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Learning to Win: An Interview with Amanda Miller

Amanda Miller is fresh off a season with the top level HTC-Highroad women’s team. The 25-year-old American spent the past year racing in Europe and the United States alongside elite riders like Amber Neben, Judith Arndt, and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg.

With the dissolution of the Highroad teams, Miller will change directions slightly next year and ride for Team Tibco. Miller started her professional career with the U.S.-based team, and is looking forward to returning there. At Tibco, she will have the opportunity to ride some of the U.S. races like Tour of Gila and the Cascade Classic that she missed during her year with HTC-Highroad and where she will have a shot at racing as the team’s leader.

Miller will also head to Europe with Tibco for the spring classics, and she hopes to join the U.S. national team for a trip to Europe in the fall.

Last week, I had the chance to chat with Miller. We talked about what it was like to race with the experienced women at HTC-Highroad. Miller also explained why she is excited to return to Tibco next season. And, she had some helpful tips on how to show cattle.

Miller caught the eye of HTC-Highroad after she rode the 2010 Giro Donne for the U.S. national team. Mara Abbott won the overall after a strong performance in the high mountains, which in 2010 included a finish on the Passo di Stelvio. "That was my breakthrough as far as being able to push myself over my limits working for someone else," said Miller of the Italian stage race where she rode in support of Abbott. "I dug deeper than I’d ever dug before prior to this year. I think HTC saw me working really hard for the team."

Still, the offer from HTC-Highroad took Miller by surprise. "Being asked to be on the team originally was quite an honor for me. I thought it was unexpected for me," she said. Racing for a top team like HTC-Highroad is a serious business. "There are definitely expectations and you have to perform well and there’s that pressure, it’s there," she said of racing for one of the sport’s top women’s teams. "It’s just a personal thing in how you deal with it."

Riders like Ina-Yoko Teutenberg with their deep knowledge of the sport and the major races had much to offer a young talent like Miller. "They were super helpful," she said. "Things happen in the heat of the moment racing, but they were super helpful in saying what you did wrong and what you could have done better, and trying to help riders develop as well." Miller also had the opportunity to play multiple roles on the team. "On HTC everyone had the opportunity to win versus always working for one person. So if there was an opportunity for a huge win, you could take it."

The team’s approach paid off for Miller at the Thüringen Rundfahrt where she won the fourth stage from a breakaway. "At Thüringen, the plan was to get in a breakaway, it didn’t matter really who," she explained. When the team had the leader’s jersey at a race, they worked to defend it. "But at Thüringen, there was a huge time gap like between the top nine riders and the rest, so everybody else was just looking for stage wins." The tactics played to Miller’s advantage. "It was anybody’s day. It was pretty wide open."

In addition to the stage win at Thüringen, Miller won a stage at the Tour of New Zealand and was part of two stage-winning team time trials for HTC-Highroad. In June, she stood on the third step of the podium at the U.S. National Championship road race. Later in the season, Miller finished fourth overall at the challenging Tour de l’Ardèche, which she characterized as a "really good and hard race." "There was lots of climbing there, I was surprised," she said of the French race.

Miller characterizes herself as a climber-stage racer with a strong finishing kick. "I think I can climb decently, but I’m not quite to the point where I can hang with Vos or Pooley. And so, I’m working slowly at it," she said. In her early career, she had some success racing the U.S. criterium circuit. "I can sprint when I need to," she said. "I don’t think it would ever be a field sprint, but out of small groups."

The young American is also working on her time trial, and benefitted from her year racing with time trial specialists Amber Neben, Evie Stevens, and Judith Arndt. "I think I’ve made a huge improvement this past season as well. Just being able to focus better, and time trial more often. And that comes from being on a team with lots of time trial specialists and they know a lot about it," she said.

