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Labecki has never finished off the podium in the road race at the nationals since making her debut in 2015. Most recently, she finished second to Lauren Stephen, who took a breakaway victory by just over a minute in 2021.
The riders will be on familiar territory this weekend with this year the fifth in a row that the nationals have taken place in Knoxville. With her record, the Jumbo-Visma is a sure-fire favorite to make the rostrum again in 2022, but she’s looking for more.
“I know that it really suits me well that course, I think it’s just a matter of how I race, especially alone, and how big American teams will race and who the favorites are,” Labecki told VeloNews as she traveled to the nationals late last week. “Honestly, it suits me really well. I like the finish, the climb is great and the course is hard enough. Also, the weather is hard enough.”
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The national championships will take place over an 11-kilometer course around Knoxville that the women’s field will ride 10 times.
Unlike last year, when she has Megan Jastrab for help, Labecki will have to fend for herself this weekend with no Jumbo-Visma teammates for help. It’s a position that Labecki has become accustomed to in recent years and she’s ready to take on the bigger set-ups.
“I’ve gotten a lot of seconds in the past and most of them were alone without a teammate. So, I guess I know how to race alone. And then sometimes I just need that bit of luck on how the race unfolds to kind of go my way,” she said.
“It’s definitely a huge benefit [to have a teammate]. If you look back on the previous national champions all pretty much had a teammate, I think, except for when Amber Neben won solo. So you can play some different cards, have someone to help control the race for you. Or make the race really hard and counter off them, when Lauren [Stephens] won last year she had a teammate early on, so I think helps a lot. And as a solo rider, sometimes you have to rely on your brute strength and also the strategy that you use.”
Memory lane and bouncing back from COVID
Amidst the second places, Labecki has won the stars and stripes jersey before, and on this Knoxville course. At the time, it was one of the few national titles she hadn’t accrued with a whopping 72 to her name across her time as a junior and a professional.
With the help of teammate Ruth Winder, Labecki was able to bide her time for the sprint finish. She waited until the final corner to launch her sprint for the line. It is a day that Labecki remembers fondly.
“It was a special day. Every year I try to organize nationals myself and I had college friends that were living in Nashville, so they always came out to help in the feed zone. My husband would come out, and my parents surprised me and drove across the country to watch so it was super special,” Labecki said.
“I also had Mike Tamayo in the car, and on the radio in our ears. He was a previous director of mine on UnitedHealthcare. Back then my goal was always to win the U.S. pro road nationals with UHC. I got second twice with the team so to pull it off together [with Tamayo], obviously on a different team, but we still worked together to achieve this goal, was also really special.
“To be wearing the stars and stripes jersey in a more European dominated sport and also racing in Europe is extra special. You get to show it off and it’s just a super, super cool feeling.”
Labecki’s build-up to the nationals hasn’t been ideal after she caught COVID-19 or the second time in the space of four months in May. It meant that she had to take her foot off the gas a while she recovered, but it appears there have been no long-term effects as a result.
Following her break, she returned to racing at RideLondon and then stayed in the UK for the Women’s Tour. There were no big wins for the American but a few top 10 finishes showed that she was moving in the right direction.
Since returning to the U.S., she has had some “stomach issues” but she’s hoping it won’t have hit her too hard.
“This time around I had a few more [COVID] symptoms,” Labecki said of her second bout with COVID. “I was really tired and had a really sore throat, but after a week, everything just kind of went away all at once. So far, I haven’t felt anything more from COVID. I did take a few days easy there, so there’s definitely a loss of fitness. But I’m just kind of like right there, but not in super great form.
“I think I had a really great block out of the UK. There were some hard stages and sprint stages. I’m still pretty optimistic about [the nationals]. It’s a big goal for me every year. So, hopefully, my strategy and my mindset can offset my legs.”