Hughes Cements Legacy as One of Canada’s Greatest Athletes

George Johnson, The Calgary Herald, Montreal, Quebec

There’s an old saying: Just like riding a bike. Meaning, you never forget how.

But whoever coined the phrase wasn’t talking about two and a half hours on that bike, up in the Andes mountains, lungs heaving hot like fireplace bellows, muscles crying out in vain protest.

That, you might want to purge from all memory banks.

“I mean, it was HARD,’‘ Clara Hughes is saying, home from Medellin, Colombia, and her time trial and road race victories at the UCI Pan American Cycling Championships.

“I have never in my life felt that kind of . . . pain. Ever. The race was at 7,000 feet.

“I’d been racing and training in the United States at that altitude, but in the desert, in the dryness.

“In Colombia, it was this high-altitude jungle. My legs started cramping up because I wasn’t used to the humidity.

“A lot of it was mind over matter, but a lot of it was being intelligent with how I expended my energy once I did begin to cramp up.

“When I crossed that finish line, I don’t mind admitting, I was in so much pain. That’s the most effort I’ve used in a long, long time.’‘

Over a decade away from the sport competitively, Clara Hughes, Order of Canada recipient; her own star on the Walk of Fame; flag bearer for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in her home country; a place of honour in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame; one of only five people, either gender, to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Games; not to mention being one of the most genuine, upbeat people you’ll ever meet -is very much on track for London 2012 and her sixth Olympic experience.

Three races since coming back. Three victories.

Astonishing.

At 38, she took the Pan Am time trial in Colombia over the weekend. Then, as an encore, bursting out to a 10-second gap off the initial technical descent, finished in 2:23.52, a full 1:18 ahead of second-place Evelyn Garcia Marroquin of El Salvador to persevere through the punishing 96 km mass-start road race.

“People just see my recent results and think it just suddenly, magically . . . happened,’‘ says Hughes. “I’ve been training really, really hard since November. I’ve got a great coach here in Montreal (Chris Rozdilsky). I can honestly say that in my past cycling life I never trained at this level.

“I was really good, I had talent and tenacity that got me a lot of great results. But I wasn’t the best-trained athlete just because I didn’t have the maturity to focus and to apply myself. And I’ve never had a coach like this before.

“Have I surprised myself? No. Because I expect myself to be the best at whatever I do. If someone’s going to beat me, they’re going to have to perform very, very well.’‘

The idea of a return to competitive cycling has been incubating during her decade-long involvement in speedskating, spurred, she admits, by a dissatisfaction feeling she failed to reach her potential on the bike.

So following the emotional cauldron of the Vancouver Games, Hughes made a conscious decision to completely step away, decompress, unwind. A five-week kayak trip with husband Peter up on Great Slave Lake proved just the tonic.

“I didn’t just go into something else from this incredible wave I was riding at the Olympics in Vancouver. I said it then, I’ll say it now: I had the race of my life there (a bronze, in the 5,000 metres). I skated so well technically. I received so much energy from the crowd, that gave me the wings for the day. It made everything easy, receiving that kind of fuel. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment. I did as well as I could. So I knew that was it for skating.

“A month and a half up north in the back country really removed me from away from sport, not just mentally but physically. I sat in a boat for five weeks. I’ve never not used my legs for that long.

“After we got back from the trip, I felt I’d cleared my head enough, took myself away enough, from anything and everything sport involved that I was ready to ask myself ‘Are you ready to dive back in and do what needs to be done?’

“And the answer was: ‘I can’t not try to do this.’ “

The next major litmus test for Hughes is the 2011 Road World Championships in September in Copenhagen.

Following that, London. And the opportunity of adding to the cycling bronzes she won in time trial and road race in Atlanta, a full decade and a half ago. Not to mention the chance, completely irrelevant to her, naturally, of breaking a tie with speedskating pal Cindy Klassen for most Games medals claimed by a Canadian, currently at six.

In case you’re wondering, no, she doesn’t sit up nights envisioning herself on yet another Olympic podium even if everyone else, understandably excited by the results from Colombia, can already see another lovely add-on chapter being written for a wonderful book.

“What I see in my mind is being at my best, I feel myself riding my bike with fluidity and efficiency. That’s what I prepare myself for.

“I want to race and feel the way I did after Vancouver, that I was utterly prepared, there was absolutely nothing more I could do. That’s always been my objective. That’ll never change.’‘

GEORGE JOHNSON IS THE HERALD’S SPORTS COLUMNIST. E-MAIL HIM AT GJOHNSON@CALGARYHERALD.COM

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