Linda Brenneman of Laguna Hills will be spending the next couple of weeks with 84 other women on a tour of the French countryside.
All are competitors in the grueling Tour de France Feminin, a 12-day, 500-mile bicycle race that begins tomorrow and takes them at breakneck speeds over the Alps.
Brenneman--at 22 the youngest of the seven Americans in the race and the only Californian--has been training for the event for more than a year with rides of two to five hours daily around Orange County and occasional treks up the San Bernardino Mountains to Big Bear Lake.
A former competitive speed skater who turned to cycling just two years ago, Brenneman is considered by many to be "the one to watch" among Americans in the French matchup (much of which will be televised by CBS in the United States).
In last year's Tour de France, her first international competition, she placed 13th on one of the 12 days, so much bigger things are expected this year, with far more experience under her belt.
For a newcomer, her record is astonishing. In her first eight races, she won four, placed second in one, third in two others and fourth in the other. She has participated in 40 races this past year, winning one and placing in the top five in six others.
In the Tour de France (the male version of which began July 4), she will be competing for both team and individual honors. Whoever has the fastest accumulated time at the end of the race is the individual winner. The team with the best cumulative time takes first place in that division.
Team manager Paula Andros of New York says Brenneman "has extremely good potential. I've watched her develop from a novice cyclist to a very capable competitor and an extremely good team worker."
Brenneman credits her competitive nature for her success. She quite obviously enjoys a challenge. When she first moved to the county and got into cycling, she joined the Wheelmen, a mostly male club.
"Here I was on this cheap, heavy bike with all these guys who were sure I'd disappear any minute," she said, "but I kept right up with them and even sprinted with them."
She continues to ride with men, although she has changed her club affiliation to the Cycles Veloce group based in El Toro.
"I've always trained with men, in running, skating and bicycling," she said. "A lot of women are strong, but the men are so much stronger. They can go out and hammer for a longer period of time."
One man who does not train with her is her husband, Rodney, 30, whom she married in February. "He's a natural athlete," she says, "but we do our own things. We are very supportive of each other . . . but he's into Windsurfing, and I'm a real wimp when it comes to being cold."
The Tour de France Feminin, like its male counterpart, is actually a series of races, or stages, through the French countryside, ending at the Champs Elysees in Paris. The big difference is that the men cover 2,000 miles while the women go 500. The races begin at noon and cover an average of 60 miles per day.
"It's a lot of fun, but it's a lot of hard work too," she says. "It's definitely not a vacation."