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U.S. Women Place 8th Despite Crash in 50-Mile Cycling Race

Oct. 25, 2019 | BY Gary Sheftick

A hit from behind on the final lap may have dashed the U.S. team's hopes for gold in women's cycling, but bruised ribs and a cracked helmet didn't stop Army Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi from crossing the finish line.

Dozens of cyclists take off from the starting line for a 50-mile road race.
Starting Line
The women’s cycling road race event of the 2019 CISM Military World Games begins in Wuhan, China, Oct. 20, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 191020-D-DB155-007

Benassi led the pack for much of the third and fourth laps in the 50-mile, 5-lap road race during the second day of cycling competition in the CISM Military World Games. She had dropped back to draft a while and was just beginning her final push when the crash happened.

"My plan was to move up on the left," Benassi said. Two more wide right turns were approaching before the finish, she noted. "And so if you move on the left, you don't have to hit your brakes; you can carry all that momentum — that speed — going into the turn," she explained.

My goal was to finish it. … I came this far, I trained this hard, I had to finish it."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi

As the pack approached the 2-kilometer mark from the finish, there was a lot of movement going on. "It got really sketchy," Benassi said.

When she went full speed into the right turn, she spotted a white jersey coming up from behind. That competitor's front tire hit her back wheel, taking her down. Her head hit the ground and she heard a click, "and I knew I broke the helmet at that point," she said.

Benassi said her first reaction was that she couldn't breathe. The impact literally knocked the wind out of her. "I just had to catch my breath, but it wouldn't come," she added.

Two cyclists round a corner.
Fast Corner
Navy Cmdr. Kathleen Giles and Air Force Lt. Col. Melissa Tallent round the first corner in the second lap of the 50-mile cycle road race in the CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 20, 2019.
Photo By: Gary Sheftick, Army
VIRIN: 191029-D-LX472-041C

Teammates from a trail vehicle rushed to her side to provide aid, but she refused medical care for the moment, jumping right back up on the bike. "My goal was to finish it. … I came this far, I trained this hard, I had to finish it," she said. "I was in a lot of pain, and my bike was rubbing, too. … Nothing went smooth, but I said, 'Forget it, I'm just going to finish.'"

Benassi finished last among the 30 competitors from 11 nations who completed the road race.

"But that's racing," she said. "You win some, you lose some."

The Army Reserve noncommissioned officer from the 312th Observer-Controller-Trainer unit at Fort Meade, Maryland, said she won't let the setback keep her down. A few days later, she was back out training.

The road race, along part of Wuhan’s East Lake, was tighter than normal, with many turns keeping the peloton close together, said Air Force Lt. Col. Shannon Gaffney, one of the four U.S. competitors in the race.

hree cyclists ride together during 50-mile race.
Women’s Cycling
Air Force Lt. Col. Shannon Gaffney races in the women’s cycling road race event of the 2019 CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 20, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 191020-D-DB155-014

"A few groups tried to break away," said Gaffney, who is stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California. But the course was too fast and the turns often close together. There were times we were doing 30 miles per hour on the back course. You're not going to go too much faster on a women's course."

Navy Cmdr. Kathleen Giles of Monterey, California, said the U.S. team is usually good at breakaways, but that this race was almost like a criterium, with laps around a closed circuit. The pack stayed close together the entire race.

Giles finished 26th in the race, and Gaffney finished 22nd. Air Force Lt. Col. Melissa Tallent of northern Virginia finished 24th out of the 30 competitors who completed the course.

The U.S. women's team finished 8th overall in the road race, ahead of Belgium, Mongolia and Columbia. China took gold, Poland silver and France bronze.

(Gary Sheftick is assigned to Army News Service.)