Women Push Their Limits In Pro Cycling Race

The Exergy Tour began Thursday night in Boise, Idaho. It's the largest women's five-day stage race in North America. It's also the last major race before cycling teams are chosen for the Olympics in London. This Tour is meant to raise the bar for women's cycling but as Sadie Babits reports, the race began with a major upset.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some of the world's top professional women cyclists are in the great state of Idaho this weekend to compete in the inaugural Exergy Tour. It's the largest women's five-day stage race in North America. It's also the last major race before cycling teams are chosen for the Olympics in London. This tour is meant to raise the bar for women's cycling, but as Sadie Babits reports, the race began with a major upset.

SADIE BABITS, BYLINE: Hundreds of fans lean against orange barriers in downtown Boise. They've come to watch the opening stage of this crucial tour. This is the moment they've waited for - a site of Olympic Gold medalist and Boise native Kristin Armstrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go fast, Kristin.

BABITS: Armstrong speeds down the ramp. She's on track to set a record for this start to the Exergy Tour...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BABITS: ...but halfway through, disaster strikes. She crashes - hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

KRISTIN ARMSTRONG: I can't move my arm. I can't move my arm.

BABITS: She finishes holding her left shoulder, tears streaming down her face. Armstrong races for the American team Exergy TWENTY12. In 2008, she won gold in the women's time trial in China. She hoped that this race would secure her place on the U.S. Olympic team. The sport director for Exergy, Simon Cope, rushes to her side.

SIMON COPE: You know, hometown, big crowd. She wanted to win and she would have won. I mean, to come in 11th, you know, and to sit on the ground for 20 seconds - do your own math on that one.

BABITS: Armstrong has a clean break in her left collarbone and won't finish the tour. But teammate Theresa Cliff-Ryan the next day sprints across the finish line with her arms in the air. She says she's really impressed with this tour despite having her teammate out of the competition.

THERESA CLIFF-RYAN: This tour raises the bar so hopefully other tours and race organizers will take a look at this, how it's run. This is a huge step for us and it's only going to go up.

BABITS: The $100,000 prize is the largest payout for a women's five-day stage race in history, pushing it much closer to men's pro racing. Things were very different when Connie Carpenter took Olympic gold in 1984. But events like the Exergy Tour certainly help.

CONNIE CARPENTER: You know I think it's a turning point, hopefully, for women's cycling. I don't know if others will follow suit. That's what we would really need. I mean, we need a half-dozen races like this on the calendar.

BABITS: Idaho's Olympic star Kristin Armstrong hasn't missed a stage this weekend. She's cheering and coaching her teammates from the sidelines with her arm in a sling. She's still hopeful she'll be a part of the U.S. Olympic team in London.

ARMSTRONG: I'm just going to focus on my recovery and my healing. There's nine weeks to London and to me that's a long time, it's a lot of time for me to get back to where I was.

BABITS: Armstrong finds out June 15th whether she'll get to defend her gold medal in the time trial. After that she says she plans to retire. For NPR News, I'm Sadie Babits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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