From the pages of Velo: Idaho Airstream (Analysis of the 2002 HP Women’s Challenge)

With the Exergy Tour kicking off in Boise, we go to the archives to revive the story of the last HP Women's Challenge, in 2003

BOISE, Idaho (VN) — As starters for the 2002 HP Women’s Challenge gathered in the parking lot of Idaho’s World Center for Birds of Prey, site of the opening stage for the June 15-23 stage race, the symbolism of the setting was not lost. While team trailers were opened, bikes assembled and colorful uniforms donned, less than 100 meters from the start line the lethal, winged creatures inside the center dubiously circled their pens.

The 16 teams of tanned, fit women warmed up under the Idaho morning sun with an unspoken, yet tangible tension in the air. Time for planning, training and traveling was over. The day had arrived, the winds were blowing, and these racers were ready to fly.

At one end of the parking lot was America’s newly structured national team, sponsored by T-Mobile and led by 2000 world time trial champion Mari Holden. Around the corner was the Canadian team, Rona, bringing to the race the 20-year-old sensation Geneviève Jeanson in her much-anticipated HP debut.

The rainbow jersey of the current world champion, Acca Due O’s Rasa Polikeviciute, was also present. Polikeviciute was riding for the Lithuanian national team alongside twin sister Jolanta and 1998 world champion Diana Ziliute.

And then there was Saturn. Off in a corner, almost cautiously out of sight, the Saturn women assembled in a circle and prepared for flight. The six-woman roster read like a fantasy cycling team come to life: Catherine Marsal, a former world road and time trial champion and four-time Olympian; Judith Arndt, another former world champion (individual pursuit), two-time Olympian, and recent winner of the Tour de L’Aude; American Kimberly Bruckner, wearing the stars and stripes of both the road and time trial national champion; Petra Rossner, the 24-time German national champion, and recent winner of the First Union Liberty Classic for a record sixth time; Ina Teutenberg, a powerful sprinter and Olympian; and Anna Millward, last year’s World Cup overall champ and two-time winner of the Women’s Challenge.

It was fair to say the other teams had their work cut out for them.

Conspicuously missing from the Saturn lineup, but not the start area, was defending HP champion Lyne Bessette. Instead, Bessette calmly rode her former Team Saturn bike — a piece of black electrical tape now covering the title-sponsor’s name — on a trainer across the parking lot, next to the Canadian national team van.

Last year, Bessette enjoyed the best season of her career as a Saturn rider. Even after a broken collarbone at Redlands, she returned to take overall wins at the Tour de L’Aude and HP, overall points on the NRC Series, and even a cyclo-cross World Cup in her first season racing ’cross. She ended the season ninth in the UCI rankings.

The 2002 season promised to be another great year and started out with an overall win at Sea Otter. But behind the scenes, Bessette had grown unhappy at Saturn, and citing the demands of being on the world’s No. 1 team, she took a “sabbatical” just a month before the start of the Women’s Challenge.

“It’s not that they were holding me from reaching my own goals,” said Bessette. “I just didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I guess that’s the main reason…. I think the only way people will have the real explanation is one day, when I’m 50, and I write a book about myself.”

Canadian Rivals

The nine-day event began predictably enough, with Saturn winning the first two stages and circulating the leader’s jersey in-house. Rossner easily outsprinted the field to win the first stage — a 70-mile, mostly flat sojourn into Idaho City.

Millward took the second stage into Stanley, after she and Bruckner tag-teamed the rest of the break in the final 5km. Bruckner got clear, and was only reeled in by Bessette with one kilometer left, opening the door for Millward.

“For me, it was a mistake when I bridged to Kimberly,” Bessette said afterward. “I should have waited and let somebody else do it. But you never know, and when they counter­attacked me I was in the wind and tired.”

Two stages in, and two Saturn riders had worn the leader’s jersey.

All eyes looked forward to stage 3’s individual time trial as the true assessment of the competition, with Jeanson expected to make time on Saturn the way she had at Redlands and Sea Otter earlier in the year. However, the strong crosswinds jostled Jeanson’s thin figure, and instead of making time on the GC, or even maintaining, she had to settle for fourth, behind three Saturns — Arndt, Bruckner and Millward.

Once the results were posted — with Jeanson 1:09 behind Arndt for the day, and 1:13 back on Millward for the GC — the Rona rider’s chances against the Saturn juggernaut seemed all the more distant.

“The wind blew me away,” a frustrated Jeanson said, as she warmed down on her trainer. “A couple of times I was wobbling. I wasn’t having my best day.”

