After twelve years as a professional cyclist and a slew of victories, including a record six US National Criterium Championship titles (2002-2005, 2007 and 2009), Tina Pic retired from racing at the end of 2009. In her illustrious career, the sprinter also won five USA Cycling NRC Champion titles, two Gold medals in the road race at the Pam Am Games and was a member of the USA team at the World Championships six times.
But she’s not done yet, the 43-year is moving behind the wheel as a directeur sportif where she hopes to teach her winning ways to her team. Pic will co-direct the Colavita/Baci Women’s Cycling Team presented by Cooking Light along with British Olympian Rachel Heal this year.
I caught up with Pic last week while she is working on the paperwork at home in Georgia that comes along with her new job. We looked back at her career, discuss how to build the awareness and support of women’s cycling and talk about her new role.
How did you start racing bikes?
I was doing triathlons and duathlons. I did triathlons and I was like ‘I don’t know about the swimming thing and then I don’t know about the running thing either’. I had gone back to school, I was taking some more undergrad classes because I wanted to go to medical school and I was running one day and I saw these girls riding. I was looking for a cycling team but I had never done any bike races before, I had called the guy at the University of Georgia cycling team and he was like ‘we don’t train now’, it was winter ‘we don’t train now, call us back in the spring’. Okay, I was running one day and I saw these girls , ‘hey do you race for Georgia?’, and they said ‘yeah’ and I was like ‘Can I ride with you?’ and that’s how it all got started. So that’s how I started racing, of course I didn’t know a thing, I knew nothing about tactics or drafting or anything. It was really fun.
So how did you learn all that? Did you have a mentor or did you have to figure out the tactics by yourself?
We kind of just learned, the guys helped us a bit but nobody really knew what was going on I think. It was actually a really good way to get into cycling I think because you see all the collegiate [cycling], it’s fantastic it gives you the opportunity to learn bike handling and the fields for us in the SouthEast were really small so you got used to around before you killed a bunch of people. (laughs) It was a really good transition to learn, it was a good level too because we were all learning together, it was nice.
When did you figure out that you were really fast?
Oh my gosh, it’s really hard to tell too. You think you’re fast when you’re in those races but then you realize that you’re really not so fast. You get out and you start racing the big races and ‘oh I’m way over my head’, that’s how I felt at first, completely way over my head. Because I had gone to Collegiate Nationals and somebody called and said that they were putting together a team for the PowerBar Women’s Challenge and I’d go out and get on this team with Sue Palmer-Komar, Linda Jackson at the time and I was so green, I did not know what I was doing or if I was going to die. (chuckles) The thing was fourteen days of these fairly long races, and halfway through I was sick, ‘oh my god I’m not going to make it’. And there was this one other girl on the team, there were four of us and the other girl was in as such a bad of shape than I was. It was such a realization that there was so much out there, the level are really different, you do local and then regional, it’s a huge jump.
After school, you kept on racing?
I had gone back because I decided that I wanted to go to medical school, I never went, I was doing these extra classes and I didn’t go. ‘this bike racing is really fun, I don’t really think I can do the bike racing and medical school at the same time’ and so that’s kind of what happened.
Do you remember your first win or one of your early wins that you went oh yeah?
I don’t know it took me a long time to win (laughs) and it was because I could not sprint at all. I was still running a lot and I think it just deadens your legs. I couldn’t sprint at all and I just didn’t get it. I would go out and doing all this work in the race and ten people would go by me, and I was like ‘where are you been all day?’ It took a long time. I think the first big turnaround for me was Fitchburg one year at the big circuit race, I had been begging to get on a bigger team from Mike Neel, at the time when he was running Timex. And I kept calling him and I didn’t have one of those big wins to say ‘hey give me a chance’ so I just kept asking and asking. Then I won the circuit race in Fitchburg, I think that was ’99, and then he said ‘okay you have a spot on the team if you’re going to race’. And I was like ‘yoohoo’, I think that was the big turnaround.
