Laura Charameda is somewhat of a legend in her own time. With more than 250 wins in her career, she was one of the most successful American pros ever. Now she brings up the next generation of riders with Team Swift.
Below is an extended version of an interview I did with her that originally appeared in Bicycling magazine.
I used a bicycle as transportation. Bicycles for children mean a lot of freedom. All of a sudden you can go wherever you want.
Then one day in my junior year of college I was riding to work and there all these bicycle people standing in the road. I stopped to ask, “What are you guys doing?” And they said, “We’re gonna race.” And I was like, “What’s the hurry?”
I didn’t even know it was a sport. And one of the guys said, “There’s another one in two weeks if you wanna check it out.” So I entered the race and it was the hardest thing I ever did and I loved it. I knew this was it. This was what I wanted to do. And of course there were also the cute guys…
With over 250 career victories, how did you get into coaching and how did you balance it with your racing?
I didn’t want to retire when I did. I had a team in America and a team in Italy and was racing for the United States at the World Championships and other major events. I was living a very unique experience for an American, let alone an American woman.
After the World’s in ’96 I went on vacation the off-season, picked up a grocery bag the wrong way and herniated a disc. Injury for an athlete is tough because they can train through pain, and you have to learn what’s good pain and what’s bad pain. Sometimes you have to learn that lesson the hard way. I ended up injuring something else by compensating and had two discectomies and a fusion to the area as well as a knee surgery all in one year. At the time of the fusion the doctor told me, “Laura if this doesn’t work then we have no more choices.” You just have to step back at that point and say, “I’m going to let my body heal.” So I stopped racing. And it was a long haul. It took a long time and a lot of rehab. But I feel really lucky because now I can do everything I want. And I did come back again and was able to some racing. But I know at that high of a level what it takes, to train to compete at that level, and I wouldn’t ask that of my body again. I won’t take that chance.
Just before I was injured I had just moved up to Santa Rosa, CA because it was such a great bike riding place. I’d been there for a few races and thought it would be a great place to ride and train. So there I was, I was injured, I didn’t know anybody, and I met a group of people who were interested in helping the sport of cycling. They realized that grassroots cycling in America had just ground to a halt. Back when Greg Lemond was racing, you’d show up to a junior’s race and there’d be a hundred kids in it. And at that point in ’98 there would be like five kids in them. There was no infrastructure. And so they worked with a local bike shop and formed a junior’s team, and they asked me to be involved. And even though I was dealing with all my own stuff, the energy from these kids and the excitement they had about being on their bicycles brought me back to the races. And for the first time, it wasn’t about my performance. Those kids kind of brought me back to life. And it has made me want to keep working with development and with Team Swift. Their motivation motivates me. And I haven’t ever looked back.
So you’re grooming the next generation of pros.
One of the graduates of Team Swift, Steven Cozza, has joined Slipstream and got 10th in the prologue in the Tour of California against Levi and Cancellera. Another one of them is Nathan Miller, who is now on BMC. It’s amazing to turn on the TV and there they are! And we’re not just taking kids that already exist in the sport, we’re making them from scratch starting with their very first bicycle.
You said that you retired from racing in the late 90’s, but you did win your last National Championship title for your sprint in 2003.
I retired from professional racing, but I still like to get out there and play every once in a while. I just love riding my bicycle. To me it’s a way of life.
I got out there again and won the first NRC race in ’05. Then I promptly retired again. These days I only come out to race in the Merced Criterium. This year I got fourth. And then I retired again.
How many times have you actually retired? Do you keep a tally?
I just kind of get out there and once I’ve placed, then I’m like okay, now I can just relax and wait until next year.
What do you think is the most important thing that development programs like Team Swift contribute to the sport?
It’s not just about becoming a professional bike racer. It about learning how to ride a bicycle, bicycle safety, and what the sport is about so that they can enjoy watching it. It also gives people a better appreciation of our landscape and terrain and the outdoors. Ultimately it’s about creating more cyclists. These kids might grow up to be city planners that can make decisions to give us more bike lanes.
Last ride: I was at a regional race in California, the Madera Stage Race, and I volunteered to ride as a mentor in the Cat 4 women’s race. And it was great to be there because the women didn’t even have a lead car or a follow car so they didn’t even know where they were going.
Why: Women racers are so happy and grateful for the help that it makes me happy to help them and to see their excitement at that kind of event.
On staying young: I feel really fortunate to be doing something that I know a lot about and am also so passionate about. It feeds me, it keeps me young, keeps me reaching and setting goals.