Tales from the Tour: Fifth wheel to first

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Today’s Tale from the Tour is not from the Tour. It’s from the Giro Rosa. And from Rio de Janeiro, and a few other places.

To Rio first. Two years ago I stood in the infield of the Olympic velodrome, three flags hoisted, hundreds of fanned out faces pointing in toward the podium. Three team pursuit teams — Great Britain, Canada, and America — were up on their pedestals, where they smiled and cried, waving bouquets and biting medals. Four years of hard work, realized at that moment.

To the left, tucked into the crowd, was Ruth Winder, her face set in a smile that might have been a grimace. She was the fifth wheel, the extra woman in an event that rides with four. If the American team had started her in qualifying, or in the semi-final, or the final, she would have a medal. She’d be on the podium, up with the happy faces biting medals. They didn’t. She didn’t. Four years of hard work, unrealized.

She was so close, literally standing at the edge of a podium ceremony she could have so easily been part of.

It was brutal.

The only part of this story that involves the Tour de France is the bit where I was trying to take a power nap outside the stiflingly hot Tour press room on Tuesday. Except I never actually got to nap. The Tour peloton was 170 utterly boring kilometers from the finish line. I put my head back on a bit of prickly brown grass and stuck my phone on vibrate and into my pocket and was just about to drift off for fifteen minutes when the buzzing started. Bzz. Bzz. Bzz.

Holy shit, the first text said. Ruth just won the stage and took the maglia rosa. The message wasn’t from work, it was from her boyfriend, a friend of mine.

Back to late June, 2013. Italy. Winder was 19 years old. She got the call-up to race the Giro Rosa with the U.S. national team. The roster contained Mara Abbott, who came to the race as the world’s best climber. Abbott had a legitimate shot at victory. She’d already won the race in 2010.

Winder was the 8th rider, the final pick in a roster of more athletically mature talent. Abbott asked the then-head of the national program, Jim Miller, why he was bringing an unknown. Trust me, he said.

I called up Abbott on Tuesday. She was out on a trail run, somewhere on the edge of the mountains in Boulder, Colorado. She’s been retired since Rio, since her gut-wrenching fourth-place ride in the road race. I think the last time we spoke was right after that event. The interview ended with her crying in Kristin Armstrong’s arms. She was a bit happier this time.

“It was mostly the usual suspects, and then this girl Ruth,” she said. “I didn’t know her well at all, I didn’t know her as a racer or as a person.”

I asked what she was like. “She was so steady and so focused and so professional, even as a 19-year-old,” Abbott said. “It was amazing.”

Abbott won the Giro that year. She came back in 2014 with UnitedHealthcare and this time Ruth wasn’t the final pick. She was Abbott’s roommate.

“We were going back to the Giro that year, and Ruth was my roommate. She understood what the Giro took and I wanted her around me,” Abbott said. “She was one of our leaders on the road, even at the young age.”

Winder doesn’t tolerate nonsense. I’ve seen it first-hand. It probably didn’t help her in the political environment within any Olympic team sport. But that’s precisely why Abbott wanted her around. “This little, outspoken Ruth, she got mad at one of the other riders for not doing their job,” she recalled. “I remember her getting very angry and defensive explaining why that matters, why it matters that you do what you’re supposed to do. She was spectacular at both Giros.”

Tuesday saw the first real climbing test of this Giro Rosa. A six-kilometer category 2 climb set two-thirds of the way through the stage. Winder escaped with about 25km remaining with two others: Tayler Wiles, and Alice Arzuffi.

Winder and Wiles are former teammates at UnitedHealthcare. The sprint began before the barriers, two hundred meters to go. Winder swung around to the right, cutting in just before the fencing, and had a bike length almost immediately. She crossed the line with room to spare, arms up, big scream.

A few minutes later, my phone started buzzing.

Fifth wheel to first.

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