You were the USA Crit National Championships six times, which one was sweeter or all they all sweet?
I think that they’re all sweet in one way or another because the situations are always different. That one is really hard because the more you win, the more pressure is on, it becomes the big elephant. It almost seems that the pressure gets worst and worst every time you go back. And they’re all so different in their own way because things are a little bit different, you think you’re going to win it in the same way, you always have to think of a new way to win it because everyone knows what you’re up to and you’re so watched so it’s always hard to figure it out. And then of course, the tactics changed in each race even though the course was the same.
You’ve been watched for many years, how do you handle that and how do you handle the pressure?
I don’t know, I’m such a mess I don’t think I handled pressure very well but I think once a race starts I’m good but before I’m a wreck. You can ask any of my teammates, I don’t handle it that well, it’s hard. I think the pressure too and it made the sport harder, they were always ‘okay we’re helping you’ and I was ‘oh no, let me help you today’. It was really cool at the end of this year to switch roles with Kelly and helping somebody else, I really liked that.
What were some of your best memories?
I think one of the coolest races was the Giro in 2003. I had gone over, it was a last minute thing, I was a guest rider, I got over there, I don’t even know how I got over there, I was leaving from Fitchburg. I had begged a friend that worked for Delta to give me a buddy pass because it was last minute and of course I never had any money, the deal was that I had to get myself there. Then when I got to the airport, they were like ‘you don’t work for Delta you can’t go into Naples, you have to go into Rome and take a train.’ So it was one crazy even after another. I went into Rome and I had two bikes and so much luggage, I was carting everything along. There was an American guy that was going down there to run a basketball camp and thank god for that guy, he was like ‘do you need some help?” and I was like ‘oh do I!”. (laughs) The poor guy was dragging my bags, helping me because I would never have made it and I didn’t know a word of Italian, he spoke Italian and he was so helpful. It was such an adventure.
When I had left, [another rider] Charm, she raced a couple of years ago, was saying ‘I would love to go’ and so I said I would ask. It turned out when I left she said ‘I don’t have a passport, I’ve never been anywhere before’, it was a tough trip, once I got to Naples I had to take a cab and we didn’t know enough, this other American guy that had [set it up], we didn’t know how to get in touch with him, we had a phone number, it was like ‘where am I going?’. That guy ended up getting his friend Fabio to give me a ride there, so I get there and they said ‘Charm is coming, she got a passport, she’s coming’. And I was like ‘oh she’s never going to make it, she’s never traveled internationally, she’s going to have a heart attack’. It was so hard to get there but it was one of those really fun adventures, the girls were really fun and Charm got there alive.
The last stage was a time trial into Venice, the whole course we saw really cool parts of Italy and this very last stage into Venice and it was a race through the canals, you were going up and down, these ramps over the stairs, it was crazy. And then the ferried us back to the main section, it was just beautiful. That was an adventure.
How many years did you go to Europe? Was it mostly with the US National team?
Mostly with the US Team, those were really fun too. The house in Lucca is great and the racing over there is just so different. I think you learn different things from each kind of racing, I think it’s hard to cross over and it’s hard to not be in Europe for a long time and get good at it. It’s almost like you have to stay there and learn, and learn the people that you’re racing against. I found it hard to jump in and out.
Is not knowing the riders you race against the most difficult part?
That and the courses you don’t know. Places like Holland, we all figured ‘how hard can this be, it’s flat’. It’s flat with this road furniture everywhere, you’re going along and all of a sudden something pops up in the middle of nowhere, something you don’t expect like some big barrier or something. It’s so different. It’s everything, it’s the people, it’s the size of the roads, they’re so much smaller and you don’t know where you’re going unless you’ve raced there before. It really does help to go over and race a race and get to do it again, for me it always helped. I’m sure some people are good are just jumping in, for me I needed to see it before and ride it, and see how it went down.
So you probably know every race in the US by now.
Yeah, that’s true.
Speaking of races, which one is your favorite and why?
