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An interview with Kristin Armstrong, March 1, 2006
Time for a tea break
Kristin Armstrong starts 2006 with a lot of changes. For the first time in her professional career she has switched teams, and looking ahead to Beijing 2008, there's a few other changes in store. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski spoke with Armstrong about this new chapter in her career, how it affects her goals and the state of women's racing in the US.
Kristin Armstrong has had a relatively compact career as a professional cyclist. Forced into cycling out of triathlon in 2001 after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, Armstrong turned pro and landed a spot on the T-Mobile women's team.
In 2002 she survived the menacing La Grande Boucle Feminine and finished seventh in the HP Women's Challenge. She went on to a successful 2003, including 13th at the world championships in the time trial, and in 2004 she won the national road championship.
Late last year the fate of the T-Mobile women's team was quite uncertain, and Armstrong was faced with either waiting out to see if the team would make or finding another ride.
"I started talking with them [T-Mobile] a little, and wasn't sure what was going to happen; we all wanted to keep the doors open," Armstrong explained. "I had heard of TEAm Lipton as a regional team, but didn't hear of it becoming bigger until last August."
"Finding sponsors, sometimes it's like a job!" Armstrong says with a chuckle. "I try to pretend it's not a job. Your friends that don't race professionally say, 'Yeah, you have a rough life - got to go for a ride.' But they have no idea, especially when you wake up and there's snow on the ground."
Then the word that T-Mobile's women's team was going to align more with the European programme gave Armstrong incentive to pursue other domestic options. "As the T-Mobile deal came together it became apparent that the team was mostly going to be based in Europe. At that point, being a national team member, I knew it was in my best interest to find a domestic team and then race internationally with the national team.
"The only professional team I have been on is T-Mobile, so I think it will be nice to change. Sometimes you get in a routine, and you really need to keep things fresh as an athlete - it keeps you motivated and striving for the next step."
However, Armstrong admits that the idea of living and racing in Europe would have been better had it come a few years ago [we know better than to ask a lady how many]. "I think that if I was in my early twenties, I would have moved to Germany in a heartbeat! What I got from my three years with T-Mobile was great. I learned a lot, and the reason for leaving only concerned my personal goals."
Armstrong cites the fact that she can have her cake and eat it to, in terms of domestic and international racing, as a major deciding factor in going with TEAm Lipton. "The first couple of years I was on T-Mobile and it was the national team, so you were always racing with the same girls. But last year was an eye-opening experience. It was a lot of fun racing domestically with your trade team, but you came together with all of your competitors and raced the national team in races."
The national team now will have a variety of girls representing multiple trade teams from the peloton, something Armstrong is looking forward to. "It will be a great mix of people - some girls from Lipton, Colavita and Victory Brewing. It's more fun that way. You really began to appreciate one another a lot more. You become closer friends."
One major aspect of TEAm Lipton is that it purposefully only recruited American racers, with a goal of developing them for the 2008 Olympics. "At first it was going to be a mixed team, but the sponsor wants to focus on getting riders to 2008. If you look at the roster you are going to see a lot of experience and inexperience. I think that not only is the goal to develop riders for 2008 but to develop younger riders to keep going for 2012."
Along with this idea is the long-term nature of the sponsorship agreement, a rarity in cycling for either men or women. "I think it's great for women's cycling that Lipton has come in to provide another trade team. And it is great that Lipton has signed on through to 2008. It's security, and the team won't have to scramble for another sponsor."
Lipton Tea, and it's parent company Unilever, are obviously going to maximize their sponsorship dollar with the team - and have already been doing just that with Armstrong.
"I've been doing a lot of media stuff for Lipton. I was just in North Carolina doing stuff with Kasey Kahne the NASCAR driver. We are doing some cross-promotional stuff. It was pretty cool. It was funny comparing the similarities between racing on two wheels and four wheels. I was mentioning to him that there is drafting and teamwork, but he said that with his team, 'Once you are on the track it is all for yourself!'"
On track with new ventures
Armstrong is expanding her cycling repertoire this season, taking her talents in the time trial and applying them to the track - something that has taken some time to adjust to. "It's been a busy winter. I was at the velodrome for track camp, doing the 3km pursuit," she says, before continuing, "I am going to Australia to race the Geelong Tour, racing the Geelong World Cup and then racing the Sydney World Cup for the track. I'm a little nervous, because nationals is nationals, but the World Cup is out in front of everybody, and it's my debut.
"Part of the trick is trying to decide what gear to use; you finish a race thinking that it was either too small or too big! There's a lot of technique to it, but it doesn't come overnight - that's for sure!"
There is one particular part of track racing that has proven more difficult for Armstrong. "Riding the track with a double disc wheel - it's so hard because it throws you up in the corner! I know that the spoke is not as fast, but it might be faster for me because I don't have the technique to keep the aero wheels down. I'm not used to fighting them. And I can't imagine the Sydney track being outdoors!
" I'm already scared enough of the blue cushions on the inside of the track - the first time you hit one you think you are going to crash, but you don't! I think everyone who starts racing track should ride over one before they race so they know."
Even though the track is new for Armstrong, she is already setting her goals high - both on the track and back on the road. "I would really like to make the world championship team for the track. The second week of March there is a ride-off for the two spots in the pursuit. My second big goal is to win the world championship time trial; last year I was third...so those are my main focuses."
"I'm going to compete through to 2008 - that's when I'll wrap up my career. I want to add the track to my disciplines; I know that I wanted to take this year and focus on seeing if I want to pursue the track for 2008 as well. TEAm Lipton is very supportive of my track and national team committments, which is great. It's what I want to do. I'm also supportive of what the team goals are, which involves doing well on the NRC calendar."
Opportunities for women
With a sponsor like Lipton, as well as others, throwing a significant amount of money into a new trade team for women, one would think that racing for women in the US would be on the rise. But at the same time that new teams are forming, the amount of actual racing is decreasing - a worrysome fact for Armstrong.
"It's amazing. You would think that with a drop in races there would be a drop in sponsorship for teams, and it seems to be going the opposite way - the teams are growing! And the number of riders across America racing is growing, with younger riders starting - I think right now that it's an eye opener with all these races dropping off the calendar."
"It might be time to get the teams together [with the race organisers] and figure out how we're going to get money, and approach race directors that have men's races going on to include women's races. If we are all standing there talking about it, nothing is going to happen.
"It's also partly in the hands of USA Cycling, because women have had success in the past few years at world's and the Olympics, and if they want to keep that going it's just as important to get races as product sponsors. If you don't have races to show the products, then who cares?"
Speaking of products - with a new team comes a new bike, a bright one in this case. "I am riding a Fuji - it's awesome. It's all yellow! We'll be the brightest team out there with yellow bikes, kits and helmets!" And of course, the team will be loaded down with enough tea to fill Boston Harbour.
"Everyone should try the Tea-to-go sticks. You just open it up and put it in your water bottle and shake. It's all different flavours too! Perfect for a water bottle. Just like the Jelly Belly guys, I'll carry some around. Maybe Tina [Pic] will carry some olive oil...we're already talking about it. 'I want some tea... I'll trade you for some olive oil'. If we all come together we might be able to have dinner, with Victory Brewing bringing the beer!"