GATINEAU, Que. ● The last we saw of Clara Hughes on Monday, the Canadian Olympic icon was smiling bravely as she headed to the hospital to ensure there were no fractures in her back.
This was in the aftermath of a wild finish to the Gatineau Grand Prix, a 132.3-kilometre road race won by Hughes’ Specialized Lululemon teammate, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg of Germany, in a furious bunch sprint. Teutenberg’s winning time was three hours 25 minutes three seconds. Australian Rochelle Gilmore of the Faren Honda team was second and Alona Andruk of the Ukrainian national team was third.
Hughes, of Glen Sutton, Que., managed to finish eighth — the second Canadian in the field after Joelle Numainville’s fourth — despite her spectacular crash in the roundabout near the end of the race. In a dubiously numbered 13-lap event, it was lap 12 that was unlucky for Hughes, who went catapulting over her bike to land on Canadian rider Rhae Shaw of Windsor, Ont., who fell in front of Hughes to spark the crash.
After the race, the 39-year-old Hughes was visibly upset about the fall, about her aching back and for getting tangled up with a less-experienced road rider. She waited a long time before addressing the media.
“It really pisses you off if (the fall) is not your fault,” said Teutenberg, who at 37 is close to Hughes in vintage. “She had a pretty bad crash in April. We are old, so it always hurts a bit more than the young ones.”
About an hour after the race, a composed Hughes managed a familiar smile as she spoke to reporters, but remained feisty.
“If anything, I blame myself for not leaving a bigger gap between myself and the other rider,” Hughes said. “She’s not very stable on her bike and I should have left a bigger gap. Had I left a bigger gap, I could have gotten around her.
“It’s a lesson, and next time I won’t follow someone so closely that I don’t trust.”
“The saddle of my bike hit my back,” Hughes said. “So, I nailed myself in the back, with my own bike, if that’s possible.”
Now, she was laughing through the pain.
“That’s bike racing. It happens,” said Hughes, winner of Saturday’s time trial on this course. “The girl, Rae Shaw, crashed right in front of me. She didn’t want to go down.
“At least I know how to fall. I feel sorry for the girl I landed on because I’m not a light person.”
While the trip to hospital was precautionary, Hughes was in some difficulty, favouring her lower back as she loaded herself into the passenger seat of a team car.
“I think I’m OK, I don’t think I broke anything, but we’ll just do an X-ray to make sure,” she said. “I think it’s a hematoma (tissue swelling containing blood), which is just great, considering I start a stage race in Idaho Thursday (the Exergy Tour).
“I got back up, I did what I could for my teammates and Ina came through in the end, so it was great.”
If her back is intact, so is Hughes’ dream of qualifying for her sixth Olympic Games.
Canadian women’s coach Denise Kelly wasn’t worried about Hughes.
“Clara? She’s tough as nails,” Kelly said. “One of the most focused, professional riders I’ve ever worked with.”
Kelly and the other Canadian selectors have a difficult task, considering Canada will likely only get three road spots for the Olympics this summer in London. Numainville, Leah Kirchmann, Julie Beveridge and Denise Ramsden join Hughes as contenders for a team to be named in late June.
After pushing the pace for the first half of the Gatineau Grand Prix, Edmonton’s Tara Whitten abandoned the race with about three laps to go and had a heck of time figuring out what to do next.
“I’ve never dropped out of a race before,” Whitten said. “I didn’t know where to go. I ended up taking a bike path back here (to the finish area).
Road racing with the California-based Tibco team represents a change of pace for Whitten, and adds an aerobic component for the two-time omnium world champion. Wisely, she will eschew the road for track events in London.
“I was able to take some time off after track worlds and now I’m building things back up,” Whitten said. “I’ll start to focus on the track in June and preparing for the Olympics.”
Second among Canadians in Saturday’s time trial here, Whitten could have represented Canada in the TT at the London Games, but it would have meant doing the road race as well. The road race is July 29, the time trial Aug. 1 and Whitten has a slew of daily track events from Aug. 2-7.
“I think I’m going to be focusing on the track at the Olympics,” Whitten said. “The timing of it is difficult. We have a good medal chance in the team pursuit as well, I felt I should focus on the things that are important to me, which are the track events.
“The most important thing is to come away from Olympics with medals. The worst situation would be to spread myself too thin and come fifth in everything.”