|espnW.com: Athlete's Life|
On race day, it's not a good idea to mess with Joanie Caron. As a sprinter for Team Colavita, Caron understands using aggression and self-focus in the final few meters of a race are the only ways to cross the line first. Off the bike, Caron switches gears from hard-core competitor to nurturing helper. Like many other professional female cyclists, Caron has a passion for mentorship, and helping girls get involved in cycling ensures the future of the sport will be stronger, better and faster.
Caron, who is from Rimouski, Quebec, was a nationally competitive middle-distance runner until the age of 18. Waylaid by injury, she took up cycling as a form of cross-training.
"I started doing long rides on the trainer or in the back country on a big heavy mountain bike," she said. "I loved it!"
Caron, now 27, is currently completing a Master's degree in exercise physiology while racing with Team Colavita. But when she was asked to be an ambassador for the 2012 Tour de la relève Internationale de Rimouski, a six-day stage race for up-and-coming junior women, Caron jumped at the chance. The event had more than 50 competitors from the U.S. and Canada, ranging from ages 15-18, and showcased a terrific field of up-and-comers. Caron knew how important this was for women's cycling.
"I was promoting the event to get teams from outside of Canada to take part in the race, and the young U.S. girls who were there loved the experience," Caron said. "I received a lot of support and encouragement from my hometown. I also have been fortunate to have great mentors, whether they are accomplished athletes or coaches. I have few years under my belt and I went through some obstacles [early on], so I think I can be helpful for the girls."
When Caron started in cycling, she relied heavily on tips and pointers from other riders, most of whom were older male athletes. "I was motivated to make my way and become a professional cyclist, and I can understand the will of young girls who have the same feeling, and if it can be a little easier [having a female role model], why not?"
Millie Tanner, 15, of Irvine, Calif., rode in the Tour de la relève Internationale de Rimouski and placed third in the team time trial and second in the team classification for Jet Cycling.
"I definitely look up to female pros," said Tanner, a 10-time state junior champion. "Kristin Armstrong has been a big influence, and Dotsie Bausch is not only an amazing coach, but a good family friend. Amber Neben has given me countless advice that has helped me succeed, and [former U.S. junior champion] Coryn Rivera has helped mentor me in the junior ranks. These are just a few of the dozens of amazing women in cycling who have helped me. I am very grateful to have their support and their mentorship."
In the United States, pro teams like Exergy TWENTY12 are also seeing the benefit of supporting development riders. Exergy has a full pro women's roster that includes three Olympians, and also fields a development team of six U.S. junior riders between the ages of 9 and 18. Exergy is set to double its number of junior riders to 12 in 2013.
"Whether these young athletes become professional cyclists or well-rounded community members, it's all worth it," Exergy team director Nicola Cranmer said. "I love working with juniors, their enthusiasm and excitement is contagious. I'm working closely with [Olympians] Cari Higgins and Kristin Armstrong in 2013, making sure the young athletes are on the right track. It's a winning formula in combining the older juniors with the elite riders, as the juniors learn quickly and the elite riders have to step up their game with these youngsters nipping at their heels."
While junior programs are starting to thrive in the States, young riders in Canada face some select obstacles.
"It is harder for Canadians, especially women, because there are no more Canadian professional teams, and foreign teams aren't keen to open doors for Canadians [often because of travel expenses]," Caron said. "The climate makes it hard to ride all year, especially on the East Coast and center provinces, so girls have to train indoors all winter. I see a lot of talented girls who enter college and have to make choices because of the lack of opportunities [cycling is not a collegiate sport] and they remain stuck at the provincial level."
Which is why Caron champions race opportunities like the Rimouski event, which can be a gateway to national development teams or professional races abroad for young riders. "Basically, when you're Canadian, you have to be always a little stronger, a little tougher, but this makes for strong athletes," she said.
All those involved in supporting the grassroots levels of cycling know the reward is always worth the effort. "Because we all went through obstacles, because we love the sport and have goals and also managed studies, careers, friends, boyfriends, etc.," Caron said. "We can show the next generation that anything is possible.
"Cycling has helped me to know myself better as a person, to be strong in the hard times on the bike [disappointments, crashes], but also off the bike," she added. "I met some of my best friends and my longtime boyfriend. Cycling shows me how important is it to keep a positive attitude in every circumstance and keep working every day to achieve my goals."