The road to Atlanta made a few laps around the Utah Valley State College campus Saturday when defending Olympic champion Kathy Watt of Team Australia won the first of three Utah-hosted stages of the PowerBar International Women's Challenge with time of 2:05:52.
The race, comprised of 12 stages in 13 days that cover 650 miles, is considered the toughest bicycle race in the world for women and many of the riders, including Watt, use it as a tune-up for the Atlanta games."I liked the undulating circuit course," Watt said. "I wanted to keep toward the front and see how I felt and I felt pretty good."
Watt's breakaway came about 30 miles in the UVSC race when she led a small crowd away from the pack as a light rain dusted the course. Moving with her were Julie Young and Pam Schuster of California and Natalia Boubnenkova of Russia.
Watt also won a race in the '92 International Challenge and went on to capture Olympic gold.
"I won just before I won the gold at the Barcelona Games," she said. "Against the quality competition that I faced today, I feel confident of my chances in Atlanta."
Lithuania's Rasa Polikeviciute - who finished about 30 seconds behind Watt Saturday and will also be featured in the Olympics - retained the leader's jersey, maintaining a 12-second lead over her twin sister Jolanta.
Rasa said through an interpreter that unlike Watt, she didn't like the UVSC course.
"I wanted harder climbs (today). This is not my style."
Today's 66-mile road race from Midway to Park City will suit both Polikeviciutes better, featuring challenging climbs and fast descents. The Park City race was scheduled to commemorate the Salt Lake City-hosted 2002 games, which will see many events in and near the ski community.
Arizona's Molly Renner of Team Shaklee is the top American in the competition, in 10th place - 33 seconds behind the leader. Utah's Heather Hall Albert finished in 31st place, 38 seconds behind the leader, but was satisfied with her performance.
"I wanted to stay close and not lose time today," she said. "The game plan is to stay consistent and do well. Today I didn't want to work too hard."
Albert - who wants to finish in the top ten - hoped to rest for today's Park City ride which she said "has some pretty good climbs."
Being the only native rider in the race provides her with some extra motivation and some personal enjoyment.
"It's nice to be from Utah and to be able to say it."
Turnout at the event was a little lighter than planners had hoped.
"This is a test for Utah," said one official.
If the locals didn't notice the world-class athletes in Orem, the national and international media did. Europe watches satellite highlights three nights a week during the two week competition. ESPN and Prime Sports were also on hand.