Sponsor Life: Valley of the Sun Stage Race with Visit Dallas DNA

After spending two incredible days at Team Camp with the Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling Team, I couldn't wait to see how they would perform at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race. Fitness, teamwork, staff, health, strategy, and weather would all be factors for the 1st race of the season and quite possibly set the tone for the rest of the year.

Thursday night's focus was on Friday's Time Trial. There wasn't as much strategy discussion as there would be for the Road Race and Criterium, but plenty of time was spent reviewing the Technical Guide and Start List. There was talk about body suits, podium attire, and which bike to warm up on. Last but not least, and constantly a topic of discussion, was travel and logistics. Only a handful of women's cycling teams have buses that they can all ride together on. The reality is that the racers were spread across several houses and assigned to specific carpools, plus staff and media (my truck) had to coordinate so we all arrived by mid-morning and could park together around the team trailer and tent.

Once Anne-Marije and I realized that we had until 9:30a to leave Phoenix for Buckeye, we grabbed our bikes out of the team trailer and loaded them in the truck to take back to the hotel. While the racers were eating breakfast and prepping for the day, we would wake early and ride South Mountain.

After three rides on Thursday, I was struggling up the climb but Anne-Marije (anyone need a guest rider?) came back and encouraged me up the last hump before we quickly descended. We drove straight to Ali's hotel and he jumped in with all his video equipment plus breakfast for us - winning! During our hour drive west of Phoenix, we learned about Ali's MTB race in Peru called Inca Avalanche. Invigorating to be surrounded by people passionate about cycling and brainstorming ideas.

Anne-Marije patiently waiting for me on South Mountain

The Time Trial went off without a hitch and our UK Time Trial specialist Claire Rose finished 1 second behind Leah Thomas. I was a spectator for most of the race, watching warm-up and all the starts then walking up from the finish to capture photos. It was great to see other racers and staff and get the season kicked off. It was fantastic to have Claire on the podium and many other riders with great times.

VOS TT - Warm Up

VOS TT - Jen Staging
VOS TT - Claire Start
VOS TT - Jen Start

VOS TT - Way out West

We drove back, adding Cathy (CottonSox) to the mix and completing the official media vehicle. We dropped Anne-Marije and Ali at the house to work with the team on a future Ella Cycling Tips podcast while Cathy and I went back out to run errands and get groceries.

Like Team Camp, dinner was back at the house, the only difference being that the riders were not allowed to help with prep or cleaning since they were in race mode. Some found it difficult to stay away from all the fun Cathy and I were having in the kitchen, so they sat and entertained us with stories. The team meeting was very strategic as the first road race would test the team and the competition, plus rain was expected. We also said goodbye to Anne-Marije as she was headed to Sedona for a mountain bike trip.

Friday Dinner - Taco Night

It was sprinkling Saturday morning as I drove in the dark to South Mountain to get in another ride before heading to the Road Race. It was gloomy without my riding partner Anne-Marije and with menacing rain clouds, but I went for it. I rode out the San Juan road rather than climbing to the towers and got wet but not drenched. Unlike Friday morning, I had just enough time to go back to the hotel to shower and eat before picking up Ali. We made a detour to pick up some things for the racers, then made our way southeast to Casa Grande, AZ.

South Mountain San Juan Road - Towers in the distance

While the women stayed dry and warmed up, the rest of us figured out logistics for the 62 mile / 3.8 lap course. Some would stay at the trailer, some in the team car, and other in the media car. I was media, so we wished the team good luck and drove out before the start. The rain wasn't as bad as in Phoenix but it was on the way and going to be interesting.

Cathy and Ali needed to be out on the course so they could get some shots of the race and we talked ourselves into a good spot just before the hill to the feed zone. We would see the race come by four times so they wanted a few different angles. On the 1st lap, I helped Ali with the crane camera. Then on the 2nd and 3rd laps, I went to the feed zone to help Erin hand out bottles. We jumped in the car and drove to the finish to drop off Cathy and Ali then I drove Erin back to the team trailer to prepare for the riders to arrive. It was still raining, many couldn't feel their fingers, and everything was drenched so it was a bit chaotic getting everyone in, changed, and back in their cars for the drive back.

Unfortunately, we also had a rider go down during the race. Mindy injured her shoulder and will be okay but it's always scary when you hear about the crash, the ambulance, and don't know exactly what's going on until later. Alex had flown in Friday night and drove the support vehicle in the race but then went to the hospital to pick up Mindy and Scott. I'm telling you, it's all about logistics.

VOS RR - Team Meeting (puffy coats coming in handy in Arizona)

VOS RR - Ali and Cathy getting ready for the shot

VOS RR - Feed Zone Duty with Erin

More media on the drive home with Cathy and Ali, groceries, and dinner prep. While Erin massaged and we cooked, the riders told us stories about the race. Everyone, including Mindy and her new arm sling, made it back for dinner and the team meeting. Jen had been in the break and finished 8th, while Claire kept 2nd on GC but wasn't feeling well and would make a final decision in the morning. The Valley of the Sun had become Valley of the Rain and it was not going to stop until Sunday afternoon, during the Criterium. It was my last evening with the team and last shuttle home for the riders, so a little sad, but I knew I'd see them the next day and throughout the season.

Saturday Dinner - You can never have too many greens on the veggie table

The rain was intense Sunday morning and there was no way I was going to get a ride in, so packed my bike and headed to 24 Carrots for a yummy vegan breakfast before driving to the Crit. As always, the trailer was already parked and the tent was prepped for the riders hours before they arrived. Even though it was cold and drizzling, there were glimpses of sun and hope for dry roads. The riders arrived and began to warm up. Unfortunately, two trainers were put away with news that Mandy and Claire were too sick to race, but that's bike racing and they made the right decision.

VOS Crit - Team Meeting

The team did well, working together and communicating closely especially with their new digital radios. Erin, Mindy, and I watched the race together and it was great to hear Mindy's perspective on each lap. Hanna finished in 5th and Katie C in 10th, while Jen moved up to 7th in GC. Although podiums on Saturday and Sunday would have been ideal, the team finished strong. They overcame the weather, the loss of 3 teammates, new gear, and many other factors.

VOS Crit - Katie D (652) and Hanna (629) waiting to get on course 

VOS  Crit Start - Jen (621), Katie D (652), Hanna (629)
VOS Crit - Hanna in mini break

VOS Crit Finish - Kendall Ryan (Tibco) with win

That wasn't it for the racers, as they took a quick cool-down lap then lined up with the kids for a lap. The kids, parents, and crowd loved it. Better yet, Anna's daughter wore her Visit Dallas DNA jersey, got her medal, then won the bike raffle - that'll be a birthday to remember.

VOS Crit - Kid's Race with Visit Dallas DNA Team
VOS Crit - Mia getting the Birthday Girl ready

That was it for me. I was off to the airport with Erin, Hanna, and Katie C while the rest of the team had a final meal before flying out on Monday. We packed the truck with suitcases and bike cases, said our goodbyes, and immediately started talking about the next race, which is this weekend's Chico Stage Race.  (spoiler alert - Mandy won the RR today and is in yellow jersey as GC leader)

That's a Wrap on Team Camp and Valley of the Sun

My experiences at Team Camp and Valley of the Sun with this amazing group of people is exactly why I sponsor the team and am so passionate about women's cycling. Thanks for reading and please show your support by following the team and the races.