Bessette finished even further back, at 1:35 on the stage and two minutes down on the overall. “I tried to have a good rhythm,” Bessette said after the windy ride. “It’s been a while since I did a time trial. The wind was definitely a factor, and my position wasn’t as good as other girls. I’m not so far back, and there’s still a lot of racing coming up.”

The following day presented a climb over the 8700-foot Galena Pass, with a long, gradual descent into Ketchum. Once again, Bruckner got clear, this time for 20 miles, and once again it was Bessette who initiated the chase. Different day, same ending: another field sprint, another win for Rossner, and Saturn made it 4-for-4.

Still, Bessette remained philosophical about her position. “I’m feeling better and better every day,” the defending champion said. “I just have to be patient. I’m here to race, and I have good support. It’s hard to win a tour two years in a row. We just have to be smarter, and work with the other teams.”

Logically, it seemed to make sense for Bessette and Jeanson to join efforts and work together against Saturn, but cooperation doesn’t come easily between the pair of Quebecois. Whether it’s a regional rivalry, or the fact that they share similar strengths, the bizarre relationship between the Canadians is known throughout the
peloton, dating back to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney when Jeanson chased down Bessette, bringing the field with her.

“Every day they race it’s like the Quebecois championship,” one team mechanic said. “Jeanson chases down every move Lyne makes, and when Lyne asks her why, she doesn’t even have an answer.”

As for Bessette, she found it best to downplay any hostility. “I don’t know,” she answered with a sigh, and a subtle smile. “I’m hoping that’s all in the past, and we can find ways to work together.”

But working together was not on Jeanson’s agenda for the fifth stage. She needed to stem the tide — to win a stage, gap the field, and score some time bonuses before the race left the mountains.

When her Rona team brought the peloton to the base of the Pomerelle ski resort, she finally had her chance, unleashing all the fury her 105-pound frame could pull together, flying up the hill to the hushed amazement of spectators. It was Jeanson’s statement to the race: Saturn may be the strongest team, but nobody here can climb with me.

She took the stage — and the overall leader’s jersey — and it seemed that things were about to get interesting.

Show of Force

If there was one defining image from stage 6’s 60-mile road race — or the entire HP Women’s Challenge — it was that of a united Saturn team driving through strong crosswinds, while Bessette and Jeanson struggled in vain to hang on.

Opening with 40 miles of windy flats from Burley to the gradual 20-mile, 2500-foot ascent to the Magic Mountain ski area, stage 6 was the final big mountain stage of the tour, and for many, a last chance to put time on Saturn.

Jeanson, the overall race leader, had the most to gain or lose going into the stage. Her performance the day before offered hope for a repeat performance over the stage’s similarly profiled course. Another strong day in the mountains could add another minute or more to her lead; any other outcome would surely end her chances of winning the race, as Saturn had three of the top seven in GC.

As the peloton rolled out from the start, the crosswinds picked up, and riders were immediately shelled out the back. An early nine-rider break formed containing Millward, but Rona was not represented and was forced to take up the chase, pulling them in at mile 25.

As the break was pulled back, the Saturn women gathered at the front of the bunch and not only upped the ante, but slid their collective stack of chips across the table and called out the entire peloton. They attacked with one common goal: to completely shatter the field. And shatter they did.

The team (minus Catherine Marsal, who was back with the chase) executed a perfect team-time-trial formation, led by Teutenberg, Rossner and Millward, with Arndt and Bruckner protected for the climb. Canadians Bessette and Jeanson tried to keep contact, but were given no quarter as the Saturn team hugged the left side of the road and forced the pair to follow to the right in the crosswind, or to the left in the gutter. Jeanson was the first to go, with Bessette off the back soon after.

“There were five of them,” Bessette said. “And I was the only one with them at the end, and I wanted to help pull, but they pushed me out. I was there when they went, but I just couldn’t… I was in the gravel.”

“Lyne wanted to go into our pace line,” Arndt explained, regarding her former teammate. “And I told her ‘Sorry, but you are wearing the wrong jersey.’”

Once dropped, Bessette rejoined Jeanson, and the pair buried the hatchet, working together to try to regain contact. A noble, but fruitless effort, as there may not exist a pair of women that could have closed the gap, which widened over the peloton to 40 seconds, then 53, then 1:01 with 12 miles to go.

Although helped by the Lithuanian national team and Itera, it was the responsibility of Rona to defend the leader’s jersey, and with her teammates falling off, Jeanson was forced to lead the chase.

By mile 50, Millward and Rossner were cooked. Once they dropped back from Bruckner and Arndt, the fatigued pair pulled off to the side of the road to recover, so great was their effort. Leading the race with only 10 miles to go, they would finish nearly 28 minutes behind their teammates.

