It’s possible you haven’t been paying attention. After all, not everyone follows women’s cycling (more on that later). In any case, be informed that our very own Carmen Small has not vanished from the athletic spotlight.
Quite the opposite.
The 34-year-old Durango native is about to participate in two huge European events that women’s cycling boosters hope will give their sport a shot-in-the-arm.
During a mid-June interview at her Durango-area home, fresh off an overall win at a prestigious Minnesota stage race, Small discussed a variety of topics. Among them: shining a spotlight on women’s cycling, her marriage and thoughts of quitting the sport, her recent successes and the Olympics.
Small excelled in several sports during high school. She qualified several times for the Junior Olympics in Nordic skiing and earned top 10 finishes. In the role of setter, she led her Durango High School team to the 1997 state volleyball championship.
She graduated from DHS in 1998, earned a college degree in math and taught for 4½ years on the Front Range. On the side, she dallied in triathlons, and in 2006, she got serious about it and hooked up with a big-time coach, Corey Hart – “the brains behind everything.” By 2007 she’d signed her first pro contract.
Eventually, the daughter of Allen Small of Durango and Donna Nazario of Hesperus settled on cycling, but it was a long, slow advance up the ranks.
Equality for women?
Women, as they still do in many sports, play second fiddle to men in pro cycling. The races, the prize money, the media exposure, the lifestyle – women aren’t equals. Small would like to change that.
That change may start at the grass-roots level, just getting more women on bikes and organizing unintimidating group rides, even if it’s just for recreation. Once she’s home more, Small would like to do that.
Educating the public and the media is another difficult step. Even if you want to watch the Giro Rosa – a 10-day women’s stage race that Small will begin July 4 with her Specialized-lululemon team – you can’t.
“Why don’t people want to watch the sport?” Small asks. “Well, one of the reasons is that no one knows about it.”
Perhaps people will notice July 27, when a one-day women’s race finishes just ahead of the final stage of the men’s Tour de France on the Champ-Élysées.
“It’s on a very big scale. A lot of people will see the racing,” Small says. “A lot of people who’ve never known women’s racing exists get to see it. So that’s kind of our big push. ... It will be a big day for the women.”
Family will wait
Small and German mountain biker Ben Sonntag married in 2011 in Durango on the Friday before Iron Horse Bicycle Classic weekend. This illustrates a pro cyclist’s career: The couple spent a couple months in Europe together, but for the next 15 months, they weren’t both back in Durango.
With the Optum team, Small continued to learn and improve. In 2012, she won the Nature Valley Grand Prix stage race in Minnesota and the one-day Classica Citta de Padova in Italy. Later in the year, she was third in the U.S. national road race and criterium. But what isn’t on her résumé that year still stings: a spot on the Olympic team.
“I don’t have any regrets from 2012. I did everything I could have done to make the team,” Small says. “Looking back, it’s so hard to have been so close and not to make it.”
She was ready to retire, to settle down and have a child, when the Specialized-lululemon team signed her for the 2013 season. It’s a big-time international team that she’ll be racing with again this summer in Europe.
“You don’t turn down a contract from them,” she says.
Last year, she says, was “spectacular.” At nationals in May, she took first in the time trial. Then in September, she helped her team to first in the time trial at the Road World Championships in Florence, Italy. To top off Worlds, she earned a bronze in the individual time trial.
She was rolling, but then came another fork in the road: To help with a family emergency, Small and Sonntag took custody of her sister’s two daughters. Over the winter and early spring, Small’s focus was on kids, not so much on racing.
As she hustles to prepare for a three-month trip, the realizations set in about things she’ll miss. Her cats, for one. The jigsaw puzzle she started on a kitchen countertop sadly will have to be packed away before its completion. Cooking is another passion she won’t have quite as much time for, but at least that hobby is aided greatly by living part of the year in the epicurean Tuscan town of Lucca.
Small is in her garage, introducing a few of her bikes. Although her greatest success to date has come in the time trial, she refers to that bike as the “torture machine.” It’s a love-hate relationship, she admits.
She’s about to head out on a road bike ride with former Optum teammate Joelle Numainville, a French-Canadian who is staying at Small’s and Sonntag’s house just east of town.
Despite a trying spring, Small willed her body back into shape. In late May, she placed a surprising (to her) second in the national time trial, and in mid-June she again won the Nature Valley stage race, now called the North Star Grand Prix.
Now, she heads to Europe with a steady cadence, working to keep the career momentum going. Her plan is to race again in 2015. Then, the 2016 Olympics will be right around the corner. That’s a lot of time away from home, a lot of time on the torture machine.
“You do sacrifice, but ... it’s not that hard to do this when you love it,” Small says.
“The ultimate end goal is the Olympics, and hopefully I make the team. But if not I’ve tried my hardest, and I can retire and be pretty happy about what I’ve done in the sport.”
Small won’t return from Europe until late September. By then, she’ll have raced in Italy, France, Norway, Sweden, Holland and at the Worlds in September in Ponferrada, Spain. She’s not complaining too loudly.
“It’s a pretty incredible life I get to lead right now,” she says. “I’ve been really blessed.”
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.