Hughes Wows Coach

George Johnson, The Calgary Herald, Medellin, Columbia

Vincent Jourdain, like the rest of us, stopped being knocked for a loop a long time ago.

“Yes and no,’‘ replies Canada’s Road Cycling Team head coach, asked if Clara Hughes’ stunning return to competitive international cycling has in any way taken him aback. “This is Clara, remember. Everybody knows Clara. The kind of athlete she is.

“Phenomenal.

“Switching back to cycling for her is not a problem. Over the years, during her preparation for speedskating, she was always cycling. So she never totally quit. She was always using her bike as a tool for training. For her, now it’s just back to normal.

“So I’m not surprised, in one way. But, yes, I am a bit surprised at the level she’s reached so quickly. She’s been incredible.’‘

Tucked high in the Andes, at Medellin, Colombia, on the weekend, the 38-year-old Hughes beat a strong field to win both the time trial and the 96-kilometre road race at the UCI Pan American Championships. Mere months after hanging up her long blades and hopping back on a bike.

“The time trial, being honest, I was expecting to see that based on her performance at the Tour of Gila in the States last weekend,’‘ says Jourdain. “But the road race . . . she got on the breakaway after seven or eight kilometres (of 96 km) with another rider. But she was way stronger, so basically she did the whole race in front, by herself.

“That’s hard, at any time. “Plus, it was super-hot, there was altitude and she cramped up. So it was not easy. But Clara’s so determined, she just doesn’t back down. Technically she’s always been really good on the bike. Now she’s even better. She’s a more mature, knowledgeable athlete. If I can make a comparison, she’s like a good wine -way better than she was.

“The physiological part of cycling is very important, of course. But if you don’t have the engine, that crucial some-thing that makes a difference, it won’t matter. Clara has an attitude, a determination, a commitment, that has always set her apart.’‘

From a coaching perspective, Jourdain couldn’t be happier. Not only has he added a magnificent athlete to his developing team, but someone of indisputable achievement willing to mentor.

“Her personality fits really, really well with the rest of the team. And that’s so important. We’ve done a lot of work over the last five, six years to build the women’s program and now we’re starting to see the results. Clara is coming in at a good moment, for her and for the group. She brings a professionalism, that attitude I mentioned, that rubs off on everyone.’‘

There isn’t a whole lot Clara Hughes hasn’t accomplished during her athletic career. A podium placing in London might just be the capper. But with her, who can predict?

“Thirty-eight,’‘ stresses Jourdain, “is not old. She’s at her best right now. For those who didn’t know her as a cyclist from before or doubted she could do this to her high, high standards, after Colombia they’ll have to say ‘Holy s-t! Canada now has a legitimate shot for a medal in London.’

“So am I surprised? Yes and no. This is Clara, remember. Everybody knows Clara. When she puts her mind to something, nothing stops her.’‘

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