The one that was my really really favorite one was the one in San Francisco. That was the coolest race, that was amazing. A couple of the ones I liked went away. I thought that the World Cup in New Zealand was really really cool because the places where the venues were unique always made it fun and New Zealand had the start/finish line on the driveway of their Parliament in Wellington and I always thought that was really cool. And the course wasn’t typical, it just seemed that it had a little bit for everyone, I think the circuit was maybe 5 miles, the downtown portion was flat with a lot of turns but then you had these wide open hills that made it sort of a climbing course so I really really liked that one.
San Francisco because of the people, it was so exciting. You wouldn’t think everybody would be out there, they started us at 6:30 or 7 some ungodly early hour and there was so many people, it was so exciting on those crazy hills and then on the backside you’re going down, you feel like you’re in some chase movies. You always see it in the movies when the cars fly when they hit the hills and I swear my bike was doing that, it was so fun. You would come down the hill, it had these rolling hills, it had a right turn at the bottom but when you came down the hill, they were so steep, it kind of covered up that you were turning so suddenly you were in midair and realizing that you had to turn, and you’re like ‘ahhhh’, so you’re braking but you’re in the air. It’s crazy.
On the flip side, what were your worst memories or the toughest times that you had during your career?
I think a couple of years ago before this last Olympic trial. Because I got hurt, I had blown a disk in my back. It’s like any injury, it takes a long time to come back and you’re never as good right away and I returned to Europe right away, I was racing for a Dutch team for a little while. It was hard, there were some Australians that were great and most people spoke English but when you go somewhere else, you can’t expect them to speak your language all the time. I think what I found the most enjoyable about riding were the people, my teammates and the fun times. The racing is great and I love the racing of course but really when you think back you’re not going to remember the racing as much as the funny things that happened and the people. So it was harder because of the translation thing and it was harder to get to know people and I was having a tough time because I was hurt so I think that was a pretty hard time. Because I knew too that it was towards the end of my career, and I wanted to be that much better.
That’s tough. And there’s not much you can do except get through it.
Exactly, you just do the best you can.
Through all this you were also balancing a relationship. How do you do it?
My husband Chris has been great, he’s raced for so many years, he was so understanding. When I first started, he’s such a good teacher. He had raced a lot, knew the tactics and knew me as a rider because we trained together all the time. He would tell me how to win races because he knew what I could do, he knew I could train this distance. He was brilliant, he was my biggest asset for a long time. It’s really nice to have that support, that family.
Do you have any regrets? Is there anything that you wanted to do that you never got a chance to try?
I don’t know. If I had to to it over, I think I would have tried to get to Europe more at the beginning. At the time, no one was doing it, there were no Americans that were going over and we were so new in figuring out. As far as getting further in my career, that would have been a necessary step to get up to that next level but it’s always easy to look back and say that now. I do think it’s great that it’s available now to everyone else, they’re getting opportunities and the National Team is putting people over there and I do think it’s great. Those times are so fun, it’s just such a different style of racing from both sides. There’s not too many people that are fantastic at both, there’s a few, there’s such different style of racing and it’s exciting on both sides.
How healthy do you think women’s cycling is now? It’s gone through ups and downs.
I don’t know. I think it’s healthier here than it is there to be honest. It just doesn’t seem like there is as much support there, that’s what I really found for women. For how much they like to ride, it just doesn’t seem that they support the women very well. It just seemed that everybody except for the top top riders were having to work full-time jobs, trying to fit it in. And there’s no prize money. It’s hard too with the economy too, it’s taking away a lot of the races. Hopefully it gets better when the economy gets better, that many of the races that we’re losing will come back.
What could be done to grow the fan base for women’s cycling?
I don’t know, I think it’s something that you need to build the awareness to somehow. Maybe it just needs to start with grassroots programs and the kids.
