stars. Next year, with the rise of new teams like MCipollini-Giordana and Diadora-Pasta Zara expanding their talent, as well as teams like Nederland Bloeit building on their success, everything will be much more unpredictable. Riding for Cervélo was a great experience for Wild, who says she learnt a lot from the directors and the riders - especially from riding alongside "superstars" like Christiane Soeder and Kristin Armstrong, and riders like Emma Pooley and Claudia Häusler. And she'll definitely miss the superb lead-out train, especially having riders like Sarah Düster and Charlotte Becker working with her - but the break-up for the super-team is not necessarily a bad thing, from Wild's perspective "We were so dominant, that even when we weren't at 100% we were still dominating. In a way, it's good that the leaders are divided - more spread out". She's looking forward to the competition, and the different styles of racing, and after a bad few years, in terms of losing races and teams, is optimistic about the future.
And as well as missing her team-mates, there will be the Cervélo resources. "We were spoiled at Cervélo. Flying to races, and I had my own car for when I needed to drive". AA Drink will be different - a step down from those luxuries - but to Wild that's not a bad thing. As a predominantly Dutch team, the riders will be able to train together more often and more easily. And although driving to races means longer journeys, there will be more travelling together, which brings its own benefits. All of these things influenced Wild in her decision to move - she first started talking to them in August, before the Garmin-Cervélo merger, and right from the start, had a good feeling about the team.
Her first training weekend with the new team has confirmed her feelings - it was a fun weekend, exciting to be part of something that feels familiar, yet new. And there are advantages to moving from an international team to one that's mostly Dutch . "Already I can feel the difference: I can understand everyone and everything. In English it's hard to make jokes or understand the nuances. It's easier when everything's in Dutch, it takes up less energy - but then because you can, you end up talking all day!"
One thing I can't resist asking - will the team be keeping the Barbie-pink kit they've become famous for? After seeing her sprint in the sleek, professional black of Cervélo, I can't imagine red-headed Wild, who's one of the tallest riders in the pack, battling the sprints in the pink-and-flowers Leontien.nl kit. She tells me that although "the pink got the team a lot of attention - everyone knows the pink team, now", they'll be moving back to the AA Drink blue. "It will be good with my blue eyes and red hair!" she laughs.
Looking ahead, her plan is to focus this winter on the track, then continue into spring on the roads, have a break, and build up to the Worlds. She'll see how it goes on the track this winter, before re-assessing her plans for 2012. She feels good about the coming year, like there's a positive spirit in women's cycling. After ten years racings, she still has fun on her bike, and although training in the cold and rain can be tough, still loves the life, and throughout the winter will be combining track training with mountain biking through the forests near her home. "I know that after I've finished racing, when I go into a normal life, I'll never feel like this again".
Wild has been a full-time pro for 3 years now - before that she combined riding with teaching physical education in a technical college. She started racing at 18 - although she'd always gone out riding with her father and older brother, and describes herself as "always very competitive", her parents hadn't wanted her to race. "They were scared I would crash & get injured, especially that I'd injure my face - they thought it was very dangerous", she explains. "When you look at it from the outside, it looks much more dangerous than it feels from within. In a sprint, I feel controlled and calm, but it looks like chaos. And mostly the crashes look worse than they are", she adds, knocking on wood. But although her parents were not keen, eventually Wild's persistence paid off, and they gave in. Now they're very proud of their daughter, and happy for her, supporting her all the way.
As a sprinter, Wild has been developing steadily over the past few years, until she's now competing with the very best. "A few years ago it was a bit frustrating - I was always second. If not to Ina Teutenberg, then to Giorgia Bronzini. Since last year, I've got better, I've got a little bit of a chance to win myself". Riding against Teutenberg is always tough racing. "Ina, she's the best - it is nice to beat her sometimes!" Although Teutenberg has won more of their head-to head sprints this year, it's not been a walk-over for her - at the Tour of ChongMing Island, for example, the two riders alternated wins, with the last stage, and therefore the race, being a very tight photo finish. I can practically see the good-natured shrug and smile that comes with her "If it had been 1 metre more, maybe..." She seems to approach her losses philosophically, and to revel in the fact that in competing against riders like Teutenberg, Vos and Bronzini, she's sprinting against the very best. "A few years ago, Ina won every race. I never thought I could be one of them! It's nice that I feel I'm getting closer and giving some competition. I'm not frustrated anymore. Sometimes I give myself too much pressure - I think I have to win because I want it so much." How does she cope with this, and not send herself crazy? " I try to always give 100%. I try to give it everything, so if I lose, I know that I couldn't have done more".
