By Neal Rogers
American national time trial champion Jessica Phillips didn’t win the elite women’s world time trial championship last week. She didn’t take a medal, or even finish in the top 10. And, designated as an alternate, she didn’t participate in Saturday’s road race, either.
Yet just rolling out of the start ramp of the world time trial championship wearing national team colors was a victory in itself for the Aspen, Colorado, native. She finished 14th out of 41 starters, 2:11 behind the winner, U.S. teammate Kristin Armstrong.
Five years ago, after just four years in the sport, Phillips retired from professional cycling at the age of 26.
The winner of the 2002 national road championship, during her second year of racing and her first season with the powerhouse Saturn team, Phillips spent a difficult 2004 season racing on the German Nürnberger squad and had had enough of elite-level women’s cycling. Or so she thought.
After four seasons spent adrift, racing only intermittently, Phillips realized she had some unfinished business in the sport. In August 2008, she began her difficult road to returning to a top competitive level.
Part of that unfinished business was representing her country at the world championships. She’d passed up her only other opportunity, an automatic invitation to race worlds in 2002, earned by virtue of her national championship, won out of a two-up sprint against Amber Neben in Nashville.
At the recommendation of her then-Saturn teammate Ina Teutenberg, Phillips passed up her 2002 team selection; Saturn was focused on winning the overall World Cup title, and 2001 World Cup winner Anna Millward had missed much of the season with an injury, forcing Phillips to race far more than she’d expected.
“I wasn’t supposed to have had such a full (2002) season, it was only my second year of racing,” Phillips said. “I was physically so tired. The worlds were in Belgium, on a flat course (on the motorsports track in Zolder), not a good course for me. I gave my spot to Laura Van Gilder. But looking back, I don’t think it was right to do. USA Cycling doesn’t like it when you turn them down. I think in their eyes I didn’t care, and it didn’t matter. Now I have a completely different attitude, and I’m willing to do anything when USA Cycling is concerned. Now, if I get invited, I am going.”
Phillips returned with Saturn in 2003, and moved over to Nürnberger in 2004 alongside former Saturn teammates Judith Arndt and Petra Rossner. However the adjustment was difficult.
Instead of women team staff, the staff was men; German-speaking men, at that. When she wasn’t racing, she was living in Leipzig. She craved the simple things — bagels, peanut butter, and speaking English — and she struggled with the intricacies of the cutthroat European peloton.
“There is such a huge difference in development between men’s and women’s cycling,” she said. “Even the American junior and under-23 boys spend time racing in Europe, they grow up knowing the culture of cycling. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. You have to be prepared for it, for things like eating every meal in a hotel off the interstate, in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. It was really hard for me.”
The team won several big races, including the Tour de l’Aude, but Phillips was unhappy, and left in August, before the season ended.
“I did my job in the races, but I’d had it,” she said. “I figured that pro cycling is so not for me, and I just quit. I left on not-very-good terms.”
Can’t get no …
After her early departure, Phillips applied to a doctoral program in cancer research, worked as a personal trainer at a health club, earned certification as a ski instructor, managed a restaurant and started grad school at Colorado State in Fort Collins. But nothing made her happy.
“I was a lost case,” she said.
She continued to race, albeit it half-heartedly, in 2006 with Argon 18-Champion System, in 2007 with Expresscopy.com, and in 2008 in the jersey of her Aspen-based coaching company, Aspen Bike Guide.
But she knew she wasn’t giving racing her all, and at the same that she wasn’t satisfied with her life outside of racing. “I told myself I have to finish this, that I’m not going to be a happy person until I do this again.”
One of the biggest steps Phillips took on her path back was to enlist the coaching services of Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s sport director, who also coaches riders such as Kristin Armstrong, Tejay Van Garderen, Coryn Rivera and Kat Carroll. Miller had coached Phillips back in 2002, and she knew he was “the only person I wanted to coach me.”
But Miller was hesitant. Their prior coaching relationship hadn’t ended well, and Miller had gone on to direct the T-Mobile-sponsored U.S. national team, Saturn’s biggest U.S. rival. He waited 10 days to respond to Phillips’ request.
“We had a little bit of a falling out,” Miller said. “She went her own way, and ended up quitting the sport. Every once in a while she would drop me emails, saying she wanted to come back and start racing, or I would see her in Colorado, but that was about it.
