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In a week, eight women will suit up, clip in, and roll out onto the curved wooden banks of the Los Angeles velodrome. Only four will walk out into the warm LA sun with tickets to Cali, Colombia, host of the final track World Cup event of the season.
Carmen Small wants one of those tickets.
The plan was hatched with USA Cycling late last summer when her Specialized-Lululemon team appeared to be headed for collapse: Use Small’s time trial ability at the 2016 Olympics in the team pursuit. On the road to Rio, the first stop is Colombia.
And if she doesn’t make the squad?
“I’m not quite sure where that leaves me,” Small said.
Small, who took bronze at the 2013 world time trial championship, has signed with the U.S. national team for the coming season, pivoting toward the velodrome and away from international road racing. She turned down offers from major women’s teams so she can spend less time on the road, following a 2014 season that left her drained, tired, and sick. The travel, the schedule, were simply too much.
“It’s kind of a change in the lifestyle more than anything, I can’t be gone… I can’t race for an international team like that again,” Small said, referring to her years with Specialized-Lululemon. “It is a huge sacrifice for Americans. So I needed a different change, to be happy and to actually reach my potential, I needed to be home more, and in doing so I can still go over to Europe and race with the national team. That’s an option.”
The track schedule runs opposite the traditional road schedule, with the world championships in early spring and little racing again until fall. That leaves Small with some space to breathe, step back, do some domestic racing. But her schedule won’t be empty.
“For sure I’ll do (road) nationals. And the Pan Am championships. Those are pretty high on the priority list. And [Amgen Tour of] California. I’ll go do the TT because I want to support what they’re doing with women’s cycling. And then, Philly, which is a World Cup now,” she said.
The Olympics themselves are a major draw, of course. A chance at a medal in the team pursuit at the Rio Olympics in 2016; a chance to walk into the opening ceremony under her flag; a chance to compete on the largest stage in women’s racing. All chances she missed narrowly in 2012. Just weeks after her first international victory (Classica Citta’ di Padova), and hours after a win at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, Small was left off the London Olympic team.
Small’s engine is, no pun intended, anything but small. Defined for nine years by the rigors of the road, she roared to a U.S. national time trial title in 2013 and to two consecutive world team time-trial championships. She’s proven to be a malleable athlete, taking sprint wins at Nature Valley and the Tour of the Gila. She should be able to make the transition — at least USA Cycling thinks so.
Small knows she has a long way to go. Her cadence is too low and her gear selection too high for the fast starts and high speeds of track racing. The skills, and precision, and trust, required to ride inches apart in a lactic haze are not learned in a few sessions on the boards. They are honed over years.
“I’m good at crits. I’m a good sprinter. But it’s so different, and it frightens me to be honest,” she said.
The physiological demands are distinctive, but an engine’s an engine. It just needs to be tuned.
“I thought I had a high cadence for time trialing. Nope. Not at all. How is it possible that I can’t spin 115? I want to go to 105. Every time, it doesn’t matter what gear we put on, I’ll go to 105. I just keep going faster in lap times because we just keep putting on a bigger gear,” she said, laughing.
Small has big shoes to fill. The retirement of Dotsie Bausch is a blow; Bausch was a vital component of the three-woman American pursuit team that earned a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. Sarah Hammer, one of the most decorated track racers of all time, is planning to return in Rio. Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo, who split up the qualification and final rounds in London, are likely to shoot for a return as well.
“I’m not sure what the composite of the team will be, but (USA Cycling) said they need to try something different, and branch out and recruit some road racers. And there were several of us approached to do it,” Small said.
In 2016, the women’s team pursuit will match the men’s length of 4km and will include teams of four, not three. Assuming Hammer remains healthy, that leaves three openings on the final Olympic squad. USA Cycling is keen to fill them with strong women, but the relative obscurity of track racing across most of the U.S. has them looking to the road.
Small is optimistic, but realistic, concerning her chances of riding in Rio.
“It’s a completely different world, and it’s really hard, Just because you’re a good road racer does not mean you’re going to be good on the track. I’m athletic, and I’m a quick learner, and I’ve done fairly decent because of those reasons, but it’s a total different game, so it’s been a big learning curve for me to get where I need to be,” she said.