Interestingly, when I ask her about her high points of 2010, it's not the many races she won that she mentions first. Her immediate response is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where she came third - and her voice is full of enthusiasm. "Even though I didn't win, still rode well and had a great feeling. It's always special, I've always had a special feeling, it's just such a nice race - the people, the course". Although she has been on the podium three times, she's never won the race - and next year, because the Track World Championships runs the week before, she won't be able to ride both. The fact the the track season, even though it's so short, overlaps with the Spring Classics and the first rounds of the Road World Cup is another frustration, but she's resilient, about it, and focuses on the positives.
The next race is the Holland Ladies Tour, where she won two stages, but lost the overall General Classification to Marianne Vos by 3 seconds "I didn't feel good for the first days, but it ended well".
The Swedish rounds of the Road World Cup, the Open de Suède Vårgårda Team Time Trial and Road Race, which Cervélo and Wild won respectively, are another stand-out moment for her. I can't help it, I have to ask how it was for Wild to ride behind the tiny Emma Pooley in the TTT - but although we loved to watch it, Wild is very complementary about her ex-team-mate. "When she felt I was behind her, she sat up, and made herself taller, so I could still benefit. It might better to sit behind someone else, but she's so strong, it doesn't make a difference. But Emma is like that. In Montréal last year, Emma did 80% of the work on the front, she's a good team rider"
In terms of the low points of the season, her biggest disappointment was the Giro Donne. "I'd hoped to win a stage there - but I had bad luck and bad days - it wasn't a highlight for me". The Giro is the biggest race of the season, and as with all sprinters, I'm interested in the way one day they're up there at the front of the race, fighting for first place, and the next day trailing behind up the mountains. How was it for a pure sprinter like Wild to ride the Alpine stages, and especially the Queen Stage, finishing on the Stelvio?
"Now my level is good enough to go in the grupetto without too much pain - I had time to look around and have chats in the group. I have days when I don't want anyone to talk to me. But it also feels a bit stupid: when I finished the Stelvio stage, my team-mates had finished, showered, and were eating bread. As we finished, they were at the top taking pictures - but they were supportive! I'll never win a stage on the Stelvio, so I ride to save the maximum amount of energy". At least the grupetto get to enjoy the scenery, and take in the beauty of Italy!
Unexpectedly, the mountains of Italy, on a sunny day, would be one of Wild's ideal places to train - although her favourite conditions to race in would be about 5º, in the wind and the rain of Holland or Belgium. She loves the Spring Classics, especially the cobbles - and if she had to compare herself to a male sprinter, she'd say she's a little bit like Thor Hushovd or Tom Boonen - so would she like to ride a woman's version of Paris-Roubaix? Her voice is full of excitement at the idea - she'd love it, and she keeps suggesting it to anyone she can, but so far they haven't said yes! It would be such a superb race - both Wild and her biggest rival, Ina Teutenberg, are in love with the cobbles, and with women's racing known for the attacking, I can only cross my fingers we'll get the chance to see them duel through the Arenberg very soon.
I ask Wild about her plans for her life post-cycling, and it's a hard questions to answer. It could involve returning to work as a Physical Education teacher, or doing some other work in sports with children. But it's difficult, "because I don't want to think about finishing!" We talk about how Teutenberg has just signed a contract for another two years, and how despite the fact it's her biggest competition, Wild is very pleased. "Ina's so good - I don't want her to stop. I can't believe she will stop while still winning!" We laugh about this - about how Wild clearly wants to win, but wants Teutenberg to keep riding. Eventually we decide on a compromise - next year Wild and Teutenberg can split the wins 60-40 - with Wild taking 60% of course! And then she can come back and tell us all about it!
Interview: Sarah Connolly
Photos property of & used with permission of www.kirstenwild.nl