Olympic bike racer Inga Benedict wakes up and doesn't feel like training, so she doesn't. She hops on one of her two motorcycles and heads for the roads around Reno. A few hours later she returns home and putters in the garden. She begins to think about lunch but decides to skip it. She walks into the small house she shares with her husband, Chris. A few minutes later classical music wafts through the house while Inga sits knitting a sweater.
What next? A bike ride? Maybe tomorrow. Inga decides to take another spin around town, this time with Chris. They climb onto—and into—their 1958 Ariel motorcycle-with-sidecar. Their black Lab, Pee Wee, sits behind Inga; Chris drives. As the Benedicts motor off, the neighbors gaze out their windows. Nice young couple, they think. Wonder what they do?
It's a simple question, but a difficult one to answer in a sentence or two. Inga Benedict is this country's best hope for a medal in the Olympic cycling road race, but she trains for her event without a coach, without a daily regimen, without much rhyme or reason. Chris Benedict is a geologist who isn't working in his field. He felt he was traveling too much, as was Inga. So he put his career on hold while she pursued her racing. "This way we spend quality time together when I'm home in Reno," Inga says.
Chris collects Oriental rugs, and restores and services vintage race cars and exotic cars; Inga has a rose garden, a separate flower garden and a vegetable garden, and owns two Harleys. She's part earth mother, part motorcycle mama, part bicycle racer. These iconoclasts met in 1986, became engaged six weeks later and married 3½ months after that.
The Benedicts' marriage reflects Inga's unusual approach to her career. "I'm not very organized," she says. "I'm the most undisciplined, laziest rider you'll ever meet. I do train hard when I train, but I'll go real hard one day and not even get on my bike the next day." Because of this tendency to procrastinate, Benedict says she couldn't have a steady coach. "I'd drive a coach crazy," she says. "I'm really demanding of myself and others. In the weeks before Spokane [site of the Olympic road trials], I was a basket case. I was a pain in the butt to be with. No coach would tolerate that. Also, I'm stubborn. A coach would tell me when to train, I'd say no, then we'd fight."
With her singular blend of laziness and ferocity—the kind of cruise-and-spurt that is the strategic heart of road bike races—Benedict, 24, has risen to the top of her sport. Last month she came off two weeks of "really weird, uneven training" to dominate the field at the trials. She displayed not only the great strength that is her hallmark but also a stunning sprint that surprised everyone. "I was shocked myself," says Inga. "I was shocked when I pulled away in the first sprint, and I was shocked when I did it again in the second."
She won two of three races and qualified first for the U.S. team that will compete in two weeks in Seoul's 82-kilometer event. Benedict's teammates are Sally Zack, 26, of North Conway, N.H., and Danute (Bunki) Bankaitis-Davis, 30, of Boulder, Colo. It's an interesting roster: a strapping 5'10" rebel biker named Inga who is jokingly called Helga by her teammates; a 5'2" prospective elementary-school teacher named Sally who's nicknamed Gumby because of her size and agility; and a 5'4" doctor of synthetic/organic chemistry who answers to Bunki. "No country will put a stronger women's team on the starting line than the U.S.," says bike team director Mark Hodges. "I fully expect them to medal."
Sue Novara-Reber, the national women's coach, goes further. "Any of them could win the gold," she says of Helga, Gumby and Dr. Bunki, "