“When she called me this time, one thing was different; she said if she was going to do it, she only wanted me to coach her,” he noted. “But I am picky about who I coach; their time and effort has to match mine. So I told her to go and buy an SRM, and that she had to send me her power files every day she rode. I told her if I don’t miss a file in the next three months, I’ll think about it. I said if you don’t send me even one file, I don’t want to coach you.”
Phillips agreed. “It was the first really big step,” she said.
The next big step was figuring out how she would return without a contract. She raced unattached and guest rode with several teams in the spring before finding a home with Lip Smacker. However the biggest opportunity came when Miller offered her the chance to return to Europe with the U.S. national team. Each rider had to pay her own way, but it was a chance to jump back in with both feet, and, as she discovered, get her “ass kicked.”
Miller had not only Phillips’ results to refer to, but also her power files. And his honest assessment was that “this girl has no chance in hell.”
“But I’d made a deal,” Miller said. “And I followed through on my end. To be honest, Jessica was frustrated through the year. When you take that much time off, it takes time to come back. But a lot of domestic teams didn’t let their girls go to Europe this year, and I had openings. So I told her come on over, knock yourself out with three months of heavy racing in Europe. It made a big difference — more so than the training program I’d written up for her.”
The road back to the road
Phillips returned to the U.S. and hit the circuit, racing Joe Martin, Tri-Peaks, the Montreal World Cup, Nature Valley and Fitchburg before heading to Oregon for the Cascade Classic and the elite national championships. She rode alongside 2009 revelation Evelyn Stevens at Fitchburg, which Stevens won, guest riding for Lip Smacker, before racing against her at Cascade, where Stevens guest rode for Webcor.
Phillips won the time trial at Cascade, ahead of Alison Starnes (TIBCO), former national TT champ Alison Powers (Team Type 1) and Stevens, the first major indication that her heavy racing schedule had paid off.
“Jessica rode well at Fitchburg, I could see the power was coming up there,” Miller said. “It was all about grinding the power, giving her as much volume as possible without cracking her. It was as much about managing fatigue as it was adding load.”
After a demanding national road championship that saw a break of four take it to the line, won by TIBCO’s Meredith Miller, Phillips, who finished 13th, focused on the TT championship.
Though she didn’t feel as sharp as she had at Cascade, Phillips put in a 50:35 ride over the 21.75-mile course that was two seconds better than Stevens, and 23 seconds better than third-placed Powers. Seven years later, Phillips was again a national champion, this time against the clock.
“I had put so much pressure on myself,“ Phillips said. “After Cascade I told myself I could really win this, and if I win I get to go to worlds, which is something I have wanted to do so badly, especially considering it was the last race of Kristin Armstrong’s career. I raced as hard as I possibly could.”
Miller said he wasn’t surprised.
“Jessica was a pretty good time trialist before,” he said. “Her strength when she was young was time trialing and the climbs. It was natural that it would come back. She just needed to develop power and leg strength and form.”
As national champion, Phillips was guaranteed a spot at worlds (The U.S. had three spots, instead of two, by virtue of Neben’s 2008 world TT title). This time around, she wasn’t going to let it pass her by. Though she wasn’t selected to the road team, Phillips said riding as a teammate of Armstrong’s meant a lot.
“This was the last race of her career, and although we’ve never been teammates, we’ve become really good friends,” Phillips said.
Next year Phillips will return with Team Lip Smacker, alongside Canadian Anne Samplonius and talented young South African Carla Swart. It’s a team that is expanding in 2010 behind a family-owned sponsor, Bonne Bell, that has long backed women’s sports, dating back to involvement with the U.S. women’s ski team.
Phillips said the support of her sponsor, the national federation, and her coach — along with winning, of course — has made this go-round with racing more fun than before. Riding with the national team, whether at a developmental track camp in Los Angeles, with the women’s team in Europe, or at the world championships in Switzerland, has given her a new sense of national pride and camaraderie.
“It’s made cycling feel more like a team sport,” she said. “Riding my bike is so much fun now. Staying at the national team house in Izegem (Belgium), or in Lucca (Italy), everyone is really supportive. If this year hadn’t gone well, I don’t know what would have happened. Sometimes you know deep down you can do something. You just have to figure out how you can do it.”