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An interview with Laura Van Gilder
How fast (or far) can I go?
New Saturn signing Laura Van Gilder is fast. So fast in fact that she won this year's Pro Cycling Tour without really trying. And as Anthony Tan discovers, she can also hold her own in an arm wrestle. Now that's talent!
A number of preconceptions enter my mind before I phone Laura Van Gilder.
You see a sprinter's aggression on the bike and straightaway you imagine it is going to be the same off the bike. Maybe it's also got something to do with those photos I saw of her recently, arm-wrestling with Becky Conzelman.
However, what I hear is a calm, softly spoken voice - though not timid in any way - and at the same time, I am both relieved and pleasantly surprised.
First question: "How's the shoulder feeling?"
"It's feeling fine," laughs Van Gilder. "It was all in good fun and for a good cause; we're both built the same and pretty muscular women, so everyone got a hoot out of that in our evening wear!"
Last weekend's Nicole Reinhart Foundation Dinner Dance was something close to Van Gilder's heart. Reinhart, a former professional with Team Saturn, and Van Gilder lived near one another, racing together for several years before Reinhart was killed in tragic circumstances. "We sort of secretly cheered each other on, even though we were trying to win races against one another," says Van Gilder. "It's still a hard thing to accept thing to accept that she's gone and the circumstances surrounding it."
Something Van Gilder also has trouble understanding is her phenomenal success this season. Consistently winning national level events, including the San Rafael Classic and the overall in the Pro Cycling Tour at 37 years old - the latter event without really trying at first - is no mean feat, and describes her rise as a "breakthrough".
"Physically, I have to say I'm surprised that I managed to make a breakthrough this year with my sprinting and climbing. I kind of thought I was at the peak of my physical capabilities, so it was awesome to have that breakthrough and continue to improve," she says.
Like many athletes who do not originate from the heartland of cycling in Europe, Laura Van Gilder entered the sport of cycling just for kicks. "I only participated in fringe sports, but I never really found my niche." She began riding by participating in fundraising rides for multiple sclerosis - an affliction carried by her mother, and cruised around on a mountain bike, racing occasionally at the sport level.
On one ride, she met a guy (who still is her guy, adds Laura). This guy, Rick Ball, was a Cat 2 racer, and knew immediately he was onto a good thing. Rick saw both a kind heart and a potential sprinting superstar.
The latter is exactly what Van Gilder has developed into. In her first season, she went in 70 races, and was successful right away. At 5'2" and 130 pounds, the pocket rocket from Cresco, PA, maintained her success as she galloped through the ranks - quickly moving from a Cat 4, to 3, to 2 - turning professional in 1992 for Navigators, where her ambitions moved in line with her success.
Van Gilder says she has always wanted to win the Pro Cycling Tour. This year, however, she knew it was going to be difficult. Her race schedule conflicted with one of the eight events she was likely to do well in; and with the World Road Championships on a parcours tailor-made for sprinters, the Pro Tour was, on more than one occasion, placed on the backburner.
Explains Van Gilder, "I had to keep racing to get the results in order to be selected, and maybe in the end I wore myself a little thin. Next year, that's going to change."
"We'll talk more [with Saturn Team Manager Giana Roberge] at our training camp in January, but they're really looking at winning the overall in the Pro Tour, as well as topping the National Series again and being the dominant team in the US. Those goals have always been high on my list, so it's a good fit - and with the team they've brought on for next year, I think that's certainly achievable," she says.
Asked if she envisages any potential conflict with a number of other sprinters on Team Saturn, notably Ina Teutenberg, Van Gilder dismisses the thought, revealing she's in fact excited to be racing with a sprinter the calibre of Teutenberg. Furthermore, Van Gilder rightly mentions the team has always had more than one sprinter - which has never hurt their ability to win before.
So does she consider having a "breakthrough" year at 37 years old a touch odd?
While it was a surprise, Van Gilder says she's not necessarily shocked. She cites Jeannie Longo as inspiration for her continued passion in the sport, and with Mario Cipollini crowned World Champion at age 35, Van Gilder doesn't see why she won't have at least another five good years ahead of her.
"It's inspiring to line up against riders like Jeannie Longo and see her riding people off her wheel at age 43," she says, her tone one of admiration. "It's hard to put a number on it, but I still have a lot of passion cycling and I don't feel like I'm placing my career on hold, so those things aren't dictating my time in the sport."
"If I can really focus and stay true to the sport, I believe there's goals out there that I can achieve which initially I didn't think were possible."
You go girl!
Editor's note: Laura Van Gilder will be writing a diary exclusively for Cyclingnews.com in 2003.