There’s a junior cycling group really close to where I live, it’s called the Frazier Cycling group. I think they really have a good idea. They’re bringing the kids up from really young, once in while they’ll say ‘hey you want to come and meet us, go out to eat or something?’ So I’ll go and talk to the girls, they’re really excited, I’ll hear the stories: maybe they were the next door neighbor and they hear about the club, and they go to learn to ride a bike, they don’t know how to clip in, they’re falling down and how hard it is at first and how far they’ve come at such a young age. The girls that we went out with, were between six and fourteen, and it was a lot of girls. I know that they have a men’s junior team as well. The girls that are coming through that program are really amazing, they’re winning Nationals, they’re doing really well. Maybe that’s where it has to start, once you get the kids involved and bring them up, there has to be some sort of feed something to bring the awareness up. And you have to have those young riders in to complete, in Europe they start a lot younger, we have to have that so we can compete on their level. Lots of times, the women here get into it after college, they fall into it somehow and they might be really strong right away but they don’t have the skill. If you’ve grown up [doing it] you automatically have the skills. So maybe that’s one way to build awareness.
And then there’s more awareness in the neighborhood because people see them riding all the time and then the cars start to become more tolerant hopefully, when they see more people on the road. Here, now it’s pretty amazing, I’ll just go ride to the lake which is pretty close and I always see now gobs of people and that’s a big thing, once you start to build the awareness and the people get into it, then you’re going to build all the way around, you get the community support.
Let’s talk about the present. How are you approaching your new role as a Directeur Sportif this year? How do you see you role?
Oh my gosh, this is all completely new. Actually, I am so excited to have a partner in crime with Rachel because it’s a lot of work (laughs). I would always be going [to previous DS Iona Wynter-Parks] ‘Come on Iona, come on with us’, and now I see why she wasn’t riding with us because there’s all these little behind the scene details. Okay you get the sponsors, which was a really big thing at first, then you have to do the contracts and then the rider contracts, all this stuff that you never think about and hope gets all pulled together right. The biggest part, the most fun, will be actually being on the road and seeing the success of the team once we get there. It’s a lot of work to pull everything together, it’s always more than it appears from the outside I’m sure.
Will both of you be going to the same races or will you be dividing those?
I think a lot that we will, the bigger races are going to need more help anyway. I don’t think we’re going to have a full-time soigneur but we’re probably going to have one for the bigger races. It just depends on how much we’re going to need, we’re going to pick up the slack. If we go somewhere and see that we can hire somebody that’s local, then we’ll pick up the slack for the other stuff like doing the bottles and the feeding. Some races are at the same time, for Gila and Southeast Crit Series, I’ll stay over here and she’ll probably go to Gila, so we’ll split it up that way.
Looking back at you career, are there any DS that you’re modeling yourself after?
I think Iona was spectacular, I think she did such a great job last year. I think you learn from everybody throughout the year, things that you thought that they did really really well or things that didn’t work as well. I think it’s such a balance between how you approach things sometimes. Some people are really good at motivating riders and some weren’t as good, I think you take tips from all angles from people and see how they worked it and what worked the best. Obviously, everybody works differently and you have to know the individual well enough to figure out the best way to get them motivated or be on the same page. Sometimes it’s just such a communication thing out there.
What do you think is the most important thing that you need to do as a DS?
I think the most important thing is to be able to pull together the team as a cohesive unit. I’ve really noticed throughout the years that the teams that are the most successful are the ones that are really well bonded, on and off, all really good friends. If you can build a team where people will die for each other I think that’s the most important thing. Even if you don’t have a super super amount of talent or if you go in and think that you don’t have what another team has, I think you can do a lot more if you have that cohesiveness, you can really rise up to another level as a team.
How do you build that team cohesiveness?
I don’t know, I’ll have to tell you in a little while. (laughs) You hope that you pick riders that have personalities that mesh together, you do things where you get to know each other better. Hopefully, the camps will be able to do that and I think it’s really hard to build a team form scratch too, you try and pull back some riders that already have a bond there, and then find other riders that seem to fix in the mix pretty well, people that will complement each other in their skills.
Tell me about the team this year. You did bring some new riders this year. What do you think are the strengths of the team?
