Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…
Decisions are never easy, or so, that is what we have been told. The anxious moments leading up to finalizing our choice are often just predilections of instantaneously grading our decisions as being good or bad before they are even made. Although the consequences or outcomes of our decisions can be viewed in these terms, more often than not, the choosing turns out to be the simplest part. For this former Stanford swimmer, the decision was not if Amber would jump into the deep end to race in Europe, but more precisely when.
Lenny B (LB): Your excitement is palpable, what have been the reactions to your decision?
Amber Rais (AR): I’ve had a lot of support for this decision, even from my former teams. I think most people around me could see and understand the toll it was taking to be away from home so long.
LB: Your former team, Team TIBCO, now has an international footprint as a UCI team and seems to be growing into a unit that may someday, in the near future, challenge the Women’s World Cup circuit, what were the reasons behind your move?
AR: To achieve my goals, I need to race full time in Europe. It’s that simple. I’ve raced a handful of races in Europe with the US National team over the past couple of years, and those experiences have taught me that to become one of the best, I have to race against the best. This means World Cups and UCI 2.1 stage races, nearly all of which are in Europe, a point made all the more poignant with the cancellation of the Montreal World Cup and Tour.
Of course, my decision bears a personal side as well. My husband and I live in Europe. Our home is in Austria. For most riders, one of the biggest barriers to racing full time in Europe is leaving home and family for months on end. Well, I was doing just that, but in the opposite direction. It made no sense.
LB: The sampling size may be too small to quantitatively state that “US women who make the full commitment to race abroad will find great success,” but from the qualitative end it is hard to argue with the benefits, not to mention the successes that riders like Kristin Armstrong and Amber Neben have garnered. How much did their example influence your decision?
AR: Amber and Kristin have been invaluable sources of support and guidance. When I raced Tour de l’Aude with Amber in 2008, I really picked her brain about American versus European racing. She made the point that each rider has to decide for herself where she wants to race, what she wants from her career. Her words helped me to take a step back and proactively choose the big-picture direction I want for my career.
Kristin has emphasized (in no uncertain terms) the importance of racing full time in Europe; her advice has reinforced my determination. Both she and Amber have been very supportive and encouraging of my decision, and their support means a lot to me.
LB: Because so few American women have committed to race in Europe full-time, do you consider yourself one of the trailblazers, in some respect, or do you get a sense that you are a part of a new wave of American women’s cycling?
AR: Actually, there are many American women who have raced in Europe and who have paved the way for me to be able to follow suit. Inga Thompson, who coincidentally happens to also be from my hometown of Reno, Nevada, is one; then there was the whole T-Mobile women’s team which included riders like Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben, Kim Baldwin, and Dotsie Bausch. American Kristin Lassasso also raced overseas in 2008. And we can’t forget other forerunners like Karen Brems and Christine Thorburn. I would hardly call myself a trailblazer.
I hope that I am part of a new wave of American women’s cycling. This isn’t just about me. This is about developing women’s cycling in America, about bringing our athletes and programs to higher levels. Of course, I am a competitive person and want to leave my mark, but it’s important that people involved in women’s cycling (including athletes) focus not only on expanding their own pieces of the pie, but also on making the whole pie bigger. It’s in cooperative efforts that we will really make a difference in the sport.
Many women’s programs are moving in that direction. Webcor Builders raced part of the 2008 season in Europe as a UCI team, and this season TIBCO is doing the same. Team Twenty-12 is restructuring the traditional relationship between domestic trade teams and the USA Cycling European program, by prioritizing National Team projects over NRC races, which will allow them to better leverage the opportunities afforded by USAC programs.
My hope is that these efforts become more common and more unified. Right now, there are countless people dedicated to elevating women’s cycling in America and abroad, but most of those efforts are isolated and independent of one another. Once we can start to pool resources through more unified collaboration, I think we will start to see big changes and more rapid, positive growth, but that will require a major shift in thinking. Sport brings out the competitive side in most people, but we also need to remember the value in cooperation.
We are all interdependent. The growth and success of our athletes, programs, brands and industry rely upon how effectively we can work together. I believe the greatest growth and progress in women’s cycling will arise from cooperative relationships that explicitly value these connections.
LB: Although you have won a criterium or two in your day, you seem to really excel in road races and stage races. As criteriums seem to be the predominant form of racing in the US, how much of a factor did the style of racing go into your decision?
AR: Actually, the style of racing was a major factor in my decision, but not necessarily as crits versus road races. Instead, it’s more about American versus European style racing. The skill sets and tactics differ considerably between the two pelotons, and when it comes to races like the World Championships and Olympics, well, you can guess which style predominates.
LB: How would you characterize the differences between American and European style racing?
AR: International races in Europe allow far less room for mistakes, both literally and figuratively: literally, because the peloton is bigger and races tighter through narrower roads, affording less room to maneuver; and figuratively, because the depth of the peloton means that one tactical mistake can mean the end of your race. U.S. races allow a little more wiggle-room, if you will. The roads are wider, racers don’t ride so closely, and you can usually recover from mistakes.
In Part III of our interview, we discuss what life is like in Graz and Amber's current condition and future plans.
Photo: Erwin Haiden, nyx.at