Women look to grab Tour spotlight

While her family slumbered, 8-year-old Taitt Sato would sneak out of the house and onto her bike — pedaling the darkened streets of Los Altos Hills with the pace of an outlaw and the fervor of a true believer.

The nightly ritual marked the beginning of her lifelong love affair with cycling.

“I loved the feeling of the night air and the open sky. For me, a bicycle meant freedom. You feel like you’re flying,” said Sato, now a 35-year-old Oakland resident.

Sato, a member of Team ValueAct Capitol, will be among the 125 female cyclists competing in the inaugural Amgen Tour of California women’s criterium, presented by the Redwood Regional Breast Center.

The historic event will take place Monday, with the 17 female teams competing in downtown Santa Rosa in the hours before the men’s finish.

Despite her ever-present passion for the sport, life as a full-time competitive cyclist is somewhat new for Sato. Until two years ago, she worked as a corporate attorney with San Francisco firm Latham and Watkins.

“I used racing and riding as a way to balance work and life. Being a lawyer was so easily all-consuming I wanted to find balance to the intensity of the law,” she said. “As I grew more experienced in racing, I wanted to put more time and focus into it.”

Sato, who trains other cyclists through Wenzel Coaching, said she hopes the women’s criterium will be a launching point for more women’s events being included in U.S. professional men’s road races.

“This is a very exciting opportunity for the women to showcase our skills in front of all the spectators gathered for the event,” she said. “Once the spectators see how exciting women’s racing can be, we’ll be given more opportunities down the road.”

Retired competitive cyclist Laura Charameda, race director of the women’s criterium, said she expects that the Tour of California’s 2009 schedule will feature even more women’s events.

“I think this race has the media attention and the potential for making it a top women’s international race, much like it’s done for the men,” she said.

The women will compete for more than $10,000 in prizes. Among the other participants in this race is 2007 National Racing Calender overall individual winner Laura Van Guilder of the Cheerwine Women’s Professional Cycling Team.

For Sato, however, prize money isn’t the primary motivation.

“I just love the thrills of fast riding and the camaraderie and support that we share as a team,” she said.

tbarak@examiner.com

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