Evelyn Stevens can’t enter a three-week-long bike race like the celebrated Tour de France, which finishes up in Paris on Sunday. That choice has been made for her by cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, which limits women’s multiday or stage races to less than half that duration.
This is not something that sits well with many top women around the world, including Stevens, who gave up an investment banking career on Wall Street seven years ago to become a professional cyclist. Her own stock gained value quickly. Stevens has won two national time trial titles, a world silver medal in the time trial, several stage races and the Fleche-Wallonne one-day classic.
She didn’t know how her body and mind would react to a longer event, but she heard it might help her endurance in the long run -- that’s what the guys say -- and she chafed at the idea that she couldn’t test her limits.
So Stevens organized her own Grand Tour, the longest, hardest stretch she could string together on the calendar: Back-to-back races in Europe that totaled 17 straight days and 959 miles of racing.
She wobbled in the first one, by her own high standards. She won the second. She feels different, more impervious to mental and physical exhaustion. And she thinks she made a statement more emphatic than any written manifesto.
"The point of it is, the female body, we can race Grand Tour lengths," Stevens said from her home base in the Bay Area. "We’re not going to get weaker throughout it.
"Going into it, it was more of a personal thing, 'Can I do this?' and then as it went along it was, 'Wait a minute, if I can do this, all these other women that I compete against, they can do it as well.' It’s just a matter of having the opportunity to showcase ourselves."
Women raced in their own Tour de France on some of the same roads and nearly as many days as the men’s in the 1980s, but the race lost organizational and sponsor support and gradually devolved and disappeared. Rules passed since then grandfathered a few existing races but capped one-day race distances, average distances during stage races and number of days in stage races at considerably lower levels than men’s races.
Stevens had company on the expedition that linked the roads of the 10-day Giro Rosa in Italy -- generally considered the toughest race on the women’s itinerary -- with those of the 7-day Thuringen-Rundfahrt in Germany. Her Specialized-lululemon team director Ronny Lauke, soigneur Beth Duryea and two of the team’s mechanics worked both events and teammate Trixi Worrack of Germany raced each day during the same stretch.
They didn’t make a big deal of it beforehand; Stevens mentioned the idea to me in a casual conversation at the Tour of California. This week, she said she thought it was better to be low-key.
"The worst thing to do is go out and discuss it and then not be able to finish it," said Stevens, who previously had never raced more than 10 consecutive days.
That discretion proved wise when Stevens didn’t race well in the Giro (where she finished third in 2012), for reasons she hasn’t entirely pinned down. She finished 15th, almost 15 minutes behind winner Marianne Vos of the Netherlands as Vos’ Rabobank-Liv team swept the podium.
"The reason I’m most proud of the win in Thuringen is that I was not racing as well as I have in the past at the Giro," Stevens said. "Just not being a factor was mentally a very challenging experience for me. I raced my hardest, but my best just wasn’t enough."
After finishing the Giro’s last climb to the Santuario del Ghisallo near Lake Como, Stevens and Worrack jumped into a team car to be driven to the Bergamo airport, flew to Munich and shuttled to their hotel. The next day, they drove five hours to the start of the Thuringen race, pre-rode the prologue time trial course and raced that evening.
Things got better from there.
"The most fascinating part of the experience was that I got stronger," Stevens said. "I hit my best one-minute power (numbers) of the year on Day 16 of it.
"You hit this point of tired and it doesn’t really get any worse. You’re just there. Once I realized, 'I’m gonna hurt for this amount of time,' it actually got easier. It was interesting to see how the body and mind adapted to it."
By the time Stevens won Stage 4 at Thuringen, she had reached a Zen state of fatigued exertion, although she found eating to be like shoveling tasteless coal into a furnace and had trouble throttling down to go to sleep. She took the overall by 42 seconds over Great Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead.
Stevens has no formal plans to present her story to the UCI or major race organizers. A women’s commission is studying various issues for the governing body and there is debate within the peloton about how quickly the caps should change, because there is less depth in the women’s ranks worldwide.
It's a turbulent time in women's cycling. The sport is full of compelling personalities, but event organizers and teams have found it challenging to stay on an even financial keel. Stevens' team just announced an interesting and creative gamble, launching a crowdfunding model aimed at replacing part of its support from sponsorship contracts that expire this year.
"Part of me didn’t realize I could make a statement until afterwards," Stevens said. "Your actions speak much louder than the words do."
She won’t return to Europe until next month, and thus will be watching from home on Sunday as the top women’s teams duke it out in Paris at La Course by le Tour de France, finishing a few hours ahead of the final stage of the men's race.
“The Tour de France transcends cycling, and for a women’s event to be part of it for the first time since the 1980s is really monumental," Stevens said. “It’s a shame I can’t be on the start line there, but I think these 17 days is a contribution to women’s cycling in another way."