WUHAN, China — A hit from behind on the final lap may have dashed the U.S. Armed Forces’ hopes for gold in women’s cycling, but bruised ribs and a cracked helmet didn’t stop Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi from crossing the finish line.
Benassi led the pack for much of the third and fourth laps in the 50-mile, five-lap road race Sunday 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 “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.”
CISM, or the International Military Sports Council, holds the games every four years, with more than 100 nations participating in 32 sports. The council is referred to by its French acronym, CISM, because French is its founding language.
As the pack approached the 2-kilometer mark from the finish, “there was a lot of movement going on,” she said. “It got really sketchy.”
When she went full speed into the right turn, she spotted a white jersey come 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. “My first reaction was, ‘I couldn’t breathe.'” The impact literally knocked the wind out of her. “I just had to catch my breath, but it wouldn’t come.”
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 NCO 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 U.S. team’s four competitors in the race.
“A few groups tried to break away,” said Gaffney of Travis Air Force Base, California. But the course was too fast and the turns often close together.
“There were times we were doing 30 mph on the back course,” Gaffney said. “You’re not going to go too much faster on a women’s course.”
Navy Cdr. Kathleen Giles of Monterey, California, said the U.S. team is usually good at breakaways, but the race Sunday 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.