“They were incredible,” Bruckner said later. “They absolutely buried themselves for us. At 15 kilometers to go — that was their finish line.”

Following two minutes behind the Saturns was a motivated chase group, consisting of Jeanson, Bessette, Itera’s Valentina Polkhanova, Lithuania’s Rasa Polikeviciute, and T-Mobile’s Amber Neben, winner of the stage last year.

But there would be no change in the top two, as Arndt continued to open the gap, shedding Bruckner by a full minute and winning by 2:06 over Jeanson. Polkhanova rolled in next, three seconds behind Jeanson, with a tiring Bessette finishing 2:58 down on the stage.

After the race, the subdued Arndt attributed the victory to her teammates. “Today the effort was much harder before the climb [than yesterday],” Arndt said, “but I was so motivated because of all the teamwork.”

Jeanson had nothing but respect for Saturn’s impressive display. “The crosswinds were unbelievable,” she said atop the mountain. “They [Saturn] know how to race a race like that. [There are] lots of experienced riders in there. They raced it like a men’s race. They did an awesome job.”

Saturn’s team director Gianna Roberge couldn’t have been more proud. “The wind was really a gift for us today,” she said. “If it hadn’t been blowing, it would have been an entirely different day.”

Closing Ceremonies

While three flat stages remained, the top spots in the general classification had more or less been decided. Jeanson sat only 14 seconds ahead of Bruckner, keeping both on edge, but neither team expressed interest in trying to upset the balance. Jeanson’s Rona teammates were tired after pulling her to the base of the two hill climbs, and Saturn’s courageous display of strength had put fear into the peloton.

Stage 7’s long ride into Buhl — the trout farming capital of the world — proved to be more of a rest day, as 13 riders low on GC were allowed to fight it out for the stage, with Norway’s Anita Valen taking top honors in a field sprint.

The weekend’s closing stages, Saturday’s downtown criterium and Sunday’s road race ending with five circuits around Boise’s Hyde Park, brought out the crowds but had virtually no effect on the overall standings. Arndt, second last year to Bessette while riding for the German national team, had it locked up, and Jeanson would have to settle for second at her first Women’s Challenge.

At the post-race awards banquet, Jeanson promised to return next year to defend her three leader’s jerseys — overall points, mountain points, and best young rider — and give Saturn another fight for the overall.

Standing further down the podium in fifth, Bessette kept quiet, likely pondering what a difference a year — and the strongest team in the world — makes.

Race Notes

The organizers of the Women’s Challenge held a press conference the morning following the final stage, to announce that Hewlett-Packard would not extend its title sponsorship. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the event, and race director Jim Rabdau — who has seen the event through Ore-Ida, PowerBar, and now Hewlett-Packard — is committed to once again organizing another nine-day, UCI-sanctioned event.

One of the great surprises of the event came from Lithuania’s 18-year-old revelation Modesta Vzisnauskaite. En route to a third-place finish on stage 7, the young climber took a three-mile flyer from the 13-rider break, opening a gap of nearly one minute and winning the first and last of the three mountain-point sprints. The last was the most dramatic, however, as Vzisnauskaite mistook the gathering around the sprint points line as the finish, throwing her arms in the air in an emotional victory salute. Unable to understand the English-speaking course judges that were prompting her to keep riding the last six kilometers, Vzisnauskaite stopped pedaling and nearly dismounted her bike before deciphering the hand signals that she must keep riding. Once caught by the break, she returned to pedaling and managed third in the field sprint, moving up to 11th overall, where she remained.

2002 HP Women’s Challenge
Idaho, June 15-24
Finale Overall: 1. Judith Arndt (G), Saturn, 22:04:33; 2. Geneviève Jeanson (Can), Rona, at 1:19; 3. Kimberly Bruckner, Saturn, at 1:36; 4. Valentina Polkhanova (Rus), Itera, at 3:54; 5. Lyne Bessette (Can), Canadian
National, at 4:18; 6. Amber Neben, T-Mobile, at 5:08; 7. Rasa Polikeviciute (Lit), Lithuanian National, at 9:59; 8. Sue Palmer-Komar (Can), Canadian National, at 11:42; 9. Leah Goldstein (Can), Boise, at 12:06; 10. Caroline Alexander (GB), British National, at 14:50.
Overall points: Jeanson
Mountain points: Jeanson
Sprint points: Diana Ziliute (Lithuanian National)
Best Young Rider (22 years and younger): Jeanson
Best Senior Rider (36 years and older): Sandy Espeseth
(Canadian National)
Team GC: Canadian National