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An interview with Hanka Kupfernagel, November 1, 2007

The icing of the cake

Hanka Kupfernagel had one goal in mind this year, to win the time trial gold medal at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. With determination and the right preparation she managed to deliver an impeccable ride to beat defending champion Kristin Armstrong. Kupfernagel told Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake how she did it.

Hanka Kupfernagel (Germany) grits her teeth
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33 year-old Hanka Kupfernagel stunned the road racing world when she took the gold medal in the time trial in Stuttgart. More noted for her skills in cyclo-cross, where she has gained three World Championships and sat atop the UCI rankings in 2006-2007, Kupfernagel is an extraordinarily versatile rider who has had success on the road, track and mountain bike as well.

Kupfernagel, a silver medalist in the 2000 Olympic road race in Sydney, Australia, had proven herself on the road before she switched her main focus to cyclo-cross after her success in Sydney. Along with numerous German road race championships, she also demonstrated her abilities against the clock by winning German title in 2002. She also had good performances in 2006, finishing third in the 21-kilometre time trial of the Tour de Feminin - Krasna Lipa in the Czech Republic and fourth in stage four of the Thüringen-Rundfahrt, a race held on the streets where she grew up.

Kupfernagel didn't have a chance to show her skills at last year's Worlds, as she did not get an invitation from the German coach, Jochen Dornbusch. This year, she put all her energy into making the team so she could race in her native Germany. Stuttgart is only a couple of hours drive from her adopted domicile near Freiburg, in southwestern Germany. The whole year was dedicated to the time trial, and Kupfernagel kept focused her training to peak for the race in late September.

The preparation, which included stage races with the national team and motorpacing while riding her time trial bike, paid off. The first big success was the time trial win in stage 4a of the Emakumeen Bira, near Bilbao in northern Spain. "It was my first international time trial win," Kupfernagel explained why this victory was so important. She then confidently tackled her next goal, the national time trial championship. The race was held shortly after the Emakumeen Bira, on June 24. Kupfernagel won the black-red-gold jersey ahead of Charlotte Becker. With that goal reached, she went into the road race a week later with less pressure.

"In August I saw a shooting star and wished for the win."

-But Kupfernagel trained hard to not leave anything to chance.

Not having a team, though, proved to be a disadvantage on the hilly course in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt. She narrowly missed out on the podium, getting fourth, but her performance did not go unnoticed. "The national coach told me that I was the strongest out there," Kupfernagel was satisfied with her performance. With the first phase of the races completed and successes achieved, she lowered the training intensity in order to recharge her batteries for the final push towards the gold at Worlds.

The next phase was going back to doing stage races as preparation. Kupfernagel was able to improve on last year's performance in the Tour de Feminin - Krasna Lipa and won the time trial. She then did the Albstadtrennen, a three-day stage race for women in southern Germany. That event provided her with two benefits. For one, she knew she was on track to a good performance for her season highlight after she won the opening prologue. But she also took advantage of the geographical proximity to Stuttgart to check out the Worlds course. Her idea not being unique, she encountered top British rider Nicole Cooke and the Norwegian national team on the streets of Baden-Württemberg's capital as well.

Kupfernagel with the gold medal
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Kupfernagel had been informed about the route by a friend who participated in a Jedermanrennen, an event open to all non-licensed people. It was held the same weekend when the course was host the German U23 championships. The fact that the young men's category was the only one to compete on the Worlds course raised the German's eyebrows. "Why weren't the races of other categories held there as well?" she asked. "It was such a good opportunity wasted. You don't have the World Championships in your country very often. It was something we as the host nation could have benefitted from," she explained that being able to test the course under race conditions would have been a big advantage. "To me, that was a blunder by the national federation."

