When the men’s domestic peloton lines up for the start of the North Star Grand Prix in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday, they may notice an unfamiliar face in the bunch. With the blessing of both race organizers and USA Cycling, Twenty16-Sho-Air’s Carmen Small will participate in the men’s National Racing Calendar (NRC) event as a guest of Texas-based Elbowz Racing.
“It’s pretty wild, right?” the 35-year-old Durango, Colorado native said to VeloNews. “I’ve even bought a plane ticket. I’m definitely a little nervous, but ready to give it a shot.”
USA Cycling confirms that Small’s ride in the men’s event, while unusual, is not without precedent. Over the decades, a handful of women have participated in men’s NRC events.
For Small, a two-time winner of the North Star women’s race (formerly known as the Nature Valley Grand Prix), the opportunity to ride with the men’s peloton came down to an alignment of the stars: a combination of chance and availability. With her fitness in peak form and no race days scheduled for June, Small found herself in a bit of a bind.
“I didn’t have any racing lined up, so I was kind of like, ‘What am I going to do all month?’ I have all this fitness and nowhere to use it.”
The lack of race days is of no small consequence to the Twenty16 rider. The 2013 U.S. national time trial champion is one of three American women slated to participate in the UCI world time trial championships in Richmond, Virginia this September and has her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
While lamenting the recent cancellation of the North Star women’s race to Optum Pro Cycling’s Jesse Anthony, inspiration struck.
“I was on the phone with Jesse and I was like, ‘Man, I wish I was doing North Star with you guys.’” And he said, “Well, why don’t you?” So I explained that it’s a dudes’ race, you know? The women’s event isn’t happening this year. But he was like, ‘Hang on a second. Ben Spies from Elbowz just contacted me to see if I knew of anyone who might be available to race with them.’ And I was like, ‘Um … okay, sure.’”
For Spies, the chance to offer a guest ride to Small was also perfectly timed.
“We had [cyclocross pro] Ryan Trebon on the team to race North Star. But he’s been recovering from illness, so we found ourselves just a few days away and down a rider. I talked to Jesse and asked if he knew of any riders who were free that could help our boys out. He told me he didn’t, but then he called me about 20 minutes later and said, ‘Carmen Small.’ It was an interesting idea.”
Unsure of their plan’s legality under USA Cycling rules, Small reached out to North Star race organizer David LaPorte, who in turn consulted with chief referee Mimi Newcastle.
“NRC men’s races are open to riders with professional and category 1 licenses,” LaPorte explained to VeloNews. “It doesn’t say ‘men.’ I mean men obviously can’t participate in women’s races, because those are gender-specific. But there’s really no such thing as a men’s race. Women can always race their category.”
USA Cycling’s Micah Rice confirmed the ruling Monday.
“We not only support Carmen [Small] racing in the men’s NRC North Star Grand Prix, but we think it is really exciting,” said the governing body’s vice-president of national events. “Because it is not a UCI event, North Star Grand Prix falls under USA Cycling rules. As long as the race director, David LaPorte, is on board, she has a team that is willing to include her and she’s racing within the rules, we fully support it. We wish Carmen the best of luck in Minneapolis.”
After a short discussion with Small, Spies took the question to his team.
“I sat down and talked with the team and they all liked the idea.” Spies said. “I decided we can either take five guys and not put anybody in that slot, or we can take Carmen and get her some racing and do something really different. It’s a good move for us in that it will get the team some publicity, but it also highlights the needs of women’s cycling. Especially after the women’s race was cancelled. So I was like, “Why not?”
For her part, Small welcomes the challenge.
“I’m sure it will be the hardest racing I’ve ever done. I’m going to have to really prepare mentally,” Small said of North Star.
The event begins Wednesday morning with a time trial along Saint Paul’s Mississippi River Boulevard, then continues that same day with an evening criterium. The next four days alternate between road and criterium racing, culminating on Sunday with the Stillwater Criterium, which includes a brutal 24-percent climb up Chilkoot Hill, billed by race organizers as “the most difficult climb in North American cycling.”
“The crits will be hard, but hopefully I can sit in,” Small said of her anticipated approach to the week. “90 minutes isn’t too bad to suffer, but I think the road racing is going to be really tough. Those days are 95 and 105 miles. Those aren’t normal distances for the women’s peloton. It will be very different.”
“The length I can handle, but it will be the question of combining the length and the speed. Because, the men really move. They do 95 miles in four hours. And it’s not a pancake flat course, either. So to me, the challenge will be eating enough, drinking enough, and being able to draft and sit in enough that I don’t blow up. But then who knows? Maybe I’ll be feeling good enough that I can really participate as well. It’s all an unknown.”
Asked whether her groundbreaking ride will cast women’s cycling in a new light, Small was reluctant to make proclamations but expressed her thanks to Spies for creating an unusual opportunity.
“I haven’t really had time to delve into that yet. But when I spoke with Ben on the phone about it, it wasn’t just that they need another person. He wants to help women’s cycling and sees the benefit here. It’s putting us on a bigger stage. He’s a huge advocate.”
Spies says he recognizes the idea of inviting a woman to ride with his team is unusual, but says he won’t be losing any sleep over the opinions of naysayers.
“There may be people who have something to say about it. There always are,” Spies told VeloNews. “But the people I respect know that this is something different and that we’re supporting cycling here. We’re trying to do a good thing.”
He’s also quick to note that Small is not just any bike racer.
“If [Small] was someone who was maybe just a sprinter, then I might be worried about her. But look at her pedigree in time trialing. Carmen has a huge motor. I think she can hold her own. I’m not sure we expect her to make a big difference in the race, but this is sort of a little test to see how it goes. If she rides like I think she can, then I think she deserves to be there.”
“Carmen’s a fabulous rider. I fully expect her to hold her own. And a women being able to do that in a pack of 120 elite men, that’s pretty impressive.”
Will Small blaze a trail that others will follow?
“If this goes well and I can actually hang? Maybe so,” she explains. “Maybe it won’t happen this time, but maybe there will be a next time too? And maybe people will see that we can race the distances and that there should be more women’s races. I hope it can lead to something bigger.”