When Fresno, California's Katrina Howard (Central Valley Cycling) makes her way to the start of a race, her appearance often causes a flutter of whispers. Whether she is lining up with the junior girls, the boys, or even the women, this 11-year-old has elicited respect since she began racing three years ago.
Former professional triathlete Amy Fischer (Velo Bella-Kona) witnessed the buzz within the peloton at the Wente Vineyards Road Race in April, 2007. Fischer said women warned each other in hushed tones that this 5-foot-1-inch girl was likely to be "squirrelly," so they better watch out. Having lived in Fresno and watched Howard train and race on the roads there, Fischer knew what the other Cat. 4 women did not.
Howard has almost grown up on the bike, training with two older brothers—15-year-old Curtis and 16-year-old Brandon, both Cat. 3 racers—as well as her dad, Boyd, for about four years now. And in just the last two years, she has accumulated five national junior champion jerseys, two in 2006 for time trial and road, and in 2007 she took the coveted triple-crown for the 10- to 12-year-old girls.
While her bike-handling skills and strength are still surprising the women, her outstanding results have come as little surprise to family, coaches, and teammates who have been watching her grow and mature as a racer.
Riding with the Big Boys...
Katrina's forays on a bike began in the baby seat on the back of her dad's bicycle. Her first bike was a pink Specialized Hotrock, and Boyd took off the training wheels when she was about 4 years old. Laughing, Katrina recalled, "I fell over. I kept falling over. It didn't take me long [to stay upright], but it still hurt."
In 2000, 10-year-old Brandon and 9-year-old Curtis did their first kids' race at the Tower Criterium in downtown Fresno, which is now part of the Central Valley Classic, an early season NRC stage race. Katrina remembers watching them and knowing right away that she wanted to do what her big brothers were doing. In 2003, she entered the kids' race.
Soon members of local race team Central Valley Cycling (CVC) noticed the Howards out riding. "The more I saw them, the more I thought it'd be cool to get the kids interested in racing with CVC," said race director Mike Shuemake. Though he was primarily interested in the boys for its newly formed junior development team, Katrina's promise as a racer quickly became evident.
Boyd started taking the kids to CVC training rides. "I can remember one night, I had the two boys doing intervals and Katrina was just hanging on my wheel," Shuemake recalled. "I'm thinking this little girl is gonna come off at 18 miles per hour, and she would just sit back there, no matter how fast we went, right on my wheel. [She's] on a bike that's way too big for her, she's got her head on the handlebars, full on rockin' side to side in a paceline on my wheel. We were probably doing 24 miles per hour, and for an 8- or 9-year-old to go that fast, consistently? I could tell she had a little bit of grit."
When asked how she trains, Katrina reported that she "just rides" with her brothers and her dad. They have received some coaching guidance from Matt Moore, who acted as the CVC junior development coach in 2005 and 2006.
He recalled the moment he knew he had a real competitor on his hands. She was 8 or 9 at the time, and he had the kids out doing training criteriums that included practice sprints and cornering techniques. Toward the end of one of these, he was talking to her brothers, and she attacked on a sprint lap.
"Her brothers tried to chase her down and win, and Katrina came across the line with her arms in the air. As soon as we caught up to her, she was telling her brothers, 'I beat you, I beat you! I won!' And she legitimately won," he said with a laugh.
"I have this picture of a little tiny dwarf-girl with her hair ?ying behind her, on a little tiny bike, winning a sprint—genuinely winning a sprint—against her brothers, and she did it tactically. She knew she had beat them fair and square. And so that kinda showed me where she was headed, and she hasn't stopped since."