Kupfernagel then wanted to spend the last four weeks with approximately the same preparation that worked so well for her prior to the German national time trial championships. But it proved to be rather difficult. There were no suitable races. The one race that could have been beneficial was the Ladies Expert Tour in Holland, but the German national team did not participate. Kupfernagel has several sponsors like Focus, which provides the bikes, but she is not part of a team per se. In the Albstadtrennen she managed to be able to race for Team Charlottenburg, but these opportunities don't always come about. "I looked up and down that calendar, but there was nothing," Kupfernagel was frustrated with the situation. Not wanting to jeopardize her chances by altering her final preparation phase, "I decided to do my own races, in the mountains of the Black Forest."

She did very intense sessions with a local training group, simulating the hardness of the races as best as she could. On some sessions up the local peaks she would get 1,500 to 1,700 metres of climbing in. But the lack of real competition got to her and after the road race calendar did not have any of the back to back races she needed, so she started studying the mountain biking schedule. And sure enough, she found a race in central Germany and entered. "There were a lot of people telling me that I am crazy to do a mountain bike race, three weeks before the Worlds," Kupfernagel revealed. But the event proved to be a success. "The first day was a 30-kilometre individual time trial," where the racers started in one-minute intervals. The distance was about the same as for the race of the truth in Stuttgart, but the intensity, with lower gears and more changes in terrain, and the finishing times were of course very different.

Not surprisingly Kupfernagel won the women's category by some seven minutes and still had enough left for the cross-country event the next day. Her time trial performance would have netted her fourth place in the men's category, and needless to say she won the women's cross-country event as well. The conclusion was entirely positive. "It was a very nice event. I enjoyed it so much, I may do it again next year."

Returning to the Black Forest, a few more weeks of training were in store. "Knowing the Stuttgart course allowed me to pick a route at home that offered a similar profile." And that route was mostly done with her road bike. "When I was doing motor pacing sessions I used the time trial bike, but other than that I wasn't really on it that often."

Kupfernagel was very emotional
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Finally September 26, the big day, came. The first thing Kupfernagel did when she got up at 7:00 was to hit the rollers for 20 minutes to get her blood circulation going before heading to breakfast. Then it was off to the race site, where another half hour of intense warm-up was followed by last minute preparations, like putting on a fresh bike outfit and getting the radio installed.

She rolled up to the start ramp and at 13:13:30 local time she took off, albeit from a different place where she expected to after her initial reconnaissance ride. "I thought the start would be where the finish is, so I had trained for explosive take-offs on an uphill. But instead they took the spice out of it by having the start at the top of the climb."

Her partner and coach Mike Kluge, a three-time World cyclo-cross champion himself, was in the car behind her. "I was very nervous, but it got even worse when after 500 metres the radio failed. We did not have contact for the entire race!" And there was something important to tell the rider. "I wanted her to take a slightly different line. I think she could have been faster."

There was no hesitation in Kupfernagel's answer about the toughest part of the course. "Doing the full hill when finishing the first lap and entering the second was hard." After 34 minutes and 43 seconds she hit the finish line, but the day wasn't over yet. An agonizing wait of almost two hours ensued. Due to the start order, which other riders had questioned, the German started very early, in the first block of riders out of four. Initially, she wasn't happy about it, but it dawned on her during the wait that "it was the best advertisement. I was sitting there for more than 90 minutes," she smiled on the fact that the focus was on her for an extended period of time. "Even friends from Belgium and the Netherlands called and told me what great exposure it was. Unlike in Germany, where only the regional channel, SWR, had extended coverage, cycling nations like Belgium broadcast all day."

The one thing that was hard for her was "to give a 120 percent, and then come to a cold stop." Fortunately, Kluge managed to slip in the rollers into the hot seat area, where the top three had to wait until the event was over. "I was able to cool down a bit, that was good." The occupiers of the seats next to hers kept changing, giving her the chance to chat to different people.

Kupfernagel with the medal
Photo ©: Sirotti
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When Armstrong reached the finish and the clock showed a time of 35'07"26, the tension that had built over several months was over and she and Kluge hugged amid tears of joy. To have won was overwhelming and while she had hoped for it, she couldn't be certain. "In August I saw a shooting star and wished for the win, but that it really happened, it's just incredible." On a perfect day it didn't matter that she may have lost seconds because of a malfunctioning radio contact and she won by more than 20 seconds.

