Meredith Miller, on the front at the Snelling Road Race.
Meredith Miller wears the Stars and Stripes jersey of United States road race champion. She won the title last Summer in Bend, Oregon, when she attacked with 2 kilometers to go and crossed the line alone. The move came after Miller bridged across with Amy Dombroski to a solo attack from Kori Seehafer. Soon, a group of five formed, and clearly, they were going to survive to the finish. "Don’t screw up!" Miller told herself, as the finish approached. "Any one of my team-mates could win," she told me recently. All she could think was "you better win this one for the team."
Though she holds the national road race title, Miller has made her career as a team rider. She is best known for doing the hard work of supporting her Tibco team-mates in their ambitions. Among her team-mates, Miller counts former national road race and criterium champion Brooke Miller, stage racer Alison Starnes, who recently rode the Tour of New Zealand for the U.S. National team, and Joanne Kiesanowski, who placed third in the year-long National Racing Calendar points standings. Together, they have collected an impressive collection of results on the North American circuit. Little wonder that Miller said she is "happy to work for her team-mates." She has confidence in their ability to win and described watching her team-mates win as "rewarding."
"It took a long time to get there," said Miller of her win at nationals, which came after twelve years of racing. Miller got her start in cycling after playing semi-professional soccer for a team in Madison, Wisconsin. At the end of the season, the funding for her team dried up, and she needed a new challenge. Her boyfriend at the time rode bikes and he had an extra gruppo sitting unused, just waiting to become a bicycle. Miller found a used frameset at the Madison Bike Swap, and she quickly embraced her new sport.
Like all new riders, Miller had much to learn about bike racing. "I learned a lot the first year," she explained, and she credited her first team, Famous Footwear, with holding skills clinics and teaching her the fundamentals of tactics. "Many woman riders, they move through the ranks quickly. They have talent, but they haven’t learned as much as they could have along the way," commented Miller. "I had those skills from the outset," she said, as a result of the mentoring she received from her team-mates at Famous Footwear.
Despite her strong athletic background and the help of her team, the results did not come all at once. She went to Superweek, where she encountered the big powerhouse teams like Saturn. "I got dropped immediately," Miller recounted of her experience in the Superweek criterium races. The road races went better, though, and gave her confidence. The turning point came in 2000 at the challenging Nevada City Classic, which that year awarded points on the National Racing Calendar. Miller finished fourth on the hilly circuit against a strong field that included multiple-time national criterium champion Tina Pic. "Maybe I can do this thing," thought Miller after her success in Nevada City.
What makes a good support rider? The best support riders are well-rounded. "I can go to any kind of race," said Miller. This attribute makes her indispensable to her team. She knows the major races well, and her team-mates can trust her experience and fitness to support them. "I can climb pretty well, I can sprint okay, I can do a lead-out," she said of her skills on the bike. Unlike a team leader, Miller plans to race at a consistently high level all season. She does not peak for particular races, because her team-mates need her support week in and week out.
Miller especially enjoys seeing her team-mates win, and at circuit races after she has pulled off from the lead-out train, she will often stop and watch the race finish. She is the rider you see in the pack or at the finish celebrating a team-mate’s victory as if it were her own. "When I’ve had a role in the success, I want to see my team-mates win. It is so rewarding," she said, enthusiasm clear in her voice. "If you have too many people going for the win, you end up with nothing," she said of teamwork. Miller is happy to take her chances when they come, but it is clear she enjoys the hard work of supporting her team-mates.
Planning proved a recurring theme as we talked about team tactics. Miller’s win at Nationals provided an example of a plan that worked to perfection. The Cascade Classic had run a stage on the Nationals course the previous week. "The stage was won solo, so we figured since it worked, we’d try it," Miller recounted. When Miller went with the break, she knew she had team-mates behind in the main field. "Any of my team-mates could have won," she said. She certainly felt the pressure of representing her team in the winning break. "Don’t screw up, don’t screw up," she told herself repeatedly. As it happened, she didn’t screw up. Her attack at 2 kilometers to go worked to perfection and both she and the team celebrated an important victory.
