I was not privy to the conversation occurring in the row in front of me for most of the flight, not that I am particularly averse to eavesdropping, but mainly because I am the type that begins to yawn as soon as the door is slammed shut and the cabin is pressurized. But as the process of disembarking began to commence, some three hours later, my ears perked up when the travel weary, but smiling young woman ahead of me invited the elder couple to come out and watch her race.

Wrapped up in the excitement of covering my first major race, it did not take very long for me to catch up with the then 22-year old Erica Allar, who coincidentally was out in California to participate in the inaugural Amgen Tour of California Women’s Criterium. To my surprise, Erica already had a working knowledge of our site given that I had recently completed an interview with one of her former teammates, Shannon Hutchison-Krupat, a true stalwart of the once mighty Aaron’s Professional Women’s Cycling Team.

As we waited by the baggage carousel, she would relay the details of her trip; the flight, the conversation with the couple seated next to her, the sponsor arranged trip to a local bike shop and the upcoming race in Santa Rosa. Though we would soon quickly part ways, we have continued to carry on a running conversation since that sun-filled day in February of 2008.

In the first of my three-part interview with Erica Allar (Team Vera Bradley Foundation), we take a look back at her early days on the bicycle and how an unproductive and disinterested cyclist turned herself into one of the top sprinters on the domestic circuit.

On The Rise

Although the great cycling state of Pennsylvania can easily claim Erica Allar as one of their own, the 24-year-old was originally born in DeKalb, Illinois. “We lived in Illinois until I was 6 and then moved to Liverpool, New York. My dad got a promotion at work and when I was 12 we moved to Fogelsville, PA.”

She would dabble in a variety of sports as a youngster, but it was ultimately the move to Pennsylvania that helped shape her future. “I had never even heard of bike racing or “The Tour” before PA. My first sport was gymnastics…I was pretty flexible so my mom and dad enrolled me at “Which Way Is Up” where I enjoyed pointing my toes and prancing around the floor in bright, girly leotards. I learned how to do a round-off back handspring and then dropped that sport kind of the like the balance beam dropped me. After gymnastics, I bent it like Beckham in soccer, shot hoops in basketball and when I moved to PA I even ran some hurdles in track and field. I didn’t even know bike racing existed until PA happened.”

Introduced to the sport through a friend she met in school, Erica joined a developmental program and raced the early part of her career exclusively on the track, where she competed in most every event available, and as she pointed out, even “getting down and dirty in some Keirin action,” as well. But it was not until she would meet up with Pat Marzi and James Carney that her true potential as a cyclist was realized. “I didn’t really take the sport seriously and was not fully applying myself…2006 was a pretty life changing year.”

She would payback their efforts handsomely by winning the 2006 U23 National Criterium Championships. ”There was a point in that race when I realized that I could really win my first national title. When I made it safely to the last corner of the course I realized it was really going to happen and when I crossed the line first I was so proud I had tears in my eyes. It was awesome, also, because I won my first title in front of Pat and James which really meant a lot.”

erica_allar_08reading_lbIn 2007, she would make the permanent move to the road. Racing solo and playing off the bigger teams in the field throughout the year, Erica would garner her first professional contract with Aaron’s Professional Women’s Cycling team in 2008. Under the guidance of Carmen D’Aluisio, she would learn to navigate the world of women’s professional cycling and the responsibilities that come with being a team member.

By year’s end, her second place finish at the 2008 Tour of Missouri Women’s Criterium all but seemed to signal that she had arrived.

In Part II, we take a brief moment to reflect on Erica’s frenzied 2009 season and look closer at what drives her new team.

Part II – Transitions | Part III – Present, Perfect

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Photos: Brian Hodes (top); Leonard Basobas (bottom)