After such a stunning success, it would be reasonable to expect her to ease up for the road race, but the ever competitive Kupfernagel was determined to help her country win a medal in that event. In the past she had been accused of not always being a team player. Two days ahead of time Dornbusch told her that she'd be used in the latter part of the race, to help Judith Arndt and Trixi Worrack achieve a medal. So it came as a big surprise to her when on the eve of the race she was told to chase down early breakaways, together with German champion Luise Keller.

The 33 year-old explained that "usually, young riders are being asked to do the early grind. I was surprised that I had to do the work of a young rider. Then I was really stuck. If I had said something, people would have again told me that I am not a team player." An additional problem was that she still felt the time trial in her legs and it was harder for her to do strong efforts so early in the race, before she could really find her legs.

The race didn't go so well for the German squad, with Worrack the best placed finisher of the team, in 18th place. Arndt wasn't particularly lucky, having crashed twice, but Kupfernagel explained her inability to provide any help in the end, "I had left all my energy in the early part of the race. I am not Superman."

Being out of contention at the end did provide one benefit, as Kupfernagel luckily avoided crashing with many of the riders when a barrier from the left hand side of the road was blown into the women's peloton. Kupfernagel was "just taking a breather, after riding an attack just before that. So I was towards the back of the field, and also on the right hand side. It didn't affect me at all."

With her ride, Kupfernagel quieted the critics, fulfilling her team role to perfection and chasing everything down that was moving clear a few metres off the front. Dornbusch had told her "that I did my job perfectly." But the team couldn't be satisfied with the result and after the race they got together to discuss what happened and in the follow-up discussion everybody weighed in. Kupfernagel thought that maybe "they [the coaches] didn't have faith that I would ride for the team in the end. At any rate, they made a decision and it was their choice. I hope I have shown I can be trusted to do my job." The German added that her team-mates "Luise Keller and Claudia Häussler backed me up, too. They didn't understand what that talk about me not being a team player was all about." In the end, she said, "I have my medal. The mistakes and bad luck wasn't in my hands."

Hanka Kupfernagel looks ahead to the Olympics now
Photo ©: Robin Haake
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The days after the World Championships were quite hectic, with a short trip home, before hitting some sponsor commitments and then heading back to the Stuttgart area. The couple took part in the inaugural event Wir helfen Kindern (We help kids). The event was meant to raise money for disabled children and the response was overwhelming. Both participated in the 100-kilometre event as team captains, overseeing about 20 to 25 recreational riders. "The first 40 kilometres we took it easy, so some recreational riders overdid it a bit," Kupfernagel smiled about the fact that some learned the difference between recreational and professional riding.

Kluge weighed in that "it was a great event, bringing top riders like [Stefan] Schumacher, [Andreas] Klöden, [Jens] Voigt and Hanka. It's a very good concept." Both emphasized the fact that it was a very sympathetic charity event, and the spectator turnout was great.

With that event done there was finally some time for a week-long vacation in southern Spain, "but we played beach volleyball all the time," the freshly crowned time trial champion laughed at how she still would do physical activity. She nonetheless had a restful three weeks, virtually not touching her bikes before it was time for her beloved 'cross season again. She initially wanted to skip cyclo-cross, but will once again hit the muddy courses, albeit riding fewer events than in the past. Kupfernagel wasn't hopeful about her chances at the Worlds in Treviso. "Last season [in the Treviso World Cup], there were eight of us sprinting for victory. The course just isn't hard enough. But maybe they will still change it a bit for the Worlds. As we raced it, it was more like a criterium in the woods."

But a bigger goal is looming next season anyway and she will have to do the meticulous preparation all over again. The dream of winning a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has entered her mind. And when she puts her head down to a major goal, chances are she will succeed, even if there aren't any shooting stars around.