When she races in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Gatineau this weekend, Olympian Clara Hughes will not ride alone.
Even in the lonely race of truth known as the individual time trial, Hughes will have an angel on her shoulder, a special purple band on her wrist.
In Saturday’s time trial and Monday’s road race, Hughes and her Specialized Lululemon team will ride for Daron Richardson, the 14-year-old from Kanata who took her own life nearly two years ago. Daron was the daughter of former Ottawa Senators defenceman Luke Richardson and his wife, Stephanie.
It was the spirit of Daron that helped Hughes — a champion for Canada and the cause of mental health — to get back on her feet when she had a bad crash during the 2011 Grand Prix time trial in Gatineau.
“Last year I dedicated my race to Daron’s memory and to the Richardson family’s foundation DIFD (Do It For Daron),” Hughes said on Friday, during a pre-race gathering of riders at Gatineau City Hall. “When I crashed in the race, during the time trial, in the only part of the course where people were watching, it was really embarrassing and it really hurt, but when I looked down on my bike, I saw this bracelet I was wearing and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it for that girl, for her memory.’ ”
As the script would have it, Hughes fought back to win the race.
“She really inspired me that day.”
Hughes inspires Canadians every day. Now 39, and having won six Olympic medals from winter and summer sport, she is still at top of her game. As defending time trial champion, Hughes will wear the No. 1 bib on Saturday, last out of the gate, for the start of the 18.4-kilometre TT, which begins and ends on Boulevard des Allumettières at Labelle in Gatineau (Hughes starts at 12:45 p.m. The first rider leaves at 8:45 a.m.)
The time trial and Monday’s road race (a 9:30 a.m. start) are the only two UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) events in Canada for women. In her manner, the engaging Hughes welcomes riders from around the globe to an event practically in her backyard (born in Winnipeg, Hughes and her husband Peter Guzman have lived for many years in the Eastern Townships of Quebec).
“I’m just really proud that there is a race of this level in Canada, here in Gatineau, and I really hope this race can build to being a World Cup race one day,” Hughes said, thrilled that her teammates and rivals can see a part of Canada that is “just a beautiful place to ride a bike.”
In a prelude to the 2012 London Olympics, many of Canada’s top riders are here, including two-time track world champion Tara Whitten of Edmonton. Whitten told me Friday she will not be part of Canada’s road team in London because she wants to focus on track events.
Nicole Cooke, the 2008 Olympic road-race champion from Great Britain is also racing. Cooke is the penultimate starter in the time trial, just before Hughes.
Canadians with Olympic road aspirations include Rhae-Christie Shaw, a former triathlete from Windsor, Ont., who left a job at Microsoft to pursue an Olympic dream; Joëlle Numainville of Laval, Canada’s 2010 road champ; and Denise Ramsden of Yellowknife with the Optum Kelly team
Olympic selections are only weeks away, so the Gatineau races are among the last chance to impress selectors. All will ride with a purpose on Saturday and Monday, especially Hughes, who will DIFD.
“I told my team the story of Daron, and we are all dedicating our races this weekend to Daron’s memory and to the foundation,” Hughes said. “We’re really proud. All of the girls will be wearing the (DIFD) bracelet and I think Luke and Steph are coming out to watch a few of the races as well.
“I’ve had the chance to get to know the Richardsons better since last year, and they’re awesome people,” added Hughes. “What they’re doing for young people in terms of raising awareness for youth mental issues and suicide prevention is outstanding. I don’t know how they do it.”
As a teenager, Hughes needed sport to rescue her from what might have been a path of drugs and alcohol, and as a young athlete she battled depression for two years. Today, she leads the way in the fight to eliminate the stigma attached to mental health, promoting awareness and programs.
With Bell, Hughes helped deliver the Let’s Talk program, now in its third year.
“It’s something that I stand for, vocally, and proudly, and I will continue to as long as I live, because things need to change for Canadians,” Hughes said. “It’s unacceptable the situation that people are dealing with when they’re ill.”
Cycling and speed skating were her path, but Hughes said the young people she speaks to need only have “goals and dreams and something to live for that you love.”
“When you have that idea and grasp it, it can pull you out of anything.”