Clara Hughes is 38 and no dreamy eyed child when it comes to the Olympics. She’s a rare athletic talent who has stood on medal podiums as both a cyclist and a speed skater and was flag bearer at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
No one in Canada has accomplished as much on an Olympic stage. But it tickled her Thursday, as she won the Canadian time trial title, to learn that an athlete older than her had won the French time trial. Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, 52, had just taken it for her 58th national crown.
“I’m a senior-citizen athlete, but she’s 52 and was fifth at the world championships last year, so I think I’ve got a few years left,” said Hughes, who won the national time trial at the Canadian road championships in her first appearance at a national since 2003.
Hughes, from Glen Sutton, Que., was timed in 30 minutes 25 seconds for the 21.67 kilometre race. Second was Edmonton’s omnium world champion Tara Whitten at 30:47. Third was Rhae-Christie Shaw, a Seattle-based triathlete who grew up on a farm outside Windsor, Ont., at 30:48. Defending champion Julie Beveridge of Calgary finished fourth in the field of 38 in 31.33.
In the men’s time trial, Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., racing for Steve Bauer’s Team SpiderTech, won his seventh Canadian title in 56:29. He beat Christian Meier of Sussex, N.B., by more than 56 seconds. David Veilleux of Cap Rouge, Que., was third at 57:42.
Tuft conquered the 43-kilometre race after a brilliant performance recently at the Tour de Beauce, winning two of six stages.
“I feel I’m in my prime physiologically, mentally, physically. These are the best years of my life,” said Hughes, whose Olympic career includes a pair of bronze medals in cycling – in 1996 – and a gold, silver and two bronze medals in speed skating.
An icon in Canadian sport, she came back to cycling to earn a spot on the Canadian team at the world championships and won the Pan American championships road race and time trials in Colombia, the Chrono time trial in Gatineau, Que., and the national title in Belfountain, which will be considered in selecting the 2012 Olympic team.
“I’m going to get everything I can out of myself and enjoy the sport,” said Hughes, who had a bad crash on the time trial course Tuesday and considered withdrawing. She quit cycling and focused on speed skating after a back injury made the 2003 worlds an ordeal.
The time trial in Belfountain was less of an ordeal, but the crash took its toll. “It was a hard one. I couldn’t find the rhythm, so I kept counting pedal strokes and stayed calm,” she said, adding that she felt “beaten up” and would reconsider Friday night’s road race.
After a long sports career, Hughes said she could transfer certain skills of concentration. She said her approach is to find a better way to do things.
“I have so much experience and I bring that to everything I do in the sports field. A year ago, I was speed skating for Canada and that was my full focus. It feels like the same kind of focus for this. I don’t do anything half-assed.”
Or half fast.
“I’m going to the Olympics to have the race of my life. I’m not doing this to have another Olympic experience.”