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Starting her second season with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, 35-year-old Lauren Hall secured a tremendous victory at last week’s Gent-Wevelgem. Often referred to as a “sprinter’s classic” due to its flat finish, Gent-Wevelgem introduced a women’s race in 2012. Hall arrived in Europe merely two days before lining up at the start — and while she noted that she came to the start with high expectations for herself, personally, there was no real pressure at such an early-season race. Instead, the woman VeloNews dubbed as a rider to watch in 2013, won in Wevelgem out of an eight-rider breakaway.
VeloNews caught up with Hall after her victory, ahead of this weekend’s women’s Tour of Flanders, where several American riders — Alexis Ryan, Maura Kinsella, Lauren Komanski, Ruth Winder, and Kathryn Donovan — will again compete for the U.S. national team, rather than for their individual trade teams. (Americans Evelyn Stevens and Carmen Small will also compete, for Specialized-lululemon.)
Hall shared her feelings about winning on the cobbles, her thoughts about the upcoming season, and her biggest goal, the 2016 world championships.
VeloNews: Going into last week’s race (Gent-Wevelgem) did you have any expectations or did it all just come together?
Lauren Hall: I did have expectations for myself. I really wanted to make the road worlds team last year and it didn’t work out, so that drove me into the winter to push the envelope a little more coming into the spring. My coach, Michael Engleman, usually has me race into fitness. We would do some intensity before racing, but not much. Even this winter I didn’t push it that hard, I just rode a bunch instead of going to the track, or going to Tucson for three weeks. It just happened that I rode a bunch. I wouldn’t say I’m in top form right now, but I’m not unfit either. Coming in I knew I was on pretty good form from last year. I put the pressure on myself to do well in Europe. It’s my third year at the classics — first with Team Tibco and then with USA Cycling. I wanted to do well for my team, and myself and show the girls what I can do. I just have to be in the right spot. [U.S. national team director Jack Seehafer] didn’t put any pressure on us since it was two days after flying, he just wanted us to get our legs ready, get used to the cobbles, and see what comes out of it.
VN: Does the entire team have high expectations with the classics?
LH: [Kevin Field, Optum’s women’s performance manager, and Pat McCarty, assistant women’s team director] are new to women’s cycling and I think after Jade [Wilcoxson] and Brianna [Walle] both crashed here, they thought, “oh boy,” and were a bit concerned. They were definitely a bit surprised, and they are very excited. I’m happy that they’re happy — you always want to make your bosses happy!
VN: Going into Tour of Flanders this weekend, what are your thoughts?
LH: It’s going to be a completely different peloton — it will have all the big hitters. So it’s just one step at a time. We previewed the course, so just being in the best position I can be is goal number one. My teammates are a good group of girls, they’re very comfortable in this kind of peloton. I’ll be there for them, they’ll be there for me and then hopefully making it to the end and reassess what’s going on, and see what we can do with what we’re left with. I don’t know about putting high expectations or any pressure on myself again because you can look at how many people have done this race and see that it’s hard to have a result here.
VN: How many Optum riders are racing in Europe right now? Are you all working together, or does each girl have a specific role?
LH: I’d probably say I’m the lead rider, but that’s not to say Alexis [Ryan] isn’t a contender. She’s up there with results. It really comes down to the end — Jack has always told us to talk amongst ourselves, we’re professional, and we know if we have the legs or not. I’d think initially the game plan would be to work for me, but there’s no telling about how it could go since it’s a one-day race. Regardless, it’s a win for the team.
VN: Is U.S. road nationals your biggest goal for the season?
LH: Worlds, actually. It’s the team’s biggest goal — the team time trial. Making the worlds team is definitely one of my biggest goals. Winning nationals would be a spot for worlds, but that isn’t necessarily my biggest goal.
VN: You mentioned you went into last week’s race feeling more fit than in the past after winter training. What was different about this winter?
LH: It’s structured, but I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do this winter because I was interested in the pursuit program with the track. Our schedules never met up, so I never went to the track and just kept riding my bike a bunch. I took proper time off in October to spend time with the family and all the non-cycling things I needed to do to get ready for 2014. 2016 [Olympic Games] is coming fast and you back up races and back up training, and all of that prep has already started with this year, so I’m keeping that in mind. I’m looking out and seeing 2016 and then taking a step back to see what’s right in front of me. My training was about getting serious — it’s been fun, I’ve learned, I’ve experienced, I’ve been a domestique. Now it’s time to do those same races, and win.
VN: Is 2016 going to be your final year racing?
LH: Yeah, I think so. I’m going to be 38 — that would probably be the peak of my performance, like Kristin Armstrong. It seems like the time to call it quits. If this [Gent-Wevelgem win] is the best result I ever get, I’m pretty damn happy. I don’t know what to expect from here on out but I look back and I think about how I was with Vera Bradley and Colavita and then you’re just around such amazing athletes, and then with Tibco, they just threw us in the fire in Europe. I remember my first race over here and I just thought, “really? This is what they want me to do?” I thought I had carpal tunnel from braking so much during those races. You get back to the States and you just want to go back and do it again for some reason. To experience Flanders, La Flèche Wallonne, and some of those races with so much history — it makes you feel like a million bucks. Even if you’re dead last, people are still cheering you on. You really feel like you’re part of something.