TUPELO – Debbie Milne navigated her racing bike along the treacherous, rain-soaked course, looking for the right moment to make a move.
The slippery surface had already claimed a number of her competitors. Racing in a pack, she feared she might be the next one to taste the pavement.
Finally, Milne saw an opportunity – a hill – to put some separation between her and the pack in the 50-mile road race.
“I attacked on it and was able to pull away,” said the 40-year-old mother of three from Tupelo. “To attack and go off by myself, I need a hill.”
Milne pedaled furiously up the hill to take the lead and eventually claim her second consecutive national title in the age 40-44 division at the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships last month in Louisville, Ky. Her winning time was 2 hours, 2 minutes.
“I went back this year to defend my title off the front,” she said. “I knew I needed to attack and go off by myself. I needed a hill.”
Milne, who started cycling in college at Mississippi State as a way to get around campus, enjoys riding her bike for leisure as well as training for her professional races. However, the thrill of competition and the opportunity to win money are the lures road racing offers her.
Competitive cycling “is a chess game,” she said. “You wait for the perfect time to make your move. It’s like cat and mouse. It’s fun. It’s a big game.”
Milne’s not ashamed to admit that she enjoys the spoils that come with her victories.
“As long as I need to make money, I’m driven,” she said, then smiled. “I ride like they’re trying to kill me.”
Athletics has always been a part of Milne’s life. In high school, she played basketball, ran track and cross country.
Her track coach at Tupelo High, Chris Coleman, remembers Debbie Leatherman Milne as a “great competitor” in everything.
“She would get after you,” said Coleman, athletics director and assistant football coach for Corinth High School. “Debbie was tough, tenacious. Her whole family was. Her brother (Bryan) was a pole vaulter for me. He was a tough guy.”
Milne, a point guard during her playing days for the Lady Wave, still enjoys a physical pick-up game of church league hoops.
“It’s all about going as hard as you can,” she said.
Milne would know. She suffered a broken hip playing basketball earlier this year. It kept her off her bike for about six weeks.
Her weekly training in cycling during the February-September racing season is to ride at least 300 miles per week. She begins her practice rides, which include a lot of hill work, at 5:30 a.m.
“It takes discipline, but it’s worth it, because I want to race,” she said. “All the work pays off in some way.
“I train as hard as I can, I ride as hard as I can. The process is what counts. I have to win money to be able to race. Maybe people who can afford to race are not as hungry.”
Milne’s drive to train is also fueled by the fact that she doesn’t race with a team and receive the benefits of competing as a unit.
“We all know in cycling that the team wins, not the individual,” she said. “The downside is I don’t have a team working for me. On the upside, I don’t have to work for anybody. If I was on a team, I might be one of those working for somebody.
“I like the freedom of not having a team.”
Milne’s racing season ends later this month with rides in Pensacola and Century, Ga. She plans to defend her USA Cycling Masters championship next year in Bend, Ore. Then, she plans to step up a level and compete in the Elite National Championships in Augusta, Ga.
Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal