The women went down in groups, tipping over like dominoes. They
went down solo, sliding painfully across the pavement. They went
down during the first stage, and they went down a mile from the
finish. They bruised hips and shoulders and calves and thighs.
Jacinta Coleman broke her right wrist in five places. Pam
Schuster gashed her face. Wheels were potato-chipped; helmets
cracked. Karen Kurreck crashed three times. Juli Furtado, twice.
It was abundantly clear that the PowerBar International Women's
Challenge bicycle race, held in Idaho and Utah over 13 days and
650 miles last June, was not a ladylike competition. "Not one
bit," boasted Jim Rabdau, the 62-year-old former Green Beret who
founded the Women's Challenge in 1984 to help raise the status
of women's bicycle racing.
Until three years ago, in fact, the race was considered so
strenuous that the Union Cycliste Internationale, bicycle
racing's worldwide governing board, refused to sanction it. In a
1990 memorandum, UCI listed six reasons for its refusal,
including the race's "excessive number of stages" over
"excessive individual stage distances" with "excessive climbing"
for an "excessive duration."
The response by the Women's Challenge? The race directors
printed T-shirts that read LET'S GET EXCESSIVE IN IDAHO and kept
right on going.
"We were the first women's road race in the U.S. to have a stage
longer than 70 miles," says Rabdau. "We were the first to have a
stage longer than 80. We were first at 90 and first at 100. When
UCI decided not to sanction us, I decided to ignore UCI. Let the
women vote with their bikes, I said. If they don't like the
race, they won't show up. We never changed a thing, and UCI
finally got the message."
The race was eventually sanctioned by UCI in 1995, which helped
to attract more European teams. And now, along with the women's
Tour de France, the Challenge offers the most grueling test in
women's road racing. Though this year's race, to be held June
22-29 and to be sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, has been shortened
to eight stages in Idaho, it will cover 400 miles and have
15,000 feet of climbing. And the $100,000 in prize money,
unchanged from last year, is the largest purse in U.S. women's
Last year's Challenge, with a combined 17,000 feet of climbing
over 12 stages, attracted 100 racers from 10 countries. The race
began near Boise, Idaho, on June 18 with a short (1.7 mile) time
trial and then moved to the road for stages of 40, 60 and 75
miles on consecutive days. The peloton sped through sagebrush
rangeland and over snow-streaked passes amid the Sawtooth
The first few days established the leaders: teams from the U.S.,
Australia, Canada and Lithuania. Australia's Kathy Watt, 32, the
short-tempered winner of the Olympic road race in Barcelona in
1992, took the opening time trial. The U.S. team dominated the
first road-racing stage, putting three riders in the top four.
The next morning, June 20, the Americans maintained their
momentum, and 27-year-old Alison Dunlap broke the tape.
"The Women's Challenge might be the hardest race in the
world--and I don't just mean bicycling," said Dunlap, who was
involved in a gruesome crash in the 1994 Challenge in which she
broke three teeth. She got back on her bike, completed the
stage, had root-canal surgery in the afternoon and finished
ninth in that evening's time trial. "We're going 25 or 30 miles
per hour, with our wheels an inch apart, swerving around
potholes and gravel and cars. There are constant near wrecks,"
she said. "You always have to think strategy. Look down for an
instant and you'll miss the breakaway. Every day I ride to
complete exhaustion, then I wake up the next morning and ride
again. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that
everyone feels just as crappy as me."
The two stages on June 23 and 24 threaded through northern Utah,
where temperatures rose into the 90s and the headwinds were
unrelenting. Here Rasa and Jolanta Polikeviciute, 26-year-old
identical twins from Lithuania, showed their mettle. Because of
insufficient funding, the Lithuanian team's bicycles were
technologically inferior to those of the other top riders, yet a
third of the way through the Challenge, Rasa was first overall
and Jolanta was second, only 12 seconds behind.
It wasn't just the two Lithuanians' times that were alike. Each
had married a Russian bike racer in the same month, five years
ago, and each has a five-year-old son. They usually cycled side
by side, on identical bikes, each woman with a long,
ginger-colored ponytail streaming out of her helmet.
"Yes, we do sometimes get tired of each other," confessed
"And we do sometimes fight," added Rasa. Then, as if on cue, the
sisters pulled each other's hair.
The 1996 race was essentially won, in a surprise, during Stage
5, on one of the most punishing courses in Challenge history.
Racing at elevations as high as 7,000 feet on a 66-mile course
through Utah's Wasatch Mountains, a relatively unknown rider,
25-year-old Anna Wilson of Australia, broke away from the
peloton eight miles after the start. Only one racer went after
her, and then dropped back after 15 miles. Why bother? Wilson
had finished 36th in the Challenge the year before and was 19th
overall at the start of the stage, two minutes behind the
For two hours, into a headwind, up and over five major climbs,
Wilson was alone. "She was a rabbit pursued by 99 wolves," said
her coach, Andrew Logan. "And the rabbit won big." Wilson
finished more than four minutes ahead of the nearest woman.
"I kept waiting for the pack to swallow me up," said Wilson, who
at 5'3" calls herself "pocket-sized." She received her law
degree from Monash University in 1995, the same year she
shattered her pelvis in a race in Switzerland. (Ten days later
she was working out on a stationary cycle, pedaling with one leg.)
The second half of the Challenge featured hundreds of frantic
attacks as the other cyclists attempted to chip away at Wilson's
enormous lead. And as fatigue mounted, there were a dozen scary
crashes, including a 23-woman pileup during Stage 7. By the
final stages there was hardly a competitor who didn't sport a
gauze bandage on an appendage or two and several
silver-dollar-sized scabs on her legs.
The last days of the race were a competition for second place,
which went to Canadian national time-trial champion Clara
Hughes. Dunlap was fourth, behind Dede Demet, also of the U.S.
After taking inventory of her bruises, Hughes, 24, said, "I
guess I'll use my prize money for plastic surgery."
But the heroine of the fortnight was clearly Wilson. "I'm way
too high to be tired," she said after crossing the finish line
of the last stage, in Boise. Bandages covered her left forearm
and right shoulder. "Any minute, though, it's all going to catch
up to me, and I'll sleep for a week."
Michael Finkel, of Bozeman, Mont., cycled in 1990 from the
Pacific to the Atlantic.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN DWYER Prize money of $100,000 drew 100 cyclists from 10 countries to push themselves in last year's race. [Contestants in PowerBar International Women's Challenge bicycle race]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN DWYER Although crashes like this (above) were routine--that's Furtado down--the victory by Wilson (left) after a surprise breakaway was not. [Juli Furtado, and others after bicycle crash; Anna Wilson riding bicycle]