The women went down in groups, tipping over like dominoes. They went down solo, sliding painfully across the pavement. They went down during the first stage, and they went down a mile from the finish. They bruised hips and shoulders and calves and thighs. Jacinta Coleman broke her right wrist in five places. Pam Schuster gashed her face. Wheels were potato-chipped; helmets cracked. Karen Kurreck crashed three times. Juli Furtado, twice.
It was abundantly clear that the Power-Bar International Women's Challenge bicycle race, held in Idaho and Utah over 13 days and 650 miles last June, was not a ladylike competition. "Not one bit," boasted Jim Rabdau, the 62-year-old former Green Beret who founded the Women's Challenge in 1984 to help raise the status of women's bicycle racing.
Until three years ago, in fact, the race was considered so strenuous that the Union Cycliste Internationale, bicycle racing's worldwide governing board, refused to sanction it. In a 1990 memorandum, UCI listed six reasons for its refusal, including the race's "excessive number of stages" over "excessive individual stage distances" with "excessive climbing" for an "excessive duration."
The response by the Women's Challenge? The race directors printed T-shirts that read LET'S GET EXCESSIVE IN IDAHO and kept right on going.
"We were the first women's road race in the U.S. to have a stage longer than 70 miles," says Rabdau. "We were the first to have a stage longer than 80. We were first at 90 and first at 100. When UCI decided not to sanction us, I decided to ignore UCI. Let the women vote with their bikes, I said. If they don't like the race, they won't show up. We never changed a thing, and UCI finally got the message."
The race was eventually sanctioned by UCI iii 1995. which helped to attract more European teams. And now, along with the women's Tour de France, the Challenge offers the most grueling test in women's road racing. Though this year's race, to be held June 22-29 and to be sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, has been shortened to eight stages in Idaho, it will cover 400 miles and have 15,000 feet of climbing. And the $100,000 in prize money, unchanged from last year, is the largest purse in U.S. women's cycling.
Last year's Challenge, with a combined 17,000 feet of climbing over 12 stages, attracted LOO racers from 10 countries. The race began near Boise, Idaho, on June 18 with a short (1.7 mile) time trial and then moved to the road for stages of 40, 60 and 75 miles on consecutive days. The peloton sped through sagebrush rangeland and over snow-streaked passes amid the Sawtooth Mountains.
The first few days established the leaders: teams from the U.S., Australia, Canada and Lithuania. Australia's Kathy Watt, 32, the short-tempered winner of the Olympic road race in Barcelona in 1992, took the opening time trial. The U.S. team dominated the first road-racing stage, putting three riders in the top four. The next morning, June 20, the Americans maintained their momentum, and 27-year-old Alison Dunlap broke the tape.
"The Women's Challenge might be the hardest race in the world—and I don't just mean bicycling," said Dunlap, who was involved in a gruesome crash in the 1994 Challenge in which she broke three teeth. She got back on her bike, completed the stage, had root-canal surgery in the afternoon and finished ninth in that evening's time trial. "We're going 25 or 30 miles per hour, with our wheels an inch apart, swerving around potholes and gravel and cars. There are constant near wrecks," she said. "You always have to think strategy. Look down for an instant and you'll miss the breakaway. Every day I ride to complete exhaustion, then I wake up the next morning and ride again. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that everyone feels just as crappy as me."
The two stages on June 23 and 24 threaded through northern Utah,, where temperatures rose into the 90s and the headwinds were unrelenting. Here Rasa and Jolanta Polikeviciute, 26-year-old identical twins from Lithuania, showed their mettle. Because of insufficient funding, the Lithuanian team's bicycles were technologically inferior to those of the other top riders, yet a third of the way through the Challenge. Rasa was first overall and Jolanta was second, only 12 seconds behind.