The deal with Tibco came about shortly after Miller received news that the HTC-Highroad team would stop at the end of the season. She contacted Tibco team manager Linda Jackson and the two reached an agreement in short order. "She offered me a good deal," noted Miller. Depending on how things go next year, Miller may try to return to Europe the following season "Then maybe the year after, I go back to Europe full time and have a team where I can be a team leader in Europe." But first, she wants to learn how to win consistently and manage the pressures that go with leading a team.

Miller understands that cycling is a mental game. She considers her ability to focus her mind and ride hard for her team-mates to be her best characteristic as a rider. "I’m always going to work my hardest for whoever we’re working for that day. I’m always going to give 210% for the team. I do a pretty good job in terms of turning my head off, and not letting my emotions get to me too much," she explained.

In the heat of battle, it is easy to lose focus, but Miller has learned to resist that temptation. "I’m definitely thinking about the race and everything, but I try not to let the outside elements get to me. I can leave outside things away while I’m in the moment of the race and just focus on the race," she said.

An Iowa-native, Miller started cycling between her seasons as a high school basketball player. "I got really tired of running, especially on the gravel roads around my house, so I started riding a mountain bike a little bit," she said. That first mountain bike led to a new mountain bike and then to a job at a local bike shop. "And that’s pretty much where it all started. Ah yeah, you should probably race. So I tried some racing."

Certainly, Miller did not have cycling in her background. She grew up on a soybean farm in Iowa. No one in her family rode bikes. "I have an interesting background, which isn’t really a cyclist’s background," she said, laughing.

Instead of playing bikes, Miller raised and showed cattle for 4-H, a youth group founded in 1902 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "My grandpa had beef cattle and I showed heifers for him. We never raised them, we just worked with them in the summer time," she explained. Miller also worked with dairy cattle through 4-H. "We got bottle calves and raised them for a couple of years before they turned into milk cows. Then, we would give them back to the dairy for milking purposes."

The 4-H organization holds competitions and Miller showed cattle, which meant leading her cow into the ring for the judges to inspect. "You do a little thing where you walk them into the center of the ring and do a little circle, and just set them up so they look nice," she explained. The judges check the animals for general health and muscle development. "You put a halter on them, and with the beef cattle, you use a show stick to move their feet around and scratch their bellies to keep them calm." Like Miller said, this is not the most common background for a cyclist, though Bernard Hinault now breeds beef cattle in Bretagne and many European professionals traditionally came from farming families.

Looking ahead, Miller would like to win on the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne before her career is over. "I crashed during that race, so I never really got to experience going full gas up the Mur de Huy. I’d like to go back there next year and get more of a feel for it." She also hopes someday to have a go at chasing the Maglia Rosa, or at least, win a stage at the Giro. "I always like racing in Italy. It’s a beautiful countryside, and they usually have some epic courses," she said.

Next year’s Olympics in London will not offer much for the climbers like Miller. "I’m thinking, looking at the course and everything, that 2016 will be more my style," she said. Miller picked up a few points during her season in Europe with HTC-Highroad, and she will take any opportunity to make the team. "I’m definitely not going to give up on trying for it. I’ll definitely race my heart out and get points and try to make the team," she said. But Miller will not build her season around the Olympic this time around.

Instead, Miller is especially excited about riding the hilly stage races in the United States. She has Tour of Gila and the Cascade Classic in mind, though with the Tibco roster not yet complete, she does not know for sure which races she will ride as team leader. "There are a lot of races that I’d like to do here in the States and I’ve never really had the opportunity to win those. I feel like that’s going to help me progress," she explained.

For a young rider, an elite team like HTC-Highroad offers the chance to learn the major international races and gain experience from top-level riders. But it is also important for up-and-coming riders to have the chance to ride to win and to experience the pressures of leading a team.

Miller hopes that next season with Tibco will help her gain that necessary experience. "I think that is an important next step for me to be able to learn how to deal with the pressure of winning races and trying to figure out how to win races," she said. She will do her best to block out the distractions, watch the bike race unfold, and pedal hard at just the right moment. Summing up her understanding of the sport, Miller said, "just pedal, and obviously, you have to be smart."

Photos by Christopher See. All rights reserved.