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Q&A: 52-year-old Edwige Pitel races on “passion above all”

Pitel's professional career stretches back to 2003. Now, the Frenchwoman races without a salary, simply because she loves cycling and the competition.

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Edwige Pitel’s career in sports began when she took up track and field in the 1990s; she then started to compete in duathlon. The Frenchwoman switched to a career in cycling in order to go to the Olympic Games. She first took part in cycling races in 2002; she won the Tour de Bretagne in 2003, even though, at that time, she was still focused on duathlon. By 2004, however, she was “100 percent involved in cycling.”

Fifteen years later, she’s still going strong. Pitel races with the Cogeas-Mettler-Look team in this year’s women’s-only Colorado Classic. At 52, she is the oldest competitor in the race.

We sat down with Pitel to learn more about her longevity in the sport, and how cycling has changed during her career.

VN: When you first started racing, was it rare to be a woman in the sport?

EP: I started racing through running and in athletics, where equality between men and women was already well established. So I did not feel that it was rare to be a women in the sport. When I went into cycling, on the other hand, yes, I was surprised to discover a real male-oriented sport. Just to sign my first license, I had to fight and convince the club manager that I could be a good investment and not just a burden, which was how he was considering women in cycling.

VN: What are the most significant changes you have seen for women in professional cycling?

EP: Today the women’s teams are much stronger and well organized. You can have several girls able to be a leader for a race in the same team, whereas in the past, there was mainly only one or two maximum. When I started, if you were strong, it was easy to get to the front, and often, at any time of the race. Now it’s different. It is 50 percent about navigating in the bunch on most races. There are more girls in the bunch and our teammates are stronger. If you watch the Women’s WorldTour races, all the leaders of the big teams are in the front of the bunch with three or four teammates. But the road is not larger! So if you are alone or in a smaller team, it is harder to place yourself in the front; those big teams throw you back behind them.

Furthermore, big teams are now working on every detail to achieve the best performances: salaries, training camp, coaching, aero testing, aerodynamic or weather-adapted clothing. Before, teams were just there to allow you to take the start. It was more ‘do-it-yourself.’ But nowadays those two worlds of cycling are co-existing. It is like a two-gears cycling. There are more or less eight big teams like Michelton-Scott, Trek-Segafredo, Boels-Doelmans, Sunweb which are really well organized. In Europe if you aren’t among the 20 best teams, you race like in the old time.

Pitel competes at the 2012 world time trial championships in Valkenburg. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

VN: How has professional cycling changed for you personally since you began?

EP: I’m not really a professional cyclist. I race with professional girls, and I’m on a UCI team, but I have no salary and I also work as an engineer in computer systems. Cycling costs me much more than I get out of it. It is a real passion for sports, above all. But I have always tried to behave like a professional in my approach to the sport. Now, professionalism in cycling is getting bigger and bigger among the peloton. To still be competitive in such an environment, I have to look for any marginal gains to stay in the game against girls who are, today, fully professional. It was not so difficult for me before when 90 percent of the girls were working like me.

VN: At 52, you’re the oldest woman at the Colorado Classic? What is that like for you?

EP: Nothing special for me. I am just focused on the race. When I’m racing, I don’t care if the other girls are 19, 28, or 36. But yes, what I can say is that, in the last two to three years, I really feel a new interest on me from the media and public. There are more and more ‘Wow, nice performance!’ when I do a good result. For instance, last year, after the world champs, a woman wrote to me: ‘I have heard your story on the radio; that’s awesome. I’m 50, too, and I’m going to buy a bike and ride it.’ That’s nice.

VN: What advice do you have for the younger girls?

EP: I really like to speak with young girls and share my experience, when they are curious and interested. Having said that, the advice will really depend on who is involved and her behavior. But generally speaking, what I would emphasize is, first of all: love what you are doing, then keep your feet to the earth and work for it.

VN: What do you hope to achieve at the Colorado Classic?

EP: The best possible result! We have a strong team with Olga Zabelinskaya and Amber Neben. So, we should be able to play a good game together. Each of us can perform well on that course. Surely, that will be exciting for us.

VN: Why are you excited to be here?

EP: It’s a new big race in the U.S. It is at high altitude, which is a factor to integrate, and it usually suits me. I love riding new races and I love riding in the States. It’s different from Europe and it presents new challenges. I am facing new strong girls from the U.S., in addition to those who are traveling over like me from Europe. The atmosphere is so much more welcome than in Europe; there is also what we call in Europe the ‘American show’ before the start, and it is really fun. I have also discovered host housing on many American races, and I love it to meet people involved in the local racing and to get closer to know the American way of life.