Playing with the big boys: Carmen Small to race in the men’s pro field at North Star Grand Prix

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It’s the day before the start of the North Star Grand Prix and Twenty16 rider Carmen Small is at the airport waiting for her bags.

“I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into!” she exclaims with a nervous giggle. “I just don’t know what to expect.”

Small is not usually this nervous. She has won this five-stage event, formerly known as Nature Valley,  twice and proved at the Pan American Championships and Chrono Gatineau that she is in good form.

But this year’s North Star Grand Prix isn’t like the previous years.  Last month, the race organizers cancelled the women’s pro race due to low turnout.  Despite its longstanding status as one of the top stage races in the country, the organizers struggled to get sponsors on board and the women’s race wasn’t announced until March. By that time, most teams and riders had already filled their schedules.

Except for Small.

Part of the US national team for the women’s team pursuit, Small’s focus had been on the track, followed by the time trial at the Pan American and the US National Championships.

“I didn’t have much of a road schedule planned as I was focusing on the team pursuit. Really, I only had a road schedule up until Nationals, which was one I was targeted to qualify for [the world championships in] Richmond,” she said.

So after a winning performance at Gatineau, Small found herself in great form but without any races to attend.

Meanwhile, just days before the event, Elbowz Racing –a US domestic men’s team owned by Ben Spies –found themselves down one rider. Spies and Small connected and viola!

“It all came together so quickly. It was only decided on Saturday that I’d be racing,” said Small, who will be the only women competing in this NRC-level men’s race.

Under USA Cycling ruling, pro men’s races are open to any rider with a category 1 or professional license, regardless of gender, and Small has received support from the national cycling governing body as well as race promoter, David LaPorte.

“I haven’t heard any negative feedback, so that’s always good,” said Small. “I talked to some of the pro men that will be racing and they’re all super excited.”

“Plus, [this announcement] is bringing a lot of press to the event, and hopefully it will help bring the women’s race back next year,” added Small. “It’s a great stage race the US has and it’s really sad to see it go away. It also leaves a big hole in the calendar. I’d like to see the organization step it up and make it a UCI race for women. That would certainly help get more riders.”

Despite her doing this, Small is by no means promoting to combine women and men’s racing.

“I don’t think women should directly compete with the men. Women’s and men’s racing are different sports and they should have their own fields,” said Small. “This is more just an opportunity for me to get myself prepared for Richmond and it’s great that team Elbowz is allowing me to do that.”

Hanging in with the men will be no easy feat. The North Star Grand Prix features five stages: one time trial, one road race and three criteriums.  The last stage is the Stillwater Criterium, a particularly brutal crit with a trek up the infamous Chilkoot Hill every lap. While relatively short, Chilkoot hill reaches grades steeper than 20 percent.

“I’m nervous for the crits. They’re going to be very, very difficult,” said Small. “I’m a good crit racer in the women’s peloton, but the men are faster, stronger and the races are longer. Stillwater, especially, is a tough race in the women’s field so to hang with the men will be very challenging.”

“­If I can just finish the race and not get time cut on any of the stages, that’ll be huge,” Small continued. “I hope I don’t just get dropped and get blown out of the water. I hope I can hold my own a little bit and make it worth my while coming out here, and get good training and fitness out of it.”

A strong domestic team, Elbowz will be looking for some results and Small is happy to help her guest team in any which way she can.

“If I can help [and survive] that’s even better,” said Small. “­­­If I can contribute in any way, whether that is simply by going to get the bottles in the road race, I’d be happy to do that.”

Many racers and cycling fans will be cheering for Small as she takes on this challenge, and she promised to keep people updated via social media.

Read Carmen’s blog and follow Carmen on Twitter.

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