Vera paused to talk to someone in the athlete’s corridor. When I looked up, I realized it was Bjorn Borg. I was in total awe. After he departed, I asked Vera how you become a great tennis player. Vera said anyone can win, but in order to be a champion, you have to have compassion while knowing everyone is gunning for you.
After this past weekend in Altoona, PA, I thought a lot about my aunt and truly understand what it feels like to have everyone “gunning for you”. After all, we’re not supposed to succeed. My budget has me doing double time as the director/mechanic and Laura Haapamaki volunteering as backup mechanic/feeding/dishes or any choir that needs to be done.
But our secret weapon was our host family. Micheal & Andrea Cohen gave us the opportunity to focus on the race. No amount of money could compensate them for their generosity and amazing photographs (see below).
As for the race, it started with an innocuous Prologue that carriers a mere perfunctory significance. My wife, Susan, was our top performer on the day finishing 17th in the Prologue, only 18 seconds from the leader Tara Whitten (Tibco) with Veronique (Fortin) a further 28 seconds behind.
The real opportunity for our team to shine was the next day. Stage 1, from Richland to Altoona was 117km, had a mountain-top finish. But things did not go well from the start. Suzie Brown suffered an asthma attack 15km into the race and I had to provide her with her medication from the team car. Bravely, she recovered and finished the stage. Next loss was Stephanie Skoreyko who got popped after the 1st QOM and almost made it back to the front group of 40.
I really got concerned when Myriam Gaudreault crashed out of a breakaway of eight that had 40 seconds on the remaining 35 riders. Sue Palmer-Komar recognized the danger immediately as there were some established riders like Anne Samplonius (NOW and Novartis for MS) in the breakaway. Sue absolutely drilled it and pretty much terminated that breakaway. But such an effort would cost her since the mountain was less than 15km away.
Veronique Fortin started a blistering pace at the bottom and was solo pretty quickly. Admittedly, she started a little too quick and faded near the top, but was still able to hold off a chase group of seven that Palmer-Komar was amazingly able to police. Veronique’s effort and time bonuses launched her into yellow with a fantastic stage victory and we celebrated royally.
Even with the victory, we knew the next stage in Altoona was more critical to put time against our rivals. The 147km stage featured three major climbs. Immediately, a break of eight riders took off with Skoreyko in the move. Bike NZ had the highest placed rider in the break at three minutes back.
Samplonius and the eventual winner of the stage Lauren Hall, were a further five and eight minutes back on GC. With 80km before the first real test at Blue Knob mountain, I was willing to let this group get four minutes before I would order a chase.
To make matters worse the race went off course twice. The first time was critical because the pack was starting to chase in earnest and the time deficit was coming down. After the second restart I was concerned because the gap was 4:40 only 10km from the base of Blue Knob Mountain and the breakaway had been given a 15-minute rest. I sent Suzie Brown and Myriam to the front on the 2nd restart and they did an excellent job of reducing the gap by 40 seconds.
On the 1st QOM (6.5) of the day, Veronique attacked again and Sue P was policing the chase of only four riders this time when disaster struck. On the final 1km there’s a gravel section and Sue’s brand new Velomax got sliced on the sidewall. With the whole team caravan being held back on the climb at 2km back we had no reports from the race radio.
I was infuriated with Comm car 2 giving us no radio reports – I would say this cost us the race! Sue was delayed waiting for Neutral Service, which was ahead of us and by the time I got up to her she had lost well over 1:20. I bombed ahead and told Vero (in a group of 8 ) to wait for Sue. Unfortunately Sue ended up chasing for 30km with Vero sitting up.
Once Sue had bridged to the lead group of 10 riders Vero attacked again on the 2nd QOM and brought Janel Holcomb along who actually helped reduce the time of the original breakaway survivors, Samplonius and Hall. The gap went from 5 minutes down to 2 minutes with Hall winning the stage.
The good news was Veronique had 1:20 on Holcomb and 2:20 on Whitten going into the final Stage 3, a Criterium.
The bad news was that the Altoona Criterium is one of the hardest crits in the U.S. Secondly, Veronique’s right achilles was starting to get seriously inflamed and this was going to be only her 4th criterium ever – not promising.
Watching the Criterium unfold was like being on a beach watching a Tsunami coming straight at me. The whole week I tried to suppress my trepidation of this stage, this on top of Sue’s flat meaning we were unable to drill it in the mountains, AND we were on Colavita, Now and Tibco’s turf. Veronique battled bravely to defend the jersey with honour, but the Tsunami came and we yielded to its power.
Our consolation is that Vero still won the Points Jersey, was 2nd overall in the QOM Jersey, took one stage victory, and finished 7th in the individual GC. Sue scored an excellent 4th place overall in the individual GC and won the respect of our rival team directors who saw her dedication to Veronique.
We did not lose. We gained experience and friendship. It was a great honor to be at the helm of such dedicated athletes. This is not a normal race report, but we are not an ordinary team. We are exceptional!
I will finish my report with my signature adage that I borrowed from Harry Greenan, Vera’s tennis coach, “in order to achieve you must believe”. Thanks for believing!
Christopher P. Komar
Director of P-K Express/HNZ Strategic.com