Teacher, wife and cyclist hopes to tackle MERCO dream

February 27, 2009 

Charlotte Hart has envisioned it many times.

The Atwater High School history teacher has played out winning the MERCO Cycling Classic Downtown Grand Prix in her head.

With family, friends and even some of her students cheering her on, Hart has imagined breaking away with the lead pack as the women's elite pro race rounds the backside of the 40th and final lap.

She's pictured herself kicking into sprinters mode on the home stretch and triumphantly crossing the finish line, arms raised, in her hometown.

It's a dream that's existed since Hart began racing competitively four years ago, and one she came very close to realizing with a second-place showing in the women's Category III race in 2007.

"It'd be a just dessert after coming so close a couple years ago," Hart said. "It would mean a lot to be able to do it with my husband, Eugene, and my mom, Sherry Johnson, there.

"They're my support system. They allow me to go out and do this."

Hart's learned to cut a difficult balance over the years.

Teaching and cycling both require a lot of time, energy and dedication.

After a 10-hour work day, Hart may head out and train for another four or five more.

And more often than not, the two passions in her life become intertwined.

"The kids will laugh at me when I show up with new bruises and cuts because I fell while training," Hart said.

"My first year teaching, I was coming around a corner and must have hit a rock or something, because I lost it.

"I think my knee caught a rock as I slid across the ground because I had a huge hole.

"I probably should have gotten stitches, but I didn't want to have to call in a sub.

"So I patched it up as best as I could and went to work the next day with a bloody knee.

"Finally one of the kids told me I had a bloody sock."

It's that kind of mental and physical toughness that has allowed Hart to excel in the sport of cycling in a relatively short time.

Hart's sport of choice for many years was marathon running, until a foot injury sidelined her.

When her foot healed, Hart wanted to continue being active, but decided to try a sport slightly less taxing on her body.

Hart joined a Merced cycling group and found a new love.

"One of the people in the cycling group, Brian Pro, suggested I do it competitively," Hart said. "I was surprised.

"I've played sports all my life, but this was the first sport that I was really good at."

Hart wasted little time rising up through the ranks.

Specializing as a sprinter, Hart found her niche racing in criteriums -- short-course races that usually go around in a loops.

In just her second year of racing, Hart was the third-ranked criterium rider in the state for Category III.

In 2008, she made her pro debut for the TIBCO cycling team.

Kevin's Bikes owner Kevin McCarthy said Hart's ascension isn't that big a surprise.

"The funny thing about cycling is you're not supposed to peak until you're 26," McCarthy said. "Most pros will ride well into their 30s, so Charlotte (at 30) isn't really behind the game.

"She's built for the criterium races and is an excellent sprinter.

"It's good to see a local have that kind of success."

Hart finished 15th in the 2008 Downtown Grand Prix, the highlight of an injury-plagued year.

A pair of crashes -- the first involving a serious concussion -- basically derailed Hart's entire season.

With a new team (Vanderkitten) and a clean bill of health, Hart hopes 2009 is a very different story.

Hart's comeback tour begins Saturday in downtown Merced.

"I'm really hoping for a top-10 finish," Hart admitted. "My goal is to try and stay at the front and in the action.

"I'm just looking for a chance to use my sprinting ability at the end."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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