I guess we’ve always had this crit team, I think we made it a little more well-rounded, we pulled in some climbers, some engines and hopefully some people that have a whole lot experience that can direct on the road and then we’ve got some really strong returners that have learned over the years. Carmen [Small] has been to Europe and got a lot of experience there and can really add to the team on that end. I think that we’ve added riders and personalities that will make it more a complete team on all levels, we can win almost any race hopefully when we get out there, it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-day or a stage race or a climber’s race. I think that we’re going to be well-rounded enough to be a threat in any situation.
Are you targeting any specific races that are important to the team or to the sponsors? I know all of them.
All of them (laughs). Somerville is always a big race for us because that’s where pretty much the heart of Colavita so that’s always been a pretty big one for us. And then, you’re right all of the them. You always talk about the bigger races, Redlands, Nature Valley, Fitchburg, and Nationals of course… you’re right all of them.
How will you be working with the team to replace you as the sprinter?
We’ve got Kelly [Benjamin] back and she was just so great as a leadout person and I think she’s going to do a lot more sprinting now. And then we have Theresa [Cliff-Ryan], I think she’ll be great as far as pulling a leadout together and the engine that she has, I think that it’s going to be really good teamwork. Kelly and Theresa can go way beyond where I ever was, it’s going to be great.
How do you team how to win? Is it possible to teach it?
I think it is. I think Theresa and Kelly know, I think it’s getting the right people around you and the more you do each race, the better you get for sure. It took me a couple of years to mess up first, to figure out what happened last time at this race, it does seem to follow a pattern if you look back and see how it went down.
I’m not sure if I will impact the races this year, but what do you think about the radio ban?
I know, I don’t know about that either. I think it’s going to be pretty interesting if they take the radios away. I think it’s not going to be as calculated, the finishes are going to be a lot harder, it’s a lot harder to be out there and not really know the time gaps. There’s a lot of information that’s missing that you have to think about on the road, that you won’t get if they take away the radios. Sometimes you see a motorcycle come by but sometimes the splits are not correct, the information is going to be so limited. I think it’s probably going to make a smarter peloton all the way around but it’s going to take awhile, it’s going to be a lot of mistakes for awhile. There could be a lot of interesting racing. I think people are going to learn a lot faster because you’re going to make a lot more mistakes. For me I always learned from my mistakes, I’d be kicking myself for a year until the race came around, that was I learned a lot.
You stared with a radio and raced for many years without it and it worked you.
Yeah, there weren’t as much team tactics I think. Saturn at the time might have been the only team that was working as a cohesive team. It’s really come a long way, people weren’t doing these leadouts for teammates except for Saturn and I don’t think it started … I want to say around ’96, it just didn’t seem as common to have these big teams working for each other.
Will not have a radio change a leadout?
I don’t think so, not unless you weren’t there. Once you’re there I never used the radio, I’m screaming instead. You can’t reach for the radio so you’re just talking, like ‘go faster, go left, go left’ if somebody is trying to come in on you. You’re just yelling back there so I don’t think that will make any difference. Sometimes in the crits, it’s so hard to get a hold of the radio. But in the crits you can just yell from the side as a director, that will work.
Last question. For you, in your first season as a DS, what will make you happy at the end of the year? What needs to happen for you to say I was successful this year, I did what I wanted to do?
I think it will be that the team meshes really well and we’re successful as a whole. Again, everyone is going to make mistakes but you learn from your mistakes and you come out of it as a better rider and you have a lot of successes along the way, that would be great. And to basically enjoy the year because that’s always been my thing, if you’re having fun the rest always comes. I just hope that everybody has great time and a lot of success that would make me happy.
The Colavita/Baci Women’s Cycling Team p/b Cooking Light is holding ita training camp from March 12-18. It will be preceded by a 3-day Camp Colavita, where 20-women can ride, train and dine with the pros. The first team race should be San Dimas followed by the NRC opener Redlands Bicycle Classic at the end of March.