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The 2017 Amgen Breakaway from Heart Disease Empowered by SRAM (a.k.a the Women’s Tour of California) saw a great battle between the American UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team (UHC) and the Dutch Boels-Dolmans squad – a battle that came down to just one single second in the final stage of the four-day event.
While Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) ended up winning the battle, Katie Hall and her blue UHC squad were a worthy runner-up. UHC placed two riders in the top 5 of the GC – Katie Hall and Ruth Winder – and took home the Queen of the Mountain jersey (Katie Hall), the Most Courageous Rider jersey (Rushlee Buchanan) and the Team Competition award.
Already dominant in the US, the blue squad proved that they are a force to be reckoned with on the world stage as well.
And a big part of the team’s success this season has been 23-year-old Ruth Winder.
A multi-discipline rider, Winder spent most of last year on the track, preparing with the US national team for the Rio Olympic Games. Winder was part of the American team pursuit roster, but did not make the selection for Team USA’s silver medal ride against Great Britain. Now the Olympic trackie has returned to road racing and UHC and she couldn’t be happier.
“Making the Olympic team was such a big goal for such a long time. And now that I’ve done it, I wouldn’t say that I have not thought beyond it, but I have just been focussing on today and what makes me happy today rather than a big, huge goal at the end of the year,” Winder told Ella CyclingTips.
“For right now I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing.”
And a happy cyclist makes a winning one.
Winder kicked off the season in Australia where she netted a second place finish at Cadel’s Great Ocean Race behind Dutch powerhouse Annemiek van Vleuten. Stateside, she spent the spring building up her palmares with wins at the prestigious Joe Martin Stage Race (including three of the four stages and the overall), the youth classification at Tour of the Gila, and the overall at Redlands. At the women’s Tour of California last week, she finished fifth in the overall after taking fourth in the first two stages; her best Women’s WorldTour results to date.
“[The early success] was a surprise for me, but it was a really cool way to start the season. And then I came back home and started with the U.S. stuff and that’s been been going really well so far,” said Winder.
The secret to her success? A mature perspective, a good team and a smile on her face.
While still young enough to vie for young rider jerseys, the British-born American has been racing the national and international circuits since she was just a teenager, taking out the junior national road championships on a whim.
It was 2009 and Winder had just gotten her start in cycling.
“My mom had bought a new bike and so I started riding her old bike. Nationals that year were in Bend, Oregon, which is a relatively close drive from where we were living in NorCal so my dad was like ‘let’s just go!’ so we did and I won the junior road race at 16,” Winder recalled.
“That’s what got me hooked. When you have success immediately it’s easy to get going, but it was also the fact that my parents were [cycling] and it allowed me to spend a bit more time with them.”
As part of USA Cycling’s endurance track program, several more national and Pan American titles and medals followed, driving Winder to skip college and go straight into a professional cycling career.
The same, but different
In 2014, she found a home at Rachel Heal’s UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling, her first “big team” but left to follow her Olympic track goals.
Being back in blue is the same yet also very different, Winder said. “There’s been a lot of changes within myself.”
“In 2014, it was the first time I’d been on a big pro team and so I was just excited about everything going on and I was so new to everything. It’s not that I’m less excited now – it’s just different because I have seen more. I think that I’ve grown up a lot in the year previous.”
The lead-up to Rio, Winder said, was all-consuming with an unsatisfying ending of not getting to ride in the final. But instead of falling into a dip after Rio, Winder has gained a new perspective on racing.
“There is a lot that goes into an Olympic year. It was all focused on one specific event, and then suddenly it’s over,” Winder shared. “I knew my career wasn’t going to be over after Rio, but I needed to take a step back and see [racing] in a different light instead of having tunnel vision on one goal.”
“I think that taking a step back and putting a smile on my face a little more frequently is good for me.”
UHC and road racing is giving her that opportunity with plenty of success to smile about.
“I’m really enjoying being back on the road and having some success, and just having a good time,” said Winder.
That’s not to say that Winder will never return to track racing, however.
“I get asked a lot about my future on the track, and I think right now I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t know that that means I will never go back to the track – I think that’s something I’ll have to talk to the national team about, and just think about a bit more,” she said.
Medals, rainbows and other dreams
But while Winder is focusing on the now, her newfound success has got others looking forward. With riders like Evelyn Stevens, Mara Abbott and Kristin Armstrong now retired, the US national selection for the 2017 UCI Road World Championships could use some strong young talent.
“Rainbows, medals, Olympics – of course I have all of those dreams, but I really wanted to enjoy bike racing for what it is at the moment,” explained Winder.
“Of course, as I’m coming into more races and having more success on the road, I maybe should start thinking about what it takes to be on the Worlds team because that would be really awesome.”
For now, however, the Colorado resident is enjoying some well-deserved downtime with her parents in California before the summer kicks off with events like the USA Cycling national championships and a block in Europe that will see UHC competing at Thuringen.
“I was going over to Europe with the national team every spring since I started racing pretty much, so I do really enjoy racing in Europe. I hear Thuringen is really cool so I’m excited for that,” said Winder.
QUICK FIRE ROUND OF QUESTIONS
Ella: What’s one race that isn’t on your calendar right now that you wish you could do?
Winder: “We didn’t get into the Giro, but I have done it twice before and it’s special in many ways …
There are also some local races like Cherry Pie in NorCal that I don’t do any more but that are some of my favorites.”
Ella: If you weren’t a professional cyclist, what would you be doing?
Winder: “Graphic Design or something like that. As a young child, a job at Pixar would have been the coolest thing.”
Ella: You were homeschooled growing up, what was that like?
Winder: “Yes, I was homeschooled 4th grade through high school. I remember not being excited about it at first but there are quite a lot of families that home school in NorCal so I never had a shortage of friends or anything like.”
Ella: You started riding while living in Lafayette, what’s your favorite ride around these parts?
Winder: “The Oakland-Berkeley hills. We used to ride the same loop every Sunday.”
Ella: At what point did you start out-riding your parents?
Winder: “Ohhh I don’t know. My dad is one of those people who can not ride for six months but just put a suffer hat on so any given day he can probably still out-ride me.”
Ella: Does it get competitive?
Winder: “Yes, but in a healthy competitive way, I think.”
Ella: Do you get nervous before a race?
Winder: “Oh yeah, definitely. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local race or a WorldTour race or if I’m just watching it on TV – my hands start sweating and I get really anxious. I can’t watch it before I go to bed or anything. The only time I don’t get too anxious is when I watch downhill mountain biking because I am so far removed. I really like watching downhill.”
Ella: And finally, the “Ella Question”: What is one thing that you know now that you wish you had known when you first started cycling?
Winder: “I think when I first started cycling I took things very, very literal and very seriously. I think if someone had just told me like ‘if you miss half an hour of the beginning of your training ride, you won’t ruin your cycling career. If something happens and you can’t make one training ride, it’s OK. Your career isn’t over.”