Carmen Small takes the bridge to the top

Dale Strode/Durango Herald photos

Durango native Carmen Small paused at Bakers Bridge during a training ride Friday. Small, who uses County Road 250 (East Animas Road) for time-trial training, is coming off her most successful month of racing ever, including a win at the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

By Dale Strode Herald staff writer


Bridge to nowhere?

No way.

This bridge and its predecessors have been leading Durango cyclists to new horizons for more than 100 years.

The landmark La Plata County bridge that crosses the Animas River north of Durango and connects County Road 250 to the west side of the valley is a standalone in the local cycling vernacular – a destination/turnaround for countless cyclists over the years.

“I do a lot of time-trial workouts out in the (Animas) valley. It’s a good, consistent grade ... perfect,” said Durango native and professional road cyclist Carmen Small of the gently undulated County Road 250 (East Animas Road) that leads right to the bridge.

“I worked on time trialing a lot this year ... and it really helped,” Small said of her unprecedented season of success in her sixth year as a pro road cyclist.

“I really had a great time trial at Nature Valley. I added 9 seconds to the field,” Small said of the opening stage in the recent six-stage Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota.

“It ... was the first time trial that I won,” Small modestly said of the stunning victory on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

By winning the 12.4-kilometer time trial by 9 seconds, Small set the stage for a tour victory for her Optum/Kelly Benefit Strategies pro cycling team.

Not only did she set the stage, but Small stayed on stage and in the spotlight all week, eventually winning the Nature Valley overall crown by 38 seconds over Emilia Fahlin of Specialized-lululemon.

Three more of Small’s Optum teammates finished third (Jade Wilcoxson), sixth (Denise Ramsden) and eighth (Janel Holcomb).

Many of her Optum mates have trained with Small on the road to Bakers Bridge.

“Definitely ... I had a lot of motivation to win,” Small said. “Then, the team did a great job. I could limit the work I needed to do.”

She said the Optum riders skillfully protected her position.

“I was able to conserve when I needed. It was really awesome,” she said of her new role out front of her team.

“My whole career, I’ve worked hard as a good team player,” said Small, who was the starting setter on her Durango High School state-championship volleyball team. “I’ve done lead-outs. I’ve worked hard as a support rider.”

After years of learning the trade in the heart of the peloton, Small said she understands the intricacies of racing.

“A worker really gets to understand the race. That part has been really crucial for me,” said Small, who turned to professional cycling after a post-collegiate career as a triathlete.

She capped her victory in the prestigious Nature Valley Grand Prix with a third-place finish in the closing Stillwater Criterium. She logged a fifth place earlier in the 153-kilometer Menomonie Road Race.

Small parlayed her success in Minnesota to more podium finishes at last week’s USA Cycling Road Nationals in Augusta, Ga.

The Durango native finished third in the road race, third in the criterium and fourth in the time trial at the national championships.

“It’s been a great year,” Small said during a break in a Friday training ride at Bakers Bridge.

“In the (Tour of) Gila, my time trial was huge again,” Small said of the early-season stage race in New Mexico. Small finished second in the time trial and second overall in the 2012 Gila – second only to Olympian Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho.

But her domestic success, Small said, also is based on European experience.

An international racing schedule with Team USA bolstered her European race experience, she said.

“Racing in Europe really helped, too. You have to increase ... your intensity. The level of racing is so much higher there,” said Small, whose husband Ben Sonntag is currently racing in Europe.

“Racing over there changes you as a rider.”

Sonntag and Small frequently trained together before the current season – often logging miles and miles from Durango to Bakers Bridge and back.

“I trained with him a lot,” Small said. “He’s so good. He really pushes me.”

Small, 32, said her next races will be at the Casade Classic in Oregon in two weeks.

Then Small and her Optum team will prepare for the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge in Aspen, a three-stage race Aug. 20-22.

There will be an uphill time trial on the scenic 9-mile climb from Aspen to Maroon Bells.

There will be a 35-mile circuit race around the hilly resort of Snowmass.

Finally, the women’s pro races will conclude with a criterium in downtown Aspen in front of the crowds gathered for the finish of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge stage Aug. 22.

“That should be a great event. It’s at altitude. I’ve done a lot of Nordic racing there. I’m excited about it,” she said of the Aspen bike races at 8,000-plus feet of elevation.

Small, daughter of Alan Small of Durango and Donna Nazario of Hesperus is a former Durango Nordic racer before turning to triathlons and bicycle races.

“Now, I have to keep it going,” Small said, pedaling away from Bakers Bridge.

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