Photo: Casey Gibson/Optum Pro Cycling
The Giro Rosa started in Italy on Sunday. It is one of the most prestigious races on the women's calendar, and the U.S. National Team has sent an eight-rider team that includes 2010 Giro winner Mara Abbott. The team also includes first-year professional Brianna Walle. Walle is not only in her first year as a professional, the Giro is her first race in Europe.
Like many elite women riders, Walle works a day job to support her bike racing habit. She is a global customer service representative for Yakima, who among other products makes car racks for carrying bikes. It can be difficult for women riders to find companies willing to work with their racing schedules, but Walle has found support for her racing career at Yakima.
"I am incredibly fortunate to work at Yakima. They are very supportive of my racing, and always accommodating of my schedule," said Walle. "It's a struggle to find enough sponsors to support women's cycling in general, so many women have to maintain a second job on the side. I have friends who have had to retire from their professions because their employer wasn't understanding of their special scheduling needs. I am lucky to work somewhere that totally gets it and is cheering me on all the way."
Walle credits her colleagues at Yakima with luring her into cycling. "Dave [Dezellem, Yakima Customer Service Manager] and my coworkers could sense that I had a competitive nature about me," Walle said. She started racing in 2010, and quickly discovered she had a talent for the sport. Walle has a background in running and skiing and was drawn to the intense competition of road racing.
Walle's breakout result came in 2012 when she won the best amateur prize at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. That result caught the attention of Rachel Heal, the sports director at Optum p/b Kelly Benefits Strategies. Heal has a knack for identifying talent, and she seems to have gotten it right with Walle. The Oregon native started the season with a win in the road race at the San Dimas Stage Race.
With the Giro Rosa, Walle picked a doozy for her first European race: The Giro Rosa runs eight days and visits eight different regions of Italy. The race started in the south near the heel of Italy's boot. It traces a meandering pattern northward to finish with a time trial in Cremona. There are two mountaintop finishes which come back-to-back at stages 5 and 6.
The Giro Rosa startlist is packed with talent, including past winner Claudia Häusler, Mara Abbott and Olympic and World Champion Marianne Vos. Vos has won the past two editions of the Giro, and is a favorite to repeat. As of Monday after two stages of racing, Vos was already sitting pretty in pink. It will take some hard riding to push her off the top spot.
As for Walle, she has so far finished safely in the field at the Giro. Her U.S. National (and Optum) teammate Lauren Hall scored a fourth place finish in Monday's sprint. In the long run, Walle hopes to ride the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. But for now, it's Italy time.