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As the women-only Colorado Classic kicks off, two star riders show how hard it is to survive in the pro peloton

The Colorado Classic, which begins Thursday, will feature 96 of the world’s top women cyclists -- including former CU teammates -- bent on establishing a sustainable model for pro racing in the U.S.

Pro cyclist Heather Fischer trains near Boulder for the Colorado Classic, which runs for four days starting Aug. 22. The race is the only women's standalone professional road race in the Western hemisphere. The stage race starts in Steamboat Springs and moves on to Avon, Golden and Denver. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Two professional cyclists, former college teammates at the University of Colorado, are racing toward a career crossroads during this week’s Colorado Classic.

Heather Fischer, who led CU to a road racing national title in 2012, will race against her one-time teammate Abby Mickey when the women’s pro stage race opens Thursday in Steamboat Springs.

Mickey will ride for Rally UHC (United HealthCare); Fischer for DNA Pro Cycling. The pair will be among 96 of the world’s top women cyclists in the four-day series that not only will elevate champions, but aims to highlight the competitive appeal of women’s racing with an eye toward establishing a sustainable model for pro racing in the U.S.

The two former Buffs will pedal in the women’s pro peloton with similar roles and common goal: a contract to race again next year. It’s a desire shared by race organizers who hope the women can help forge a new pro-racing legacy in Colorado, one where cyclists don’t have to worry if this season will be their last. 

“I’ll definitely be riding more in a support role this year,” said Mickey, who finished third overall in the last two runs of the Colorado Classic. She’ll be supporting sprinter Emma White in the sprint heavy Stage 3 in Golden and Stage 4 in Denver and helping climbers Krista Doebel-Hickok and 2017 Colorado Classic winner Sara Poidevin in the first two stages in Steamboat Springs and Avon.

Abby Mickey will be in the peloton for Rally UHC in the 2019 Colorado Classic, which has been converted to a women’s only four-stage race that starts Thursday in Steamboat Springs. (Provided by the Colorado Classic.)

Mickey, with extensive European racing experience in her five seasons as a professional, will be directing Rally UHC tactics from the road, inside the peloton.

“I know the courses really well,” she said of the 53-mile opening loop around Routt County (including 7 miles of dirt) and the 50-mile second stage around Avon/Beaver Creek in Eagle County. “I know the altitude. I can help … guide the younger riders. And I’m really excited about the dirt in Steamboat.”

Mickey, who was born and raised in Aspen, said the four-stage race is doubly important given the state of cycling in the United States with the continuing purge of teams and races.

“Colorado has some of the best riding in the world. We had the (USA) Women’s Pro Challenge, but it was only three days,” Mickey said. “This is four full days. Our whole team is excited about this. I think it will take (the Colorado Classic) to a new level with the deeper field this year.”

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Putting on a show

Fischer, who also sports a cycling resume with European experience, will be the quarterback of Salt Lake City-based DNA Pro Cycling, a USA Domestic Elite Team that competes on the American criterium circuit. 

They also race in the increasingly popular gravel events like the Dirty Kanza in Emporia, Kansas. Thus the name DNA: Dirt ’n’ Asphalt.

Fischer said the DNA riders compete in Saturday criteriums — one-hour group sprints around a combination of city blocks. Then they take big training rides together on Sundays to help prepare for events like the Colorado stage races.

“My idea is we’re going to put on a show,” said Fischer, a pro cyclist since 2013, who returned to racing this year after being sidelined for two years by concussions and other injuries. “Looking at the (stages), there are a lot of circuits there. We race as a team at criteriums. We’re used to racing together, so I think our team can do well. But we’re going to have to be smart about how we use our energy.”

The team will lean on Amy Charity of Steamboat. “She’s a diesel; she’s our gravel pony. We have good, solid climbers, and we are very good descenders,” said Fischer, who did a reconnaissance ride on the tricky 2,000-foot Avon descent through Bachelor Gulch last week.

She said the descent could be decisive, immediately sending her back to the memory of 2012 and her individual victory in the national college road race in Ogden, Utah.

“I made up time on that descent,” Fischer said, adding that the CU coaches forced the team to study the key downhill section. “Abby (Mickey) helped me win that race. We were really good friends in college; she’s a really funny person.”

Pro Cyclist Heather Fischer. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The CU connection

The CU cycling duo came from the extremes of Colorado topography — Fischer grew up as a runner in Berthoud; Mickey grew up as a ski racer in Aspen. 

While in Boulder, they progressed together, from novice bike racers to collegiate champions to professional cyclists. 

“I went to the University of Vermont at first,” said Mickey, who was the state’s top combined alpine/cross country skier as a senior at Aspen High School. “But I transferred to CU when I missed Colorado.”

She was skiing with the CU club team when she started mountain biking, eventually joining the CU cycling team.

