For Cari Higgins of the Exergy TWENTY12 team giving back to the sport of cycling, especially to younger female cyclists, is a natural part of her being, it’s a passion. This year, with the support of the team manager Nicola Cranmer, she started a program to mentor a group of six junior girls.
“I believe that all professional women should be doing the same thing in order to grow our sport.” Higgins told podiuminsight.
“We’ve put together an elite squad, we’ve got six riders from all across the USA. We’re really spread out. Our goal is to mentor and teach these girls how to be professionals so they are not lost between the ages of junior rank, 17/18, and before they become the elite of the elite.”
With no under23 teams for women, it’s easy for talented junior girls to get lost with the pressure of life. The team plans to follow them through the ranks.
What does it mean for Higgins to be a professional? “It’s interesting you ask that because these girls learn a lot about it at Sea Otter.” she replied.
“What does that mean to us? That means dressing professionally, talking to all your sponsors, representing your sponsors correctly, being classy on and off the bike. It’s not that we have to teach these girls class but we have to remind them that in order to represent your sponsor and be a professional at anything whether it’s on the bike or off the bike, that people are watching you. A lot of times, that’s a harder lesson to learn. Luckily we have some great girls on the team, some of those lessons weren’t as hard to learn as they might be for other people.”
Higgins, along with Cranmer, held a training camp for the juniors girls while at the Sea Otter Classic, in Monterey, California. The Exergy TWENTY12 junior roster consists of five 17/18 year olds, Kayla Sterling of Texas, Sarah Huang of Wisconsin, Maddy Tuggle of Littleton Colorado, Tara McCormick of CA and current junior world track champion Jen Valente out of California.
The squad also includes a nine-year old, Veronica Church, out of Minnesota. “She met Kristin Armstrong, and is a huge fan of the team and Kristin. She races the iron kid races, she’s quite talented as an athlete and we really love what she stands for off the bike.” Higgins said of Church who raised $18,000 for kids with cancer.
While at Sea Otter, the team also raced in two events, the circuit race and the road race, both won by Sterling. One of the first thing that Higgins taught them was to race as a team.
“They show up to Nationals for the first time they see all their competitors from all around the country. At Sea Otter, it’s a great experience because you have the top juniors of the country, flying in from east coast, west coast, the mid-western states, all the top juniors come to Sea Otter. So, for the first time the girls got to learn how to race as a team on the bike.”
And off the bike, they learned how to talk to their sponsors and present themselves to the public. “The question and answer session with Rebecca Rusch from Specialized mountain biking and we were the professional road cyclists presented at the women’s session so that was a great learning experience for the girls. Some of them were natural at talking to the public and some of them were not natural at all. But as they continue to get better, they’re going to have to get used to that.”
As part of the program, Higgins runs a bi-weekly conference call with the junior riders to answer their questions and brings in different speakers to talk about different subjects. At one such call, teammates Coryn Rivera and Kaitie Antonneau shared their experiences as a collegiate racers.
Higgins wants the junior girls to race with the elite squad whenever possible, which can be more difficult this year with many riders chasing points for the Olympic Games.
“This year is an unusual year because it’s an Olympic year but it was a good year for us to start the program either way.” she said. “Because I’m not chasing the stage races like some of the other girls on the team, every time I go to a race, I invite some of these junior to come with me. I think long term these girls will get the opportunity to race with the elite squad at elite races. This year is just a little bit different because it is an Olympic year.”
The success of the program for Higgins is not measured by results. “Results are nice but results are definitely not everything when you’re talking 17 and 18 year olds because so much can change between the ages of 17 and 22.”
“Yes, they’re talented and yes do I think we’ll get some National Champions out of this group? Absolutely I do, but the goal in a couple of years, I want to see these girls racing in Europe with the USA Cycling Development squad. I fully expect a couple of them to be going to Junior Worlds at the end of this summer but results are not everything. For me, a successful program is that these girls walk away from it and that they understand professional cycling and they are inspired by it. That they don’t get lost when they are 19 years old.”
Through it out, Higgins is also pursuing her high-level racing but enjoys combining her training, racing and mentoring. She has won a total of 11 Elite National Track Championships and 6 medals at the Pan American Track Championships in her career.
“For me it’s a pretty natural position to be honest.” Higgins said. “I ran a junior team up until 18 months ago with 25 kids here in Boulder. I love it. To me it’s really natural, I love getting texts from these girls with questions, running conference calls really doesn’t take that much time and that much energy, it’s just a passion. And when you’re passionate about something, the time and energy doesn’t seem like a chore.”
Higgins was named on 2012 Olympic Long Team for track endurance events. “I’m always wishing for more, I’m always wishing to be faster. I’m honored to be on the long list for the Olympics. No matter who goes to the Olympics, it’s going to be a medal potential Olympic team.”
“There’s five of us and there are four who go, right now I’m the fifth one, but that doesn’t mean I get my head down. I know that I’ve got a lot left in me.”
The future of US women cycling is bright for Higgins. “Part of it is because we have an awesome group of girls right now racing in Europe and being competitive in Europe. IF you look at people like Megan Guarnier, who had just such a workhorse for the last seasons and is producing just awesome results. These are who these girls look up to.”
“Off the top of my head, I could probably name 16 girls who probably don’t even know that I know their names but I’ve been watching them and they are so talented. I just wish I had the ability to not just have six girls on the squad but to have 16 girls on my squad.”
Higgins issued a call to arms to all the other pro women racers.
“There is such a bright with USA women’s cycling if and only if these girls don’t get lost, if they have mentors. And that is my challenge to every professional women cyclist is to take one of these girls under your wing. Take an Alexis Ryan (TIBCO) under your wing. Like Addy (Albershardt) on NOW and Novartis, I adore her and I’m so glad she’s on a program where she’s being taken care of.”
Higgins concluded, “We have bright future but we’re responsible for cultivating it. “
Who will take up the challenge?