Just like another cyclist with an Aspen address, Jessica Phillips broke out of retirement and raced back to the podium this year.
But unlike Lance Armstrong — whom one Aspen City Councilman exaggerated “has lived in town for all of five minutes” — Phillips is irrefutably a local. And last Friday the born and bred Aspenite became the U.S. professional women’s elite time trial national champion.
“I seriously said I’m coming back to cycling before Lance said it, but his comeback made me realize it’s not just me who misses the sport and the competition,” Phillips explained Monday. “Lance has some of the same feelings and, even though he rides at a different level, I thought, ‘Wow I’m not really the only one who has these desires.’”
Phillips’ determination earned her a one-second victory over Evelyn Stevens of New York and defending champion Alison Powers of Boulder, Colo., at the time trial championships held in Bend, Ore.
It had been a long time coming for Phillips. After seizing the elite women’s road race title in 2002, she joined the high-profile Saturn team in 2003 and then the German-based Nurenberger team in 2004.
But midway through the 2004 season, Phillips abruptly walked away. Living and working in Europe was more trying than Phillips had anticipated.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said.
So she tried graduate school at Colorado State University; working at restaurants — L’Hostaria in Aspen and Laudisio in Boulder; and she taught skiing in Aspen the last two winters — something she said she really enjoys and plans on doing over the holidays this coming winter.
Still, “nothing felt like the right fit. I wasn’t happy with my decision to quit. I always knew in the back of my mind that I still wanted to race. I had something really special and I knew I should get back to it.”
Phillips launched her comeback last fall. She trained in California, commuting back and forth to Aspen to teach skiing. Redemption came on July 23. Despite her four-year sabbatical, the 31-year-old placed first in the stage four time trial of the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend. A week later, she won the U.S. championship, which was held there too.
“I never was really thinking I’m going to try to win this thing. After I won the time trial in the Cascade Classic against many of the same girls and on what was close to the same course, I just got really nervous,” said Phillips, noting that it took a while before she learned she’d won.
“I didn’t really have any staff with me at the race. I raced as hard as I could and when I crossed the finish line I went back to the car and put on my headphones,” she said. After a couple of girls came over to her and didn’t mention anything, she figured she’d lost. Phillips didn’t learn of her victory until another competitor paid her a compliment.
“She’s like, “Congratulations!’ And I said, ‘Why? ... Are you sure?’ I didn’t believe her,” recalled Phillips, who races for team Lip Smacker, the lip gloss maker that is sponsoring a team this year for the first time.
Her win qualifies her for the world championships in Europe. She didn’t compete in the world championships after her win in 2002, providing further motivation to prove herself there this year, she said.
Usually countries are only allowed two competitors in the world championships but, per the rules, the United States will send three: Phillips, the national champion; Amber Neben, the reigning world champion; and Kristin Armstrong, who seized gold in Beijing last year. Phillips has also received an invitation to join a USA Cycling camp in 2010.
Phillips said her friends have left Facebook messages for her referencing Mayor Mick Ireland’s wish to honor seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who recently finished third at the Tour after three-and-a-half years in retirement, with a celebration in Aspen.
“I have no idea what they are really talking about,” she laughed.
Opponents contend honoring Armstrong, who purchased a $9 million home here last year, is a cheap attempt to capitalize on his celebrity. He hasn’t lived in Aspen that long, they argue. Others, including the mayor, submit it would be an opportune way to raise cancer awareness.
For the record, Phillips — who some would argue is also deserving of the city’s recognition — isn’t stepping into the Great Lance Debate.
“I just want to let him know I teach skiing. So if his kids need a ski instructor, he knows who he can call,” she said.
Locals shine at mountain bike nationals
In the fat tire world, Aspenite Annie Gonzales won the cross-country race in her age category (45-49) at the Mountain Bike Nationals in Sol Vista, Colo. July 18-19. With a time of one hour, 48 minutes and 32 seconds, Gonzales also had the fastest time of any non-pro woman racer.
In Sunday’s pro women’s downhill, Rachel Bauer of Aspen took seventh place with a time of just over three minutes. Bauer also took sixth, out of seven racers, in Saturday’s mountaincross in the women’s elite category.
A win in the nationals automatically qualifies racers for a slot in the worlds.
— Catherine Lutz