Thursday, April 28, 2011

European racing an eye-opener for Winnipeg cyclists

Leah Kirchmann and Karlee Gendron have been taking a two-wheel tour of Western Europe this month.

The Winnipeg cyclists have been racing throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg as part of the Canadian national team against the fastest women in the world.

The majority of the races have been one-day classics averaging about 140 kilometres, but the team did compete in a four-day stage race (similar in format to the Tour de France) called the Energiewacht Tour.

Kirchmann has raced in two World Cup events during the trip, while Gendron got her first World Cup experience last week.

For Kirchmann, a 20-year-old from Norwood who lives and goes to school in B.C., it’s the second straight year in which she’s joined the national team’s spring project. She said this year’s trip has been much easier for her, as she hasn’t had to learn a new racing style on the fly.

"The racing is really different from back home," she said from the team’s base in Belgium. "Some of the races, there’s 180 girls on tiny Belgian roads, and you need to figure out how to get up to the front. I struggled with that last year."

Kirchmann’s results would certainly indicate that she’s a year wiser and a year fitter, as she posted a 12th place overall finish — and was the fastest rider in the under-23 age category — in the Tour de Dottignies.

"These are definitely the hardest races in the world," Kirchmann said. "Everyone is here… world champions, Olympic champions, past champions."

Gendron, a 19-year-old from Whyte Ridge experiencing European road racing for the first time, described the first few events as a "shock."

"The first race I did I was totally blown away," she said. "It’s definitely way faster and way harder, and you have to be a more aggressive rider. That’s something I’m definitely learning from every day that I race."

Gendron isn’t concerned with her placings as much as she’s determined to leave Europe a better rider than she was when she arrived. It also should be noted that all her preparation for the trip took place indoors on a training bike.

"My strongest race was the World Cup," she said. "I feel that I performed my best there. I can definitely see the difference from my first race to the last one."

Kirchmann, who managed to spend February in California, training in ideal weather, said it’s a fact of life that Canadian riders need to "race your way into shape."

With narrow roads — some of them made of cobblestones — and elbow-to-elbow racing at top speeds, crashes have been a daily part of life for the riders. Gendron has managed to stay on her bike, but Kirchmann has hit the ground twice. She managed to avoid serious injury, unlike a Canadian teammate who broke her collarbone.

The Winnipeggers will have other opportunities to race against the world’s elite during the summer if they perform well enough at the national championships. Both say it’s their goal to earn trips to France and Holland for more stage races in July and August.

After that Kirchmann will be focused on making the 2012 Olympic team. Gendron, on the other hand, has her sights set on the 2016 Games.

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