With the “shrinking globe,” an American woman plying her trade in Europe is not as much of a cultural oddity as it may have been in the past. But an American woman racing her bicycle on the European circuit full-time, well that is another story.
American women racing in Europe is not a wholly new phenomenon. In fact, their history is replete with extraordinary talent and amazing achievements. The inaugural Grand Boucle, known at the time as the Tour de Feminin, the female equivalent to the Tour de France was won by an American. Marianne Martin captured the then 18 stage, 616-mile race in 29 hours, 39 minutes, and 2 seconds. She would share the podium in 1984 with fellow American Deborah Shumway, who finished third on the General Classification, and the stage with the third placed finisher of the men’s race, a young Greg Lemond.
But despite their great successes, the progression of American women into the European theatre has fluctuated and lagged considerably behind that of American men.
The financial disparity between the genders is without doubt a major contributing factor to the lack of egress from the United States to Europe. While their male counterparts have made places like Girona, Spain a temporary haven during the European season, American women lacked the means to maintain a foothold in two continents or even a consistent European race schedule. One of our country’s most decorated cyclists, Kristin Armstrong, had to make some hard decisions while shaping her illustrious career, often times straddling both canoes, so to speak, to maintain her life’s balance. Additionally, the opportunities for American women to race abroad, until recently, were sorely lacking. In 2008, that all changed. Buoyed by the accomplishments by riders like Amber Neben and Amstrong, among others, on the international stage, the USA Cycling Development Program revamped its program to provide its female riders with more opportunities to race overseas.
Amber Rais is one of the products of that renewed emphasis by USA Cycling. A standout on American soil as part of Webcor Builders and more recently Team TIBCO, and a dynamic performer for the US National team, Amber is the latest American racer to test her skills full time in Europe, racing for the Austrian based KUOTA Speed Kueens.
Need For Speed
Although KUOTA Speed Kueens is a new name to women’s cycling, its basis is the UNIQA-ELK squad, which ultimately was a consolidation of two Austrian teams Team UNIQA Graz and ELK Haus. The team is managed on the road by Klaus Kabasser and features a great mixture of veteran riders, such as Bernadette Schober and Daniella Pintarelli, and youth. At 29, Amber is one of the older riders on the team, but she will also rely on her new teammates and manager to navigate the European circuit.
Lenny B (LB): How did your transfer ultimately come about? Were you looking at any other European based teams?
Amber Rais (AR): I approached this season with an attitude of Europe or bust. I have good relationships with U.S. directors and riders and had several good offers, but to race another full season in the states, trying all the while to negotiate limited opportunities to race in Europe, would have perpetuated the circumstances I wanted to change.
To commit to racing in Europe required a leap of faith. The European teams and directors didn’t know me as a rider, so even with good palmares from the US, there was no guarantee anyone would sign me. When everyone else was signing contracts in the US (a process akin to Musical Chairs), I had to stay true to my goals and believe that it would work out, and it has, thanks to a lot of folks who helped me through the process.
I could not be happier with my situation now. The KUOTA Speed Kueens team is based in Graz, where I live, so I can be home between races, instead of couch-surfing. Plus, our team manager, Mag. Klaus Kabasser, has a good relationship with the US National Team Director, Manel Lacambra, so the two of them work out my schedule. Now I am racing all of the UCI calendar races I have always wanted to race. The only question is whether I will do a particular race with KUOTA Speed Kueens or with the National Team, which is easily settled between Manel and Klaus; whereas before, I had to negotiate for permission to accept what European race opportunities I was offered, which made what should have been a simple planning process extremely stressful.
Racing for KUOTA Speed Kueens is a huge step forward for me. The team infrastructure, as Uniqa-Elk, has been racing the World Cup circuit for a long time and has a ton of international experience, and this year’s team is great mix of both young and experienced riders. I want to learn and contribute as much as I can. Hopefully they’ll forgive my schlechtes Deutsch and teach me a little more Austrian dialect too!
LB: What, if any, do you see as the biggest challenge(s) to racing in Europe?
AR: The international races in Europe are hard, because the fields are bigger and have more depth than any other races in the world. The biggest challenge for me will be to learn the peloton – the racers, tactics and dynamics. That said, I have eliminated a lot of the obstacles most American riders face when coming to Europe. I have a home base here that is really, truly a home, where I know the roads and have family and friends. Being able to come home between races will really help my recovery and minimize the time I have to live out of a bag.
In Part II of Graz's American Speed Kueen, we discuss some of the reasons behind Amber's decision to race overseas, and in Part III, Amber provides us a snapshot of what her life is like in Austria.
Photos: Erwin Haiden, nyx.at