“I found a niche for the first time in my life,” Mickey said. “I think it was more the people I fell in love with in cycling. I found my best friends in cycling. And I’ve found the love of my life in the sport.”

Mickey is engaged to World Tour cyclist Toms Skujins of Latvia, who recently completed his second Tour de France with the Trek-Segafredo team.

“CU was where I first learned cycling wasn’t an individual sport,” Mickey said. “I learned it was teamwork, different roles, riding to help the team.”

Colorado native Abby Mickey, riding for Rally UHC in the 2018 Colorado Classic. She’s back in the peloton again this year, competing among 96 of the world’s top women cyclists in the four-day series designed to boost the competitive appeal of women’s racing. (Provided by the Colorado Classic)

Classmate Fischer was drawn to biking by necessity when she went to college.

“I had no car so I got a commuter bike,” said Fischer, with a quick laugh. “That actually became my first race bike. It was a Motobecane. I took off the reflectors, the lights and made it a race bike. We called it ‘Moto Bacon.’”

Before long, Fischer graduated from the hefty aluminum Motobecane to carbon-fiber racing bikes as she became immersed in bike racing.

“It was serendipitous that I got into cycling in Boulder,” said Fischer, still marveling at the legendary riders who would visit the Buffs’ training sessions. “Andy Hampsten came to our team time-trial practice one day; the next day I’m babysitting his kids.”

Hampsten, a longtime Boulder resident, in 1988 was the first American to win the Giro d’Italia. He also won a historic Tour de France stage on the Alpe d’Huez in 1992.

Going pro

Fischer’s professional journey included an opportunity to train and race with USA Cycling at its European base in the Netherlands. “Racing in Europe is the hardest, but I loved it the most,” she said. “They race so hard and there is so much talent there.”

The aggressive nature of European racing shocked her. “I got my butt kicked,” Fischer said. 

Fischer was knocked down and out of her first Euro race before it started, failing to make it past the non-timed warmup section. And she loved it. “My times in Europe, I’ll never regret,” she said. “I was fortunate. I raced all over the world.”

Women race through downtown Colorado Springs in the 2017 Colorado Classic. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Two weeks ago, Fischer wrapped up the U.S. criterium racing series with a sixth-place finish in the Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic outside Philadelphia.

“Racing is a completely different sport (in Europe),” Mickey said, reinforcing Fischer’s experience. “They ride closer together, much tighter. There are so many attacks. From the start, there are attacks. I love that kind of racing.”

She said the culture of racing fuels the intensity in Europe.

“It’s basically a criterium-style race that covers three hours,” Mickey said. “I love it over there. I would race over there full time if I could.”

The crossroads

But both Mickey and Fischer said professional bicycle racing takes a heavy toll — mentally and physically.

“You are always fighting to survive,” said Fischer, 30. “You’re fighting for your contract; you’re fighting for equipment, everything.”

In most cases, the women in the professional peloton are riding on one-year contracts. Their futures depend on building a new résumé and going through job interviews — every year.

“There’s not a lot of money in it,” Fischer said, adding that from 2013-17 she had only one season with a living wage as a pro cyclist.

Part-time jobs and seasonal work go hand-in-hand with most racing contracts for women.

Pro cyclist Heather Fischer gears up for practice near Boulder. The Colorado native returning to cycling after retiring two years ago due to concussions and other injuries. She’ll be riding in the Colorado Classic for Utah-based DNA Pro Cycling. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“You decide what you will go without, and you keep fighting,” said Fischer, who is returning to the peloton after doctors and therapists in the sports medicine program at CU helped her recover from debilitating concussion-induced migraines.

The transition was tough, but she wanted to see if she enjoyed racing again. 

Opting for a lighter program with shorter criterium races enabled Fischer to cut back her training time, work part-time and still be prepared for the one-hour weekend races.

The revised schedule also took into account personal changes. While Fischer continued to train and race, her partner, former U.S. Olympic mountain bike racer Mitchell Hoke, was traveling the country as he learned to be a pilot.

Fischer also returned to CU last spring to help coach college cyclists. “That was new and exciting for me,” she said. “I got to see myself in all of those (college riders). For me, that CU program is why I have a career in cycling.”

This year she also traveled to Switzerland to take the team-manager course offered by the UCI, the world governing body of cycling.

Fischer said she is excited to race in front of friends, family and the CU cycling team this week. “I think it’ll be a great race for spectators,” she said, hopeful for another limited racing contract next year to go balance her coaching duties.

Mickey, too, is hoping for a new contract for next year.

“Honestly, it’s been really tough (being a pro cyclist) … there have been a lot of roller coasters,” said Mickey, 29, who has never had a contract for more than a year. “At the moment, I’m staring down retirement because I don’t have a contract for next year. I absolutely love racing my bike. I hope this isn’t the end for me. But if it is the end, I know I’ve had an amazing career.”

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