OTTAWA — From the podium, Clara Hughes spotted Luke and Stephanie Richardson in the crowd, blew them a kiss, and then it was on with the business of spraying her Specialized Lululemon teammates with champagne.
Everything came up Clara in Saturday’s time trial of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Gatineau. From the moment Canada’s Olympic Sweetheart launched herself out of the starting gate, wearing an orange and white cycling suit adorned with Canadian flags, Hughes had the Gatineau crowd in the palm of her hand, just below the purple wrist bracelet that inspired her throughout.
The bracelet honours Daron Richardson, daughter of Luke and Stephanie, a teenager who took her own life in 2010. Hughes and her Specialized teammates had dedicated this time trial and Monday’s Gatineau road race to Daron’s memory and the DIFD (Do It For Daron) campaign to promote the cause of mental health. Duly inspired, the team merely swept the podium, with American Specialized riders Evelyn Stevens and Amber Neben taking second and third place, respectively.
“I kept looking at this purple bracelet,” Hughes said. “I’m looking down and saying, ‘C’mon Clara, go! As hard as you can.’ And without crashing, I won the race, so I’m pretty happy about that.”
A year ago in this same event, Hughes had crashed, but still won.
“That’s a little moral victory for me, keeping the rubber side down,” said Hughes, grinning, surrounded by media and fans as she sat under a canopy offering shade in the growing heat of the Victoria Day weekend. This was just before she joined her teammates on the podium just behind the start/finish line on Boulevard des Allumettieres.
In Gatineau, a time trial is referred to as the contre-la-montre. In cycling, it’s often called the race of truth, a lone rider on a course against the clock, and the truth here is that Hughes fairly destroyed a field of 47, many with aspirations of qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.
“There were some superb competitors here, especially from my team,” Hughes said, still a force in her sport at age 39. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by excellence in my teammates. They show me every day what being the best in the world is, so it definitely ups my game.”
With the Olympic road race and time trial little more than two months away, Hughes called this victory “a pretty major stepping stone for me.”
Her time over the 18.4-kilometre course — two laps of a 9.2-kilometre loop — was 23 minutes 56.76 seconds, a full 7.80 seconds better than Stevens’ silver time of 24:04.56. Neben finished in 24:16.44.
Edmonton’s Tara Whitten, a two-time world champion on the cycling track, finished fourth in 24:27.24, the second-best Canadian on the course.
“I’ve been fourth quite a lot in the last six months, so I’m looking for something a bit different,” said Whitten, smiling. “But it was a good ride for me in a strong field. To be in the mix at this point of my season is pretty good.”
Other Canadians in the top 20: Rhae Shaw, sixth; Denise Ramsden, 14th; Jasmin Glaesser, 17th.
Stevens, 29, was an investment banker on Wall Street until she picked up a racing bike in 2008, turning pro in 2010.
“It’s much more fun than working in an office,” Stevens said of her conversion to cycling. Winning races is that much more fun. The U.S. national time trial champion in 2011 and 2010, Stevens has already won three road races this season.
Knowing how good Stevens’ recent form has been, Hughes said she wasn’t sure she could beat her time, so just used her own personal metre of effort as a gauge.
“I just went with what I thought was my best,” Hughes said, crossing the finish line in her trademark form, gape-mouthed, lunging.
“It was hard, but I felt great,” said the Winnipeg native. “I’m just starting to come into my racing form for London. It’s really starting to come together and this is just the beginning of what I’m going to put together for the Olympics.”
Someone wondered what was going through Hughes’ mind when she entered the same roundabout that had sent her crashing last May, a turn that caused Ukrainian rider Olena Sharha to slam into the pavement on Saturday.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, if you stay up, but you go slow, you lose a second,’” Hughes said. “If you go down, you lose at least 10 seconds.
“And I still went fast. I love going fast through turns and I did clip my pedal a little bit, and I was, like, ‘Whoa, Clara.’ But then I got through. I’m like, ‘OK, I made it. Check.’’’
Check, too, for being on target for the final weeks of training before London. Not just Hughes, but Whitten and several other Canadian cyclists with a plan to make some noise on the road, the track, the mountain and BMX courses in London this summer.
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