Q&A with Pro Cyclist (and B&R Guide) Irena Ossola

B&R guides wear many hats: ranconteurs, consummate hosts, translators, picnic setter-uppers (yep, it’s a real thing) and bona fide artists. And while many of them boast some pretty impressive athletic credentials, few can truly call themselves a professional athlete—in fact, we can only think of one. When not slowing down to see the world, Irena Ossola is speeding up to beat the competition.

The Slow Road caught up with Irena to talk about turning pro, the many benefits of life on the bike and the challenges of being a woman in a sport that remains largely male-dominated.

When did you first get interested in cycling? What drew you to the sport?

Irena taking a break in Salt Lake.
Irena taking a break in Salt Lake.

I have always loved riding my bike, when I was little I would spend hours riding up and down the neighbourhood streets in Santa Fe, I even remember the first day my mom let me ride my bike to school. But I was initially drawn to other competitive sports, like soccer, basketball, and then running. I ran for 15 years, competing at Columbia University on the Track and Cross Country team before moving to Italy to compete professionally. It was there that I made the transition to cycling. I was riding more and running less as injuries continued to be a problem for me, but I was also falling in love with the hours on the bike exploring the roads around the lakes and mountains of northern Italy. My father and uncles were all cyclist growing up in Italy, so I feel it is in my blood to pursue cycling. It is the love of exploring, competing, and living a healthy lifestyle that drew me to cycling.

A lot of us are cycling enthusiasts, but it’s another thing altogether to take it up as a professional passion. When/how did you decide to that this was something you wanted to really devote yourself to?

When I was riding in Italy, I expressed to my father that I wanted to consider racing seriously, we got in touch with one of his old childhood friends and cycling rivals who’s daughter was Italian national champion. He put me in contact with the director of his daughter’s team and I was offered the opportunity to race in France for a composite team at the Tour D’Ardeche, a 6 day women’s stage race. I still can’t believe I completed that race with almost no training and racing against some of the best in the world. The race was 6 gruelling days and when I finished I knew that I wanted to be a professional and reach the highest level possible in the sport.

Who are your heroes in the sport?

Marianne Vos, one the most decorated female racers in cycling history.

Marianne Vos. She is the strongest and most decorated female cyclist of all time, and I would have to say, possibly one of the best athletes of all time as well. It’s incredible what she has achieved and yet because of the inequality in the sport few know her name or what she has done. I respect her not simply for what she has achieved, but for the fact that despite not having the fame and fortune that most other athletes with her titles would have she still continues as a dominating force in the sport and loves what she does.

A lot of the benefits of cycling are obvious: great workout, great chance to be outdoors, great way to explore your surroundings. But are there any benefits of becoming a cyclist you didn’t expect? What’s been the most surprising upside of cycling?

I have found that one of the greatest benefits from cycling is meeting new people, and sharing my experiences with others. There is a common bond between cyclists or even those that just ride a bike. I love the camaraderie that is formed naturally, as everyone tends to share a love for the outdoors, exploring and being on a bike. The adventures of travelling, racing, meeting fans, hosts, and other people have brought a whole new dimension to the sport. I always have an exciting story to tell or hear from others. The diversity of the people that I meet is also incredible; whether it’s other cyclists or travellers on a B&R trip everyone has something to share and experience.

You’re a woman in a sport that’s still very male-dominated. What are some of the challenges women face in the sport?

The largest challenge that women face in the sport of cycling is inequality. There is an incredible divide between men’s and women’s cycling. The prize money is often incredibly small compared to the men’s payout, the sponsorship and publicity is much lower, and the support of teams and individuals is very different and unfair. This greatly inhibits the growth and progress of women’s cycling, despite the fact that women’s races are more exciting and fun to watch. The key sponsors and supporters of women’s cycling are so greatly appreciated, but they are few and far between. It is incredibly difficult to maintain and support oneself as a cyclist. Most women receive little or no pay and must work a second job to support themselves. I feel fortunate to be a part of the B&R family, where I can pursue my passion of cycling but also work as a guide to share my talent on the bike and knowledge of Italy.

What’s the best piece of advice you would give to a woman trying to break into cycling?

I would tell her to first get a bike and begin riding for fun. Go on group rides and be consistent about getting on the bike. Then when she feels ready, to start looking for local races and possibly even a club or team to join that can help her develop in the sport. The next step or even possibly earlier would be to find a coach or mentor that can guide her through the process of developing, riding, training and racing.

2015 is shaping up to be a big year for you. Tell us about what you’re up to over the next 6 months.

Over the next few months, I am really focusing on my training and racing as summer is the key season for cycling. I am currently in Canada (near Toronto actually), where my coach lives, training to prepare for big national races. I will be racing here in Canada and also in the US.  In the fall I will then be headed to Europe to guide with B&R. I will slow down to show the world as a guide. I am excited to put my strength of riding to work and show our travellers what beauty and amazing things Italy has to offer.


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