When I started this series, I promised myself if I ever got to 10, I'd indulge in telling you all about some of my favourite riders. Of course, I've featured a lot of my other favourites already (especially here) - but this is a set of riders who don't fit neatly into boxes, but who make the peloton a better place. If you only read one of these, read this! It's got Basques, Belgians, blogging, and some really great stories.... These are the riders you should always be looking out for!
If you only remember one woman cyclist's name, it should be Sharon Laws. She has the best "how I got into cycling" story out there - crazier even than Marijn de Vries and Bridie O'Donnell and Evie Stevens - combined! Don't believe me? Read this excellent BikeRadar inteview with her and marvel at it.
She was born in Kenya, moving back to the UK with her British parents as a small child. She grew up playing county-level hockey in the Cotswolds and after finishing her biology degree, worked in Zimbabwe, Uganda, London, South Africa and Australia, completing a Masters degree in Conservation and working for organisations that include the British Civil Service, the UN's Department for International Development, London's Kew Gardens and as an environmental advisor for mining companies. In East Africa she ran for fitness with local runners, in 2001 she started riding mountain bike and when she moved to South Africa, competing in scary-sounding multi-day "adventure races", including the 8-day Cape Epic, which she won in 2004 and 2009. You've got to love a rider whose interviews include sentences like "In her accounts of these races, which typically included running, cycling, kayaking and rope work, the phrase "I ended up on a drip after that one" seems to crop up with alarming regularity."
She was in her 30s when she moved back to Australia in 2006, and started riding on the road for the fitness and social sides, which lead to her starting racing in the end of 2007, when she won the hilly Tour of Bright in December. That inspired her to get a proper bike and a coach (!) and in January 2008 she raced the Australian National Road Race Championships, coming 2nd, ahead of Olympic gold medallist Sara Carrigan, and a typically tough Australian field. The race commentator encouraged her to contact British Cycling's David Brailsford (she emailed him asking if the result meant anything) and BC snapped her up, signing her to Brailsford's short-lived 2008 dress rehearsal for Team Sky, Halfords Bikehut. She had a good season supporting Nicole Cooke, and she was all set for the Olympics.... until she was out filming a pre-Olympics slot for the BBC in the pouring rain, when she crashed and broke her ankle. Just 6 weeks later she was back, riding the Olympic Road Race, in the pouring rain, supporting Cooke to win the gold and crashing twice again. In 2009 she rode for Team GB, and signed to Cervélo for a year for 2010 - as you may have guessed, she's a fearsome and faithful mountain domestique and attack queen, supporting Claudia Häusler and Emma Pooley's many GC & Classics successes, and whose top 10 finishes in the tough Tours have been punctuated by crashes & injury (her 36th birthday present was 7 screws & a titanium plate in her collarbone after she was caught up in the huge crash on stage 2 of the Giro Donne).
Do you need more reasons to like her? Her mum was interviewed on the BBC website, and revealed her crimes against couture & cuisine (she likes to fill bananas with peanut butter & eat them frozen) and says that Sharon's ambition is to have a coffee shop and cycling eco-Tour business in the Pyrenees. (I love it when cyclists' parents are interviewed, it gives a whole new perspective!) As an adopted Australian, she'll be looking forward to riding on semi-home turf at Geelong for the Worlds (although it'll be interesting to see how Team GB will play it...) - last year she was hoping she'd have some supporters there - so if you're lucky enough to be at the race, please can you do me a favour and shout like a loon for me whenever you see her? Garmin-Cervélo would have to be crazy not to sign up such an amazing rider for at least another year, right? Crossing fingers for 2 healthy, happy, successful, supported seasons, and huge success for London 2012!
More great stories below - and add your own favourites and reasons why to the comments....
There's a surprising lack of Spanish women riding on the roads, given the depth of talent on the men's side (perhaps the legacy of Maribel Moreno?), so I'd alway have a soft spot for this next one, even if she wasn't Basque. And how Basque! I hope that Albertina, in her capactiy as PdC's Official Basque Editor, would agree she deserves a prize for Basquest Name In The Peloton!
You'll frequently see Eneritz Iturriagaetxebarria Mázaga's name shortened to just Iturriaga, but don't be fooled! She comes from a cycling dynasty, with her father, Alberto, having worked for over 10 years as a bike mechanic with various teams, before settling down with his wife Maria Luisa to run a bike shop in Durango. The shop sponsored junior and u23 teams in the 1990s, and these days sponsor a cadet team for women - and Eneritz's 2 brothers followed their father's footsteps as bike mechanics in the pro peloton - Eneko currently working for Footon (having previously worked for Euskaltel). Eneritz herself hadn't been keen, but at 10 years old, her doctor advised she take up sports, as she was overweight. Her first attempt, football goalkeeper, wasn't exactly what was meant - so she joined the local bike club. At first she had cunning ways of hiding to avoid riding the big hill, but the cycling bug hit, and she took it up seriously.
She started well, becoming very good friends with Fabiana Luperini, and riding for her in a number of teams - but her career has been dogged by ill health. She had 2 years off from the pro peloton from 2004, after she'd had continual stomach problems, which were diagnosed as wheat & lactose intolerance. In 2007 she proved it's bad luck for a cat to cross your path - when you're riding an ITT anyway - she crashed & broke her collarbone, which needed 2 additional operations that winter, after her body rejected the plate & screws and it became infected. In 2008, she was caught up in the UCI issues over Safi - and just this year, she missed the Spanish section of the season as she was caught up in a crash in the tour de l'Aude & broke her collarbone again - again needing a second operation.
