Gabrielle Lehnert stands next to an anonymous black van parked on a side street in Golden, Colorado, grabbing sports bars and bottles. As other cyclists and fans stream past, she stuffs her pockets, preparing for stage 3 of the Colorado Classic.
Lehnert looks the part of the professional cyclist: sparkling team bike, tailored kit, helmet, glasses, and gloves. The thing is, before this UCI 2.1 race, the lanky 18-year-old had never done anything bigger than the Redlands Cycling Classic.
“This is like Redlands on steroids,” Lehnert told VeloNews. “This is a pretty big learning experience, because we’re such a young team. We’re practicing positioning, practicing riding together cohesively. It’s about the whole atmosphere of the race, and learning how to not be stressed out.”
For 2019, the second year of the Lux women’s development program, the team employed a composite strategy, bringing in more experienced riders who could lead the team at many of the big races it competed in. That’s because the existing team only had two 18-year-old members who could compete in UCI-sanctioned races. Furthermore, team general manager Roy Knickman wanted to up the challenge by focusing on bigger races such as Valley of the Sun and Redlands rather than just local Cat. 1-2 races.
“You raise the bar and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I need to do to be here, to be racing at this level,'” Knickman explained.
He also learned from colleagues like Mike Engleman, who raced with Knickman in the 1980s and who has been involved in women’s racing for many years, that bringing a slightly older, more experienced leader to the team gave the younger riders someone to learn from. It was fortuitous that riders such as Clara Honsinger, who typically focuses on cyclocross, and Janelle Cole, a criterium specialist, were willing, able, and excited to race with Lux in Colorado.
“Instead of riding for [other teams] where you have one junior carrying bottles, you come here and the juniors are the focus,” Knickman said. “Our hope is two years from now, it’s all ‘alumni’ [of this team] who are going to school and who may not have the big team yet, that can come back and race because their development continues. ”
At the Colorado Classic, Lehnert was joined by fellow juniors Jane Tullis and Charlotte Backus. Honsinger, 23, and Cole, 22, slotted into the team’s leadership roles—the former for the general classification and the later in the sprints. Justine Barrow, 40, served as the “mother hen” of the squad.
“Something we’ve definitely been working on is how to race as a team and use team tactics as an underdog team. ‘Why can’t we can still animate the race without being a huge team?’ We’re trying to do what we can to help Clara, to help Janelle,” Lehnert said.
Indeed, during stage 4 in downtown Denver, Cole attacked off the front with Chloe Dygert Owen, who went on to win all four stages and the overall. Dygert Owen and Cole worked together to build a 30-second gap on the field until the final lap, when Dygert Owen struck out on her own. She crossed the finish with an 11-second gap on Cole, with the field rumbling home 50 seconds later.
After Knickman founded the Lux junior men’s development team in an unprecedented way, it wasn’t long before a woman’s team entered the conversation. After a year of experimentation, he knew he needed to give the team a leader with experience. That’s when he hired women’s sport director Ryan Kelly, a one-time junior racer who had been a soigneur for several teams, including Kelly Benefit Strategies, Bontrager-Livestrong, and Optum.
“When Roy asked me to do this, I was like, ‘You want me to do what? With who?'” recalled Kelly, 40. “And then I thought, ‘Yes, you know what, I want to put some mind into it. I do want to give these girls an opportunity to have the support they deserve.’ I know what it was like when I couldn’t bridge the gap, because [when I was racing] I was used to being on top and then so far on the bottom. I’m getting my ass kicked at Redlands and I couldn’t rectify it in my head. So I know what that’s like.”
Kelly’s role went from being a mentor to sport director almost immediately, as the team became more serious with its race selection. That necessitated she get her UCI director’s license in order to be able to field teams at bigger races. At the team’s current level, Knickman, Kelly, and the rest of the staff are hoping to expose the young riders to the highest levels of competition and prepare them to be competitive in international events.
“We’ve had riders like Janelle Cole and Justine Barrow come in and help captain the girls on the road, to start to give them a little bit of know-how, even when they’re hanging on for dear life,” Kelly said. “What happens with junior women in this country is that they know how to race alone. There’s the handful of strong girls who are used to winning national championships and that’s it. So when they end up in a program like Rally, they don’t necessarily have the experiential understanding of being able to ride as a team. We’re trying to impart some of that now, and ‘break the tiaras.’ So then, for example, Megan Jastrab can go to junior worlds and have the support she needs to win.”
At the Colorado Classic, the team was primarily built to give Honsinger an opportunity to ride for GC. And she delivered, climbing among the top riders on stage 2, holding her own on the flatter stages, and finishing 11th overall.
Cole had her breakout ride on stage 4. Barrow served as road captain and finished a respectable 14th. The other junior riders had their share of ups and downs. Tullis, who in June finished third in the junior women’s national championships, did not finish stage 1, suffering from stomach issues. Lehnert wrapped up the week in 60th overall. Backus was lanterne rouge.
For Kelly, there is no such thing as a good or bad report card for the team.
“I want them to learn to value every experience they have, whether good or bad,” she said. “They have to know how to lose. The best pros I’ve ever worked with have known how to rectify a bad day quickly, rather than throw a temper tantrum for the rest of the race and be a pain in the ass to the staff and their teammates. So for these girls, being professional is going to be knowing how to be like, ‘Okay, you got dropped on the first stage and you didn’t make the time cut? You know what? I know that sucks. I’m sorry. What’s the plan now?’ We’re not jumping over the disappointment, but we put it into the pot of your experience to say, ‘Okay, for the next team that you end up with, you’re going to have more know-how.'”
When asked if she felt like a mother to the girls, Kelly, who is not a parent, admitted she was initially hesitant to take on the sport director role but has since fully embraced it.
“I do feel like a mom,” she said. “But I feel like one who’s going to give more. I’m more interested in their autonomy and giving them the skill set to start to navigate the world on their own. If they can come out of here with some life skills, we did our job. And if we can do good by our sponsors and the sport, then we’re doing our job. In the long run, that’s better than any win.”