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Pedal power: Traffic, Beijing, women’s rides and mega-cyclist Kristin Armstrong

So, I was royally stuck in traffic on I-494 at 5:20 p.m. Tuesday, racing — so to speak — to an interview with Kristin Armstrong.

“This is totally stupid,” I muttered to myself. “I’m on my way to chat with the best woman bicyclist in America, a favorite to win a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics — a cyclist! — and I’m in a $4-per-gallon-


So, once I got there, five minutes late and smelling like pollution, Armstrong and I began to talk about all this. Why not?

She’s in town for the Nature Valley Grand Prix, one of the elite women’s races in the nation. The six-stage race, which begins tonight in St. Paul and wheels around the southern half of the state through Sunday, is part of a larger biking shindig called the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival.

I mean, if there’s any sport that is a vehicle for social content these days, it’s got to be bike racing. It’s not gas-guzzling NASCAR, that’s for sure.

The core of the social content of this Grand Prix is feminism. Race director David LaPorte has found a niche for the 10-year-old event. It’s considered among the nation’s most important for women riders.

A rare race for women
Tuesday night, the festival included a “summit,” a session for women cyclists on issues important to them, such as how to get noticed by pro teams and how to relate to sponsors. LaPorte has helped to develop younger cyclists by bringing in the country’s top college racers, so they can be scouted by professional racing teams. 

There are many reasons Armstrong — a world championship gold, silver and bronze medalist between 2005 and 2007 — is competing in her third straight Nature Valley, winning in 2006 and 2007. It’s well run, she said. Its courses are safe, she said. Volunteers are prepared, she said.

But, also, few races of this caliber and size highlight women, and there just a handful of stage races in the United States for women. (A stage race is a series of different sorts of races over a period of days.)

Kristin Armstrong
Photo by Casey B. Gibson, USA Cycling
Kristin Armstrong

“It’s a huge issue,” said Armstrong, who is no relation to Lance.  “The Tour de Georgia, the Tour of California, these two huge races in America now for men, don’t include a women’s race . . . You already have the roads closed. You have the staff. Run a women’s race.”

LaPorte executes his festival — and, yes, there is a men’s stage race, too — on a shoestring of $350,000 and tons of volunteers. Tour of California, which traverses the state from north to south in February, costs a
reported $7 million to stage.

For men only.

“When I look at that, and hear that the Tour of California has a $7 million budget, it makes me sick to my stomach,” Armstrong said. “Look at how many stage races for women can be put on for less money.”

But, she noted, those better-funded races do attract European cyclists, the crème de la crème. Those athletes are always in pursuit of international cycling points that earn them fame and euros. Nature Valley isn’t on that circuit.

Indeed, when Armstrong was backed by Team Lipton, an American-based team last year, its directors were thrilled she was in Minnesota. This year, she’s racing for Team Cervelo-Lifeforce, a Swiss team. Its managers don’t understand why she’d race at Nature Valley.

“You’re doing what?” they asked her when she said she’d be spending a week in some place callled Minnesota.

China in her sites

But we digress. Let’s get back to traffic jams, fuel and bikes. As in China. That’s where she’ll be in two months, representing the United States in the time trial and road race at the Beijing Olympics. There, the time trial will have the cyclist race individually against the clock on a short, very uphill, relatively turn-free course near the Great Wall. The road race is a hellacious trek from Beijing to the Great Wall.

She visited last December. She’s concerned about the air pollution for the 70-mile road race. She’s concerned about the athletes’ Olympic Village — where she’ll live and breathe for five days before her first race — being smack dab in the heart of Beijing.

“What am I going to do?” she asked before I could. “I totally believe that the Chinese are going to do everything possible,” she said. “When they say they’re going to shut down factories during the Olympics or they’re going to have people stop driving, I think they will. As an athlete, I can only control my controllables.”

Kristin Armstrong, right
Courtesy of the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival
Kristin Armstrong, right, roars through Stillwater during the 2007 Nature Valley Grand Prix.

Before China, there are Cannon Falls and Mankato this week, with road races of 60 and 86 miles, respectively, and shorter, faster rides in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Stillwater. It’s perfect training and perfect timing for Armstrong. It fits so nicely into her Beijing preparation, and it fits into Minnesota’s biking culture.

After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minneapolis has the second-highest percentage of people who bike to work in the nation, behind only Portland, Ore. That number: 2.4 percent of Minneapolis’ 190,000 workers. Or — still not a lot — fewer than 5,000 people.

But this is where we started, in traffic, dirtying the south metro air en route to meeting up with Armstrong at her Bloomington hotel.

She noted that one cycling team, Webcor, is promoting “green” practices. But it sure seems that bike racers could be at the barricades on the matter of all of us biking more to work, to visit Grandma, to pick up a quart of milk at the corner store.

“People are always going to find an excuse to not exercise,” said Armstrong, 5-foot-8, 130 pounds, a portrait of health and fitness, who lives in Boise, Idaho. “But a lot of cities aren’t set up for bikers to avoid traffic. In Boise, I know where to go to avoid traffic, but, if you don’t, of course you’ll be discouraged. You’ll be on a four-lane road with traffic. Of course, you won’t want to commute to work.”

Tell me about it. Our pleasant conversation over, I jumped into my car, turned on the engine and sputtered toward that dastardly freeway. She readied for five days of heavy, non-carbon-aided pedaling.

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