Hannah Barnes, an emerging talent from Towcester in Northamptonshire, has a school friend from England visiting her at this season’s home from home: Asheville, North Carolina.
Months of living the hermitic existence of a professional cyclist are wearing thin. Barnes feels the need to cut loose and live it up a little. What do they have planned? Rafting, glassblowing and, to top it off, joining the Asheville drum circle – hundreds of beating, boogieing, beaming individuals, accompanied by the kind of arrhythmic hippie dancing last witnessed in the film of Woodstock Festival.
The pounding and freeform movement goes on almost as long as the 1970 documentary. It’s an Asheville tradition that has grown over the last decade or so in a park downtown that says much about this hippie magnet metropolis nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Friday night is drumming night round these parts. And bad dancing night.
Hannah and Lucy had a fine evening, although they drew the line at throwing shapes on the impromptu dance floor. The sprinter reserves her attention-seeking displays to bike races, throwing her arms in the air throughout last season in the UK.
Look mum, no hands
It was one particularly controversial victory celebration that brought her to the attention of United Healthcare in the States and led to a contract with the newly forming women’s team.
The 2013 London Nocturne: Barnes, in a summer of terrific form, crossed the line first as usual – working over the entire Wiggle-Honda squad lining up Laura Trott in the process – and raised her arms for the briefest of moments, only to be relegated to runner-up for “contesting the sprint dangerously”, according to the organisers. Lapped riders were about to be caught, commissaires deemed the oh-so-brief victory celebration to be dangerous and a nonplussed Barnes took the second step on the podium.
Within a week, public outcry had forced another review of the race’s outcome and Barnes was rightfully reinstated, winner of the race for the third year running. A glittering CV was fired off to all the major women’s teams but it seemed there was nothing doing, until fellow Brit Rachel Heal, sporting director for United Healthcare, took a good look beyond what was on the page.
“Hannah came onto our radar after the London Nocturne,” says Heal. “Partly the fact that she had beaten Laura Trott and won the race, but also the way she handled it: incredibly well. You can imagine most 20 year-olds getting very prissy, very upset, but she handled it extremely maturely.
“And then we dug a bit deeper and found she had won pretty much everything in the UK that year. She is young – we like the idea of riders like that: take them on and see what they can do. She has been incredible for us, far exceeded our expectations. They both have.”
The other half of “both” Heal refers to is Sharon Laws, the veteran climber riding as strongly as ever, winning the Queen of the Mountains jersey convincingly at the inaugural Women’s Tour in Britain in May.
Considering the horrific injuries sustained in a crash during last year’s Cape Argus in South Africa, it’s a wonder she didn’t quit there and then. Anyone with an ounce of common sense and self-preservation would have retired by now, I ventured?
“Not Sharon,” says Barnes, in awe.
Laws laughs, as she does frequently and delightfully throughout our lunch, even when retelling the grimmest of Grimm tales. She was racing with the men. It was hairy. A man decked it in front of her and “I hit the guy at 55kph, flipped over, and smashed my collarbone, broke the L2 vertebrae, six ribs at the front, six at the back, six transverse processes, and [developed] a haemothorax. I spent eight days in ICU and then I got a secondary blood infection, so it was not very good…”
The understatement is quite something, as is the accompanying laugh. This woman is hardcore. “I was very close to finishing, I had such a horrible year. I went to the Giro and it was a miserable experience. I was climbing with all the sprinters thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’
“I had never been in the gruppetto before. So I wanted to do another year so that I didn’t finish with bad memories of cycling.
And I was in touch with Ina Teutenburg a lot, because she had a really bad crash, and was also trying to work out whether to stop or not, so it helped a lot to talk it through with her.”
Retiring, not shy
There is method in Laws’s madness after all. This relentless traveller – born in Kenya, raised all over, flat in Girona – will most likely hang up her wheels at the end of this season. Better to finish on a high.
She came to road racing late, after years of various adventuring pursuits: hiking, abseiling, mountain biking, and combinations of all three. Working for mining company Rio Tinto took her all over the world, so a three-day stage race in Australia in 2007 seemed like a good opportunity to dip her toes into another adventure. Laws won it. The office job got shelved.
She is clearly not averse to a risk or two. United Healthcare must have been taking a punt signing damaged goods after the dreadful crash in 2013?
“The paperwork we have to fill in at the start of the year includes a list of previous injuries and Sharon’s was long,” Heal reveals. “There is always something of a risk that a rider won’t come back from such a bad crash, but I saw her at a couple of races in Europe last year, and she wasn’t quite back to the level she was at before, but she was getting there. You have to take risks in bike racing.”
