There’s No Soft Pedaling in Comeback for Hughes

Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star, Montreal, Quebec

Don’t be fooled by Clara Hughes’ remarkable results in her cycling comeback: she’s only making it look easy.

The six-time Olympic medallist is back on two wheels after nearly a decade away applying her unique skill set on two blades. She wasted no time in making her mark with victories last weekend in the time trial and road race at the Pan Am Championships in Colombia.

The wins were most significant for berths they earned her at this year’s world championships, but they’ll cut her no slack with her coach, Chris Rozdilsky.

When Hughes went searching for a coach for her cycling comeback, she didn’t want someone who would sugar-coat the challenge. She found her man in Rozdilsky, an American university hockey player turned cyclist turned uber dedicated coach with a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

“People see her results now and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, she’s killing it. She’s almost there,’” said Rozdilsky. “And I say she’s not even close because she isn’t. She’s closer, but she’s not even close.”

This is music to Hughes’ ears as she prepares for her ultimate goal: having the races of her life at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I know what I’m up against in this sport,” she said. “The depth of field for the women’s time trial and road race is so deep. For me to even think about having a chance to succeed against that field of riders, it’s going to take everything inside of me.”

Rozdilsky got the job because he unflinchingly laid out what he felt Hughes needed to do to get ready. He looked at it from every angle, poring over her past training programs and her physiological testing to look for different patterns. He wanted to see what had worked and, more importantly, what hadn’t.

He set up goals and milestones based on what the best cyclists in the world were doing. Hughes was way behind the pack when they started out.

“If it wasn’t Clara Hughes, I would say it’s pretty much impossible,” said Rozdilsky. “Because it’s a short time, every day is crucial. Her gains have to be massive to get where she needs to be.”

The way Rozdilsky explains it, Hughes was probably 40 per cent behind her chief competitors in power-to-weight ratio when he first tested her at the PowerWatts studio in Montreal, where he’s based. She’s now 15 per cent behind.

“That’s huge,” he said. “I’m comparing that to the best in the world; I’m not comparing that to domestic competitors . . . You have no idea how hard she works and how meticulous everything has to be.”

Hughes wouldn’t have it any other way. Her speed skating coach throughout her national team career was Xiuli Wang, a demanding and wise leader who brought the best out of her. She feels she’s found the cycling equivalent in Rozdilsky.

“He sees no limits anywhere,” said Hughes.

That includes the age factor. Hughes is 38. Much has been and will be made of that en route to London, but Rozdilsky doesn’t see it as an issue.

“Obviously at a certain point things start to decline, but with Clara it really doesn’t mean much,” he said. “I don’t see it as she’s how many years old. I see it as, ‘Wow, she’s got 20 years of experience as an athlete. That’s priceless.’

“How many times she’s failed over those 20 years, people, I bet their jaws would drop. And that’s what makes the athlete. If you look at her history, I’d say 99 per cent of the population would have quit years ago. . . . It’s just too hard. Failed too many times. Got injured too many times. Et cetera.

“But her, she’s so determined that she kept plugging along. She could do amazing things being average, her average. I think that’s one of the common threads among the best athletes in the world. They could still get extraordinary results with ordinary fitness.”

Hughes admits to asking herself “What was I thinking?” with regards to her comeback. She felt that during her first road race in Mexico while she raced in the peloton and watched bodies fly in crashes.

“Then I’m thinking, ‘Is this really worth it?’” said Hughes.

But those thoughts disappear in the heat of the race when competitors are dropped and she is where she wants to be, and when she’s cornering a descent and feels like she can go faster than anyone else.

“That’s what brings me back to ‘This is why I do it and this is why I’m here now,’” Hughes said. “Nothing is perfect, but oh my God, this is fun.”

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