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Feature Articles

U.S. Women Head to Italy for Cyclo-cross Worlds

Velo News Cycling Journal Cover

February 3, 2003

Velo News Cycling Journal

By Karen Kefauver

Ann Grande has no fear. The Kona/Kenwood racer will face the toughest international competition in less than a month at the World Cyclo-cross Championships in Monopoli, Italy. Yet she maintains the same sense of calm and focus that led to her surprise victory at the cross nationals, December 14-15, in Napa, California.    

"I knew that if I wanted to qualify for worlds, I had to win or be really close to winning, since I did not have many points going in," said Grande, 34, in a telephone interview from her home in Des Moines, Washington. "I felt great," said the five-time champion of the SuperCup cross series, "but I decided to be realistic. This season has been really different because of the back injury."

Sidelined much of the season by a mysterious and debilitating back injury, the "Queen of Cross" arrived at the nationals start line in the pouring rain committed to do her best, yet with modest hopes.

There was no stopping Grande that muddy Sunday afternoon when she passed Gina Hall and Rachel Lloyd to take the lead.

"You have to take a risk, take control of the race," said Grande, about her charge to the front. "Even if I had a total blowout, I had nothing to lose."

She widened the gap with sheer determination: "I had to stay really relaxed, concentrate on every corner, line, puddle. I had to be as flawless as possible."

Grande plans to employ the same strategy at worlds. She and Carmen D'Aluisio, 35, of Watsonville, CA, were automatically selected by USA Cycling December 17 to compete in the worlds (February 1-2). For Grande, it will be the fourth trip to worlds, for D'Aluisio, the third. The rest of the team will be announced January 3.

Though they don't know each other well, D'Aluisio and Grande share some traits: they are a year apart in age and have been racing cross since '97 and '96 respectively. Both come from running backgrounds; each won a track and field scholarship to college.

While Grande struggled with her injury this season, D'Aluisio (Clif Bar) had a superior record of wins to launch her to worlds with the highest points ranking, accumulated by a busy season of travel.

"I am really motivated," said D'Aluisio, about her trip to Monopoli. The '96 U.S. National Road criterium champion and former member of the U.S. Road Racing Team is partly driven by her results at nationals.

"I had such a winning season. It was a disappointment to come out sixth [after previous placings of second-fifth at nationals].   I really hate to make excuses. I think it was a combination of things that didn't come together. It was my poorest race of the year," said D'Aluisio. "I have thought about it a lot and let it go."

Her determination to finish the season "on a high note" means that after a three-day break, she is "starting to ramp up the intensity" of her training with a very specific methodology:

"For the first two and a half weeks, I focus more on gaining power back," said D'Aluisio, a former professional mountain biker. She explained that the frequent racing diminished her capacity for training. Then she will go back to working on intense but longer intervals to work at the lactate threshold and above.

Finally, a couple weeks out, she will do motor pacing to improve strength and speed. She will rely on her husband, Chris D'Aluisio, to pilot the motorcycle which she will follow, allowing her to sit out of the wind and work at a high speed.

Like D'Aluisio, Grande is rearing to go, hoping to better her 5 th place finish at worlds last year in Belgium.

"I feel like I just got started," said Grande, whose back started giving her trouble right after worlds last January. As her pain intensified, she sought out three physical therapists, got x-rays, MRIs. Nothing helped.

"It got to the point where I could not sleep and it was interfering with work," said Grande, a full time physical therapist at a hospital clinic. "I quit riding my bike in July."

At her first cyclo-cross race in October, Grande was so out of shape that she got "that throwing up feeling," but was glad to be back.

"It felt good to race. I was so tired of watching all the races. I slowly got better and was not discouraged. There was no pressure from my team."

In preparation for the worlds, Grande must fit training around a full time work schedule, inclement northwest weather, and the temptations of the holidays.

Her plans are simple: "Just keep riding," for an hour or two a day. She will start out with longer interval training then work on speed before the race.

Both Grande and D'Aluisio plan to arrive in Monopoli by January 22-23 in order to acclimate and ride the course days before the race.

"I don't like long stretches of pavement into the wind - that is not my strength!" said Grande, who prefers sections that require running and carrying her bike.

"Ann and I excel on different courses," said D'Aluisio, who finished tenth last year at worlds. "The group that's going over will be a real team. I expect we will work together," she said, noting that the U.S. women will enjoy the best start position.

"It is all in the start," said Grande, adding that this is an area where she can use improvement. "I am just not a fast sprinter. Some women are so fast off the start, I just have to survive."

"A lot of the women there are road racers, not many are mountain bike racers," said Grande, naming Daphny Van den Brand, as a strong contender. "They are kind of pushy. They don't mind cutting you off and throwing an elbow."

"The amazing thing is there are thousands of people lining the course," said Grande. "Last year, there were 50,000 people there. You have to get in position and hold your place on the fence for two hours. People dress up and paint their faces. It makes it more exciting."

Crowds are so thick on race day that the women prefer to stay on their trainers rather than battle the hordes. Both athletes will have family and friends in Italy to cheer them on.

"I want to win," said Grande. "I want to go as hard as I can. I have learned to do what I can and to be happy with that."

For D'Aluisio a top-five finish would be excellent, but she is shooting even higher. "My goal is to go over and try to win a medal. That's what I am trying to prepare for and visualize."

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