For Heal – five years racing in Europe followed by four in the US before moving into a directing role – there was another compelling reason for bringing Laws into the fold: her irrepressible character.
“She was the one person I wanted to hate for taking my Beijing Olympics spot, but I couldn’t because she was too nice! I desperately wanted to dislike her.
“We were looking for a good climber to support Mara Abbott and I knew that she was strong – and Emma Pooley always spoke highly of Sharon.”
Better to lose than not try to win
Nobody ever said likeability was a prerequisite to being a successful cyclist, but it sure helps. Being on the road for most of the year with the same people can strain the closest of relationships. The Spinal Tap scene where Nigel Tufnel goes into meltdown on account of the mismatched size of the tiny bread to the generous slices of ham is rock’n’roll’s equivalent to how heated things can get on a cycling tour. Prima donnas easily upset the equilibrium. And Laws is about as far removed from a prima donna as you can get.
Heal’s job is to meld the roster of potentially volatile individuals into a winning, cohesive unit. We sat down to talk immediately after United Healthcare’s Alison Powers secured her second title of the US championships weekend in Chattanooga, so the sporting director is clearly doing nicely. She may consider herself a newcomer in comparison to the men’s team backroom boys – Mike Tamayo, Hendrik Redant and Roberto Damiani, with the latter having 31 years experience behind the wheel of the car – but she knows her stuff.
That day’s race had gone like a dream: UHC’s Katie Hall and one of the pre-race favourites, Tayler Wiles of Specialized-lululemon, held a decent gap with two laps of the finishing circuit remaining. The rookie Hall must have been sorely tempted to work the break and go for gold, but realised the chances of the wily Wiles turning her over were too great to take the risk.
“We know how strong Tayler is, so if Katy rides with her, we are guaranteed a silver medal – we’re not interested,” says Heal, steely-eyed. “I prefer to lose the race than not try to win.
“It’s win or nothing. Katy is a first year pro; incredibly strong, to have the confidence to sit on Tayler – and Tayler was yelling and screaming at her, which she should do. Katy pulled for a lap to try and ditch her on the steep climb, then sat up once she realised it wasn’t going to work.”
Powers crossed the line alone to add the road title to the time-trial and criterium jerseys already in her bag. The UHC tactics worked to perfection; Heal’s “win or nothing” approach vindicated.
Lapsed veggies and mixed teams
The director is another Asheville resident, a lapsed vegetarian who now prefers “rare steak, close to mooing. The girls dragged me out to a veggie restaurant the other night. It was all right…”
And it’s a veggie restaurant we are lunching at with Laws and Barnes – Sharon being a firm believer, Hannah and her pal, Lucy, needing some convincing. For the globetrotting Laws, the US is just the latest wanderlust adventure in a long line. For the youngster Barnes, there’s a touch of homesickness to contend with, from both a personal and professional perspective.
“The racing is good, just different,” she says. “The crits have bigger fields, but the roads are a lot wider. If you’re at the back of the bunch, you can move up wherever you want.”
The broad boulevards of American cities have taken some adjusting to by a rider who thrives on tight and twisty circuits, acquiring and holding prime position in the bunch being Barnes’s forte, followed by a wickedly powerful sprint. The results are coming, though, and her arms are increasingly back to the familiar raised position of last season. And with little risk of a commissaire relegating the winner for the temerity to celebrate her victory…
Both women agree on the positive influence of racing in tandem with the UHC men’s team. “The guys’ team knows how to ride a crit, and they tell us how to do it,” says Barnes. “It is always nice to have our races linked in with the men’s, especially for us, as we all go in the bus together, so it does feel like one team.”
Laws concurs: “For us, the link with the men’s team has been a really positive thing. The guys have been quite involved. I have been on teams before where there was a men’s squad and there was very little contact between the two.”
It’s all about the bus
The Women’s Tour in Britain provided a spark for both and a reminder of what European racing can provide. “It is so much more dynamic, more fun, fighting for position the whole time because of the narrow roads, which you don’t have in America,” says Laws.
If “game-changer” is a hackneyed cliché, then so be it: guilty as charged. But the five-day race was a massive success and can only get bigger. Rumours of cancellation due to the lack of a title sponsor were circulating until late in the day, but pensions and insurance provider Friends Life stepped up and must have been laughing all the way to the bank after five hours of TV coverage, evening news bulletins to match anything the Giro in Ireland could muster, and big crowds along every step of the way.
The women, so used to racing in relative anonymity, shone like never before. The smiles were genuine; posing for photos with endless streams of young girls, keen to become the next Marianne Vos (or Laws, or Barnes, for that matter); a pleasure, never a chore.
The riders must have been taken aback by the response? “I think everybody was,” says Laws. “The crowd was spectacular. Even at Flèche Wallonne, they didn’t show the women’s race [on TV], but showed the breakaway for hours. The only thing it is comparable to, for me, was the bus tour through London after the Beijing Olympics to Trafalgar Square. It really was impressive.”
UHC pulled out all the stops for their charges, bringing over the team’s big blue bus from its European mainland base – a stark contrast to smaller outfits on the race. “But then we felt pressure to do well, because we had the massive bus,” Barnes points out.
Sunshine and showers
Pressure or not, both delivered: Barnes declared her third-place finish on the opening stage, just a handful of miles way from her hometown of Towcester, to be her best ever result. Bearing in mind the only two women to finish ahead of her were world number one Emma Johansson and the great Marianne Vos, that’s some company to be keeping.
And the irrepressible Laws held the Queen of the Mountains jersey from start to finish – not that climbing was a big feature of the tour parcours. Canny positioning and smart racing kept the polka dot jersey firmly on the narrow shoulders of the former British champion.
“I was lucky,” says Barnes. “I could get straight into the bus for a hot shower, whereas Sharon had an hour-and-a-half in damp kit transferring to the hotel. That was when I really appreciated the bus.”
“I never did get a shower on the bus,” Laws confirms. “But I will take the jersey, every time!”
So she did, every time. A satisfying week at the office for director Heal, the sole female in charge of a team at the Women’s Tour. “I was kind of surprised in Britain. I don’t know why I thought it would be different, but I think I was the only one.”
The scale of the race was, presumably, a surprise too? “Oh, yes, it was incredible,” Heal beams. “Talk about raising the bar for women’s races. And I think it showed, not only how exciting it can be, but how popular it can be.
“When they first announced the dates, a lot of people commented it would be better to run in conjunction with the men’s race, but having seen it, I think it was better that it didn’t, because all the crowds were out there for the women.
“Some of the more established men’s races – like the Classics – it makes a lot of sense to run alongside. But the Women’s Tour proved it wasn’t needed.”
Minimum wage, maximum effort
We get onto the thorny (and perennial) subject of money in women’s cycling – or rather the lack of it. Heal points out that UHC’s riders do better than most, as the sponsor provides free healthcare – no small thing in the US.
Prize money also stacks up better across the Atlantic. “It’s not matching [with the men] but it’s a lot more than back home,” Barnes confirms.
But when it comes to a living wage, many “professionals” in the female peloton are barely scraping by. I was at a bike show not so long ago and recognised the young woman waiting our table at lunch. It was Hannah Barnes, one of the country’s best riders. While my discomfort was palpable, she just got on with her job. A girl’s gotta make a living somehow.
Laws, meanwhile, with her master’s degree in conservation, is able to top up her income in her area of specialisation. “I try to do a bit of consultancy work each year, to keep my hand it and to earn some money. Last year I couldn’t in South Africa, but I have just got some now.”
Some of the longer-standing cycling nations, meanwhile, have worked out ways of funding their riders while they focus on their cycling careers. Wiggle-Honda’s sprinter Giorgia Bronzini is notionally employed by the Italian army. Good luck trying to find a photograph of her in uniform.
“Last year, I was on the Lotto squad,” says Laws, “and chatted to a lots of the girls, and the Belgians are able to claim unemployment benefit for up to three years, it’s an excepted thing, and a lot go through the military or the police. The French girl on the team got something through her federation. She had to work in the town hall for five hours a week.”
Laws has twice experienced teams folding during her brief stint on the road – both Garmin-Cervélo and AA Drink ended with little forewarning. This is the perilous career path Hannah Barnes is only just starting on.
Even Heal ended up Stateside by accident, as her team ran out of budget on the 2005 Giro Donne: “The girl I was rooming with was American and she was telling me about a week-long stage race over here in the States, equal prize money and equal distances for men and women. I thought that sounded cool. She knew a team director who would be happy to have me guest for them for the week, so I did that, and another race with them, and enjoyed it. The director wanted to know what it would take for me stay. At that time, I had been racing full-time in Europe for five years and I was ready for a change.
“My first director I rode for in the US was Mike Tamayo.”
Full circle for Heal, then, as UHC’s general manager put his trust in a head for the women’s team in someone who took the leap of faith across the Atlantic nine years earlier.
As for Laws, who knows what next year will bring? Back to the real world and conservation, most likely, although it’s hard to imagine her stopping altogether. That spirit of adventure is too strong.
Our lunch in Asheville is over. Very good is was, too – although Hannah and friend may well have gone off in search of something “close to mooing”, as Heal puts it, to supplement the vegetarian fare.
Here’s hoping Barnes settles in and stays awhile in Asheville. She’s in good hands.
This feature appeared in 1 issue 48