Mark Cavendish, a man not averse to throwing his hands in the air given the opportunity, made a beeline for Hannah Barnes outside the team hotel in San Luis to shake her hand and offer his heartfelt congratulations, one sprinter to another.
Barnes had achieved what her male counterpart last did at the Tour of Qatar in 2013: won three races in as many days. And won them in style. All three finish line photos from Saturday’s pre-tour criterium and the following two days’ Tour Feminino San Luis were taken with several bike lengths to spare and plenty of time for victory salutes. Cav recognises a fellow born winner when he sees one.
The overall proved to be beyond her grasp, Tibco’s Lauren Stephen’s wresting the jersey from Barnes’ shoulders following the stage 4 time-trial, but it was a decent haul all told for her United Healthcare team: the Brit’s two wins plus the young rider classification, alongside Katie Hall’s mountaintop win on the queen stage and the climber’s jersey to go with it.
“Katie had never won a race. She was so happy! We had to tell her what to do: clean up, put your hat on, the glasses go above the logo.
“They take the tops off the champagne bottles here, so she didn’t have that problem, but she just put her thumb over the top and held it…”
At the risk of sounding greedy, Barnes found her third place on the final day of racing less than satisfying, as did her displeased DS Rachel Heal. “It was a bit rubbish. It started so well, so to end up third wasn’t brilliant. We didn’t get organised. There was a girl up the road and we kind of relied on everyone else to deal with it, when it should have been us.
“You don’t realise how much you enjoy winning until you don’t win,” she concludes, despite shying away from the “me, me, me” attitude that might inform a sprinter’s ego. “I was told we were going for stages, so I should just go ahead and enjoy the moment,” says Barnes.
Apart from the haphazard road crossing skills of stray dogs round these parts, Barnes is a big fan of the Argentinian race. “I did San Luis last year, won a stage, but then crashed out. It’s so good. The organisation is spot on. There are loads of spectators, it is one of the best races.”
And the post-race dinner with the governor of San Luis, a lavish evening of entertainment, sealed the deal. Barnes showed me the photo of the suitably spectacular Argentinian barbeque laid on for the riders. “It was a meat feast, unbelievable.”
What next for the 21-year-old? Unlike the modern men’s race calendar, there are yawning gaps for the women early season. United Healthcare don’t race together as a team until late March, so it’s back to Girona and a recently-rented apartment for more training before making her debut in the 54th running of the Eddie Soens Memorial Handicap at Aintree racecourse in early March.
Does she have her tactics worked out? “Well, I’ve either got to try and get across to the elites and get a lap up or wait for them to catch me and sit in,” Barnes says. You wouldn’t put it past her tagging on to the back of the top men’s bunch.
It’s time to head to San Luis airport with quite possibly the heaviest rider’s kit bag it has ever been my displeasure to lift, loaded with sizeable winners’ trophies and God knows what else. Barnes has Victoria Pendleton’s autobiography for the journey, and plans to read psychiatrist Steve Peters’ book next. She doesn’t come across as a rider with any ‘inner chimp’ issues that need addressing, but sprinters – much like strikers in football – thrive on confidence.
While her wins in San Luis looked very comfortable, they came, Barnes reckons, from better positioning rather than firing on all cylinders. “I’m a bit worried,” she says, that inner chimp raising its head briefly. “I don’t want to be going this well in January! But I looked at my power files and I wasn’t hitting top numbers. I’ve just trained a lot and worked hard.”
United Healthcare and Barnes will be back in the UK again for the Women’s Tour in May, then hoping to make her debut in the Giro d’Italia Femminile in July. She’ll be “hitting top numbers” by then.
A scary prospect.