When she's riding, she's road captain and a solid, loyal domestique for Safi Pasta Zara - and off the bike she supports and trains the Iturriaga cadet women's team, and in December 2008 organised a big bike ride for local schoolchildren, with riders like Pedro Horrillo, Iban Mayo and Koldo Fenandez taking part. She also has probably the best rider website out there, packed with useful information not just about her, but also how her Safi team-mates are doing. Not yet convinced? Well here's a little video about her - Aupa Eneritz!
Moving from one iconic cycling country to another, I give you Grace Verbeke - because if she can't make Sporza and the rest of the Belgian sports media pay attention to women's cycling, no one can! After all, a Flandrian winning the Ronde Van Vlaanderen for a Belgian team - who also rides Cyclo-Cross in the winter...
Grace is a perfect Classics rider who excels on the cobbled climbs, and has a superb habit of attacking on the nastiest hills for breakaway wins. This is her year riding full-time as a pro - before this she was completing her degree in education for children with learning difficulties, and then working part-time in an old people's home (there's a lovely video about her, which includes residents and staff of the home talking about what she means to them), and she has one of those "jobs" that some (fabulous) countries give to athletes, to enable them to earn a living - Grace is in the Navy as part of the Belgian military's Topsporters programme (and doesn't she look cute in uniform?).
She rides for Lotto, and was offered a contract for 2010 with super-team HTC, but chose to stay with Lotto for one more year.... now she's looking to develop herself more, and is looking at offers from different teams for 2011. She's had top-ten GC finishes in lots of the most prestigious tours (although she seems to do better in the week-long Tours) and is always a contender for the tough day races. She had 2 months out of cycling over the summer this year (it is tough riding the 'Cross and road season back-to-back), and said she's aiming to be on top form for the Worlds.... She's only 25, and between Grace and Liesbet de Vocht, we could be seeing the start of a new age of Belgian women's cycling.
From Belgium's very small women's cycling scene to the Netherlands' cast of thousands.... I may have mentioned that it can be difficult to find out news about women's cycling, so I've got a soft spot for all the riders who keep us up to date on races and results through twitter. Vera Koedooder is especially good at this, and her twitter is always amusing to follow, and she posts podium pics, results and great descriptions of what the races are like. Plus she rides track, too, which just adds to why I like her - and her name (translated as "Cow Killer") is as awesome as Eneritz's!
She's another one with cycling in her blood, growing up watching her father race. She was a very sporty child, competing in other sports like gymnastics, running and speed skating - until Adrie Visser, her friend from skating, infected her with the cycling bug. She hit the track and the road, and soon became familiar with the podium, winning the 2000 Junior Track World Championship jersey in the Points race, and in Individual Pursuit in 2001. She's been riding ever since, despite some strange decisions around national team selections, and more seriously, being diagnosed with severe stenosis (narrowing) of her left pelvic artery, which was operated on in 2005. Since then, she's won many track National and World Cup titles, and had great results on the road - this year she has top 5 places in Tours like Krásna Lipá and RaboSter, as well as many podium places in the Dutch crits and day races. She recently won the Omloop door Middag-Humsterland (providing me with proof that mentioning Podium Café helps cyclists win), which took her to 3rd place overall in the Dutch Topcompetitie series. There'll be a ridiculous competition to get into the Dutch National team for the track as we move towards the 2012 Olympics, but you can bet she'll be riding her heart out, doing her best to be part of it - and tweeting all the way!
My final favourite cyclist also had problems with her national federation - but this being the German Federation, that's not unusual.... Last year Sarah Düster was taken all the way to Mendrisio, thinking she was part of the German National Team for the Worlds, only to be told the day before the race that they hadn't actually registered her, so she couldn't ride. And if there's a rider who doesn't deserve that kind of treatment, it's Sarah.
She's generally found in breaks or on the front of Cervélo's sprint train, putting some immense hurt on the peloton closing down (or opening) gaps, or taking the most terrifying lines through the corners that no one else would dare. (I loved Lizzie Armistead's quote about how Sarah "is well known for how crazy she is in the corners") And as a good sprint domestique, she doesn't have so many wins on her palmares (it's always a shame you can't include team-mates' wins, where it's down to the domestique/lead-out rider, but that's cycling for you). She rides a lot of the remaining German day races, both for Cervélo and for the German national team.... which makes me hope they'll a) include her in the Worlds squad for 2010 and b) actually remember to register her this time (I'd LOVE to see her leading out Ina-Yoko Teutenberg)
She's one of 3 cyclists involved in ProFormance, an academic sports medicine Institute working on diagnostics and methods of improving performance, and she says her goal is to "get faster"! Plus, you have to love a rider who lists their weight on their website as :-) and looks so happy when she wins! She's fairly invisible on the internet, so if you have any more fun facts about her, please please add them to the comments - as well as any factoids about your own favourite riders....
My thanks on this one to Albertina, gs girl, tedvdw and Urlaub for your help with my stupid questions about your areas of expertise. You are fabulous!
Up next: Looking to the future with some young riders and some of this year's juniors...