As U.S. National Champion, Miller received an invitation to ride the World Championship road race in Mendrisio. It was her first trip to Worlds, and she called it "an honor" to race with Kristin Armstrong in the final race of Armstrong’s career. "We were the strongest team there, and confident that we could get the most riders to the finish," explained Miller. The Americans set out to make the race as hard as possible with the aim of setting up Armstrong for a road race win to match her victory in the time trial. Each lap, the Americans went to the front on the climbs. Evelyn Stevens proved an especially strong weapon in the American arsenal. Each lap, they saw team-mates of the other race favorites fall off the pace and the field dwindled.
Luck is always a factor in bike racing, and Fate likes to have her fun with even the best-laid plans. Luck chose not to favor the Americans. Amber Neben crashed out early. Then, Kristin Armstrong suffered two flat tires. With no service cars nearby, Miller gave Armstrong a wheel, but the time trial champion still had to chase back on. The second flat came late in the race. Armstrong took a bike change, and again chased back to the main field. She arrived in time to make the winning break, but her legs carried the effects of the effort into the finale. Armstrong couldn’t match the successive attacks from Italy’s Noemi Cantele and eventual winner Tatiana Guderzo. "We knew Marianne Vos would be there," said Miller of the Dutch talent, who won the sprint for second. Armstrong finished fourth behind Guderzo, Vos, and Cantele.
Miller racing cyclocross in Boulder.
Miller has recently had the chance to race Marianne Vos again at the cyclocross World Championship in Tabor. "She’s so friendly, it’s impossible to resent her successes. You’re happy when she wins," said Miller of the repeat World Champion. This year marked Miller’s second season of cyclocross racing and her first trip to the World Championship race. "I can’t not get the biggest smile on my face," said Miller of her new adventures in the dirt. She is enjoying the "new opportunities and new challenges."
Miller finished second at the U.S. National Championship behind Katie Compton. The high finish at nationals set Miller up for a trip to Europe. "It was eye-opening," she said of the trip. She raced the Roubaix World Cup, which started and finished on the Roubaix track. She got to visit the famous Roubaix showers and stood awed at the history that the old track had seen. "That was really amazing," she said. She finished thirteenth in her European cyclocross début and was happy with the result. The next week in Hoogerheide, "I tried too hard, and made a lot of mistakes." The course was technical with lots of berms and ruts. "It was amazing how they ride the ruts," Miller said in reference to the European riders. "We don’t have courses like that here," she explained.
At Tabor, she spent three days pre-riding on "sheets of ice." The conditions made the course intimidating, but Miller was reassured to see that "other people were afraid, too." The race win would go to "whoever made the fewest mistakes." Before the Worlds race, she told herself "just go out and ride your race." It worked. Miller finished twelfth as the highest American finisher. Miller said she loved hanging out with the other Americans at the race and learning from them. "What they do to prepare, how the ride certain corners, their technical knowledge," she listed among the many things she learned from the team, which included experienced riders like Tim Johnson and Jonathan Page. Hooked on ‘cross, Miller hopes to ride the World Championship in Louisville in 2013.
More immediately, Miller will step into her supporting role at Team Tibco. Thanks to a rule change from USA Cycling, the team faces the challenge of racing without radios this season. "It’s going to be interesting," was Miller’s reaction. She expects the change to alter how the team rides in the field. "Maybe we’ll ride in pairs, or something, but we can’t all sit together, or we might miss an important move," she said, explaining the dilemma. The team also has to develop a scheme for communicating with the team cars. Do we need a wheel? A water bottle? Or, just a chat? "We’ll just try to see what happens," concluded Miller. Already, the team is off to a fast start with two straight victories in Northern California last weekend.
"Most women are racing because it’s our passion," said Miller of women’s cycling. No one is making a ton of money, and many riders aren’t making much of anything at all. "We do it, because we absolutely love racing," she emphasized. What is the appeal of women’s racing? "We are super competitive on the bike," she said. The women race hard. But afterwards, "we get off the bike, and we talk to the fans, and we’re friends with one another." The women are friendly and approachable.
Miller has not decided how much longer she will race road. But she is determined to stay with cyclocross in order to race the Louisville Worlds. In the meantime, you'll most likely find Miller celebrating as one of her team-mates scores yet another team victory.
Interview by Jen See. Photo, top, courtesy Michael Hernandez, NorCal Cycling News. Thanks Michael! Photo, bottom, copyright Christopher See.