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Teutenberg has both talk and walk

By Mark Johnson

During a wind-ravaged stage of the 2002 Idaho Women’s Challenge stage race, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and four of her Saturn teammates slapped the field into the gutter and fired off a break. The escape fanned across the road; where the hockey-stick shaped echelon hit the road’s edge there was no place to hide.

And that’s where Kristin Armstrong, a local triathlete in her first serious bike race, found herself. Saturn was just “driving it,” Armstrong recalls. Scuttling about for shelter, Armstrong put her wheels where they shouldn’t be. “I didn’t really have good bike-handling skills,” she said. “I was cross-wheeling —I was going to crash them out.”

Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Team Columbia) wins stage 4 of the Giro Donne 2009
Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Team Columbia) likes to win, as she did in stage 4 of the 2009 Giro. Photo: TDWSport.com

Coolly assessing the triathlete’s risk to her Saturn team, Teutenberg dropped back and stiff-armed Armstrong. “Ina took her hand, pushed me on my shoulder and I went flying across the road.” Then she said, “Get off our wheels and stay away from my team!”

Today Teutenberg rides for HTC-Columbia and is one of the most revered riders in the women’s pro peloton. The Idaho episode captures her personality. The 36-year-old German can be startlingly forthright; she is fiercely protective of her teammates and profoundly driven to win. Yet her directness is often an expression of an essential graciousness and sense of caring for others.

VeloNews spoke to Teutenberg in San Luis Obispo, the bucolic central California town where she spent the last three winters. Teutenberg’s 2009 victories include the German road championship, the Tour of Flanders, a stage the women’s Giro d’Italia, two stages of the Route de France, Philly’s Liberty Classic (also won in 2005 and 2007) and three stages of the Tour de l’Aude, where she cemented the race record for most stages won —18 since her first victory in 1997. The 5-foot-5-inch, 136-pound rider whetted her palate for the season by winning both California’s San Dimas and Redlands stage races.

Armstrong, a Beijing gold medalist and 2009 time trial world champion, went on to ride with Teutenberg in 2005 at T-Mobile. She says from that Idaho day to her retirement this year, Teutenberg has been the most indispensable influence in her professional life.

“I feel special that Ina Teutenberg stiff-armed me,” she said. “Ina taught me the lesson of ‘learn to handle your bike with confidence and get out of the way.’ She taught me tactics. She taught me patience. She taught me basically how to race my bike.”

Throughout her career, even when on different teams, Armstrong says Teutenberg has always been first to text or personally offer congratulations after a good result. Similarly, if Teutenberg saw Armstrong do something questionable, “she was the first person to come up to me and say, ‘What were you thinking?’ Throughout my career she had me thinking. She may not know it, but her impact was amazing.”

Teutenberg is a mentor, and her presence helped make HTC-Columbia the strongest team in the world with 46 wins in 2009. With 2010 additions like U.S. phenomenon Evelyn Stevens, Teutenberg says the squad is even better in 2010.

Asked what advice she has for Stephens, a category 4 rider a mere 12 months before placing 15th at the 2009 world championship road race, Teutenberg replies: “If she performs like she did last year at worlds I’m not too worried about it. She needs to get technically better but she knows that and she’s working on it.”

As for how many years of racing she has left in her legs, Teutenberg says: “I probably have a lot in my legs. I’m not sure what I have in my head.” She has one more year on her contract, and by mid 2010 she’ll decide whether she wants to keep going.

“I don’t want to race just to be pack filler,” she says. “If I race I want to win.”

While in San Luis Obispo Teutenberg rides 30 hours a week. She will start the 2010 season in California at Merced and the San Dimas and Redlands stage races. She’ll peak for the spring classics, especially to defend her Tour of Flanders title.

In the 1990s, Teutenberg says, tough races like the Women’s Challenge (which the UCI refused to sanction until 1991 because it judged it too difficult for females) put U.S. teams at par with European squads. Since then many high-level women’s races have disappeared (including three UCI-sanctioned races in Canada in 2010). In her opinion, the level of U.S. women’s cycling has declined in step.

“Not as many foreigners are racing in the States, so I think the level has dropped a little bit,” she says.

That said, Teutenberg holds that in some respects women’s racing is more difficult in the U.S. because, unlike in Europe, many U.S. pros have to work another job. “I mean, most of the girls at San Dimas have to work a full job and then train and then have to race against us — who only train and don’t do much else. It’s pretty hard.”

In spite of the economic realities working against high-level women’s cycling in the U.S., Teutenberg says USA Cycling “is doing a pretty good job trying to bring girls to Europe and give them the opportunity to get the feel for what racing is about. If you win big races (in the U.S.) you can become competitive in Europe, too.”

Because of her daunting palmares, her utter confidence and her propensity to speak frankly, Teutenberg can be an intimidating competitor. In a sense, she is like Chris Horner, her past colleague at Saturn and a rider who is both forthright and profoundly moved by the prospect of riding so hard and relentlessly that people go pinging off his rear wheel.

To watch Teutenberg blast off on a signature solo breakaway during the closing laps of a crit is to witness a woman driven to shove competitors into a house of pain so deep they crumble. With a self-effacing laugh, Teutenberg agrees with the Horner comparison.

“Yeah — I just like to win. I like to make the team win. Like with a (solo) breakaway it’s a fun thing because I know everybody is watching me. I mean, you go out there to beat everybody else. It keeps you motivated.”

Teutenberg started cycling when she was 6 to compete with her bike-racing brothers. Today her brother Lars is HTC-Columbia’s technical director. Being part of her brother’s Pro Tour organization team is still inspiring.

“The first time you come to a training camp with a ProTour team it’s just a total different ball game. The infrastructure motivates you. And I’m sure that for some of the young girls, they see Mark Cavendish on TV and now they are in training camp with him — it brings motivation.”

Back in 2005, Armstrong approached her new T-Mobile teammate and asked if she remembered the Idaho stiff-arm incident. In English edged with a Teutonic rumble, Teutenberg said, “Oh yeah, I remember you.” Had she stiff-armed others? “Yes, but only when I care about you,” Teutenberg replied. “You pissed me off at that race, but I knew I was going to teach you something.”

Told the shove remains a vivid learning moment for the just-retired Armstrong, Teutenberg is delighted. “It’s a clear memory for me, too! At least it’s a memory we can laugh about.”