Kristin Armstrong has won two Olympic gold medals, and has worked part time throughout her professional road cycling career. Now, with a 4-year-old son, she's still working and still racing, but she's more selective about which competitions she chooses.
One race on her short list leading up to her third medal bid at the 2016 Rio Games is this weekend's USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Beginning Friday, the event will feature a women's race for the first time in its history.
"Including the addition of a three-day women's race alongside the men on some of the same courses is a step in the right direction," Armstrong says. "Of course, I would like to see it get larger and run the entire week, as would many others."
Since its debut in 2011, the USA Pro Challenge has taken the world's top male cyclists across Colorado in seven stages that have drawn more than a million spectators every year. The seven-stage men's race involves three days in the mountains on courses of 100 miles or more requiring thousands of feet of climbing.
The inaugural women's race begins with an individual time trial in Breckenridge on the same course as the men -- an 8.5-mile route that begins at 9,600 feet with a steep climb (500 vertical feet) followed by a steep decent and an out-and-back speed tear on the flats. The second stage has the same start and finish point as the men's race -- from Loveland to Fort Collins, peaking after a climb of more than 3,000 feet -- but the men's course is 102 miles long and the women's is 58 miles. Armstrong, for one, is OK with that.
"I'm not questioning whether women can finish long stage races; I question what it takes to train for those types of events," says the Idaho native and two-time world time trial champion who won the Olympic individual time trial gold in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games. "I've worked my entire career of cycling [she's the director of community health at St. Luke's in Boise]. We're not getting paid the salary range to live off of the sport. These men's teams have millions of dollars under their umbrella and we don't. Until that changes, I don't think the distances can be the same."
The women's Pro Challenge finishes off with a circuit race around Golden on Sunday before the men's race wraps up its final stage from Golden to Denver. The women's race issues the same prize payout per stage as the men's: $10,993 each day to be distributed among the top 20 finishers.
"I don't know of another women's stage race in the world that paid that much per stage," says USA Pro Challenge women's race director Sean Petty, the former USA Cycling executive who has overseen races for decades, including the Coors Classic, the last women's stage race in Colorado, which fizzled out in1988.
"Going back to the 1980s, financial support for races dwindled. For the Pro Challenge, it's always been a goal to have the women's race and make this something that honors the legacy of stage racing in Colorado. With the support of those cities involved and organizations, we're looking forward to sustaining it," Petty says.
The women's race was added this spring, too late to add it to the race calendar of UCI, the sport's worldwide governing body. The majority of women's pro cycling happens in Europe and a World Cup race in Sweden coincides with the Pro Challenge this month, so the women's field in Colorado will be mostly Americans. Adding future Pro Challenge races to the UCI women's race calendar is a goal for organizers and racers alike.
"We wanted to look at it in a measured way in showcasing our U.S. teams. We have some of the best women in the world," Petty says, citing Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who won a gold medal in the inaugural women's Olympic cycling road race in 1984 and was instrumental in implementing the women's event in this year's Pro Challenge.
"Connie has been the event's biggest inspiration and cheerleader," says USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter. "From the first time I met her, the first question was 'when are going you going add a women's division?' My personal goal is to grow the event."
There will be 12 elite teams competing in the women's Pro Challenge, many of whom will go on to compete in the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, next month. In addition to Armstrong's powerhouse team, Twenty16 Sho-Air, there's the UnitedHealthCare squad, featuring National Criterium champion Coryn Rivera, Katie Hall, who won the first stage of this year's Tour of California, and Britain's No. 1 young rider Hannah Barnes. Canadian-German racer Jasmin Glaesser, who won last month's Pan American Games in Toronto, will race for Team Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies.
There are a number of Colorado pro riders lined up to race, including Boulder native Mara Abbott, the first American ever to win Italy's Giro Rosa (formerly called Giro d'Italia Femminile), largely considered the toughest women's stage race in the world. Abbott will be racing on the Colorado-based Amy D. Foundation team in honor of fellow American cyclist Amy Dombroski, who was killed after colliding with a truck while training in Belgium in 2013.
So, the field is stacked and versatile. But the Pro Challenge champion will be the woman who can climb efficiently and sustain speed at high elevation. Remember, the race begins at nearly 10,000 feet.
"Here's the deal," Armstrong says. "You can acclimatize to 7 or 8,000 feet. But 10,000 is special. Unless you live in Breckenridge, you can do your best to acclimatize. I can't say that anybody isn't going to be prepared, but your power is going to decrease by about 10 percent at that elevation.
"If you feel good, the air is thin and it feels fast, you can get cocky with that power. The thing to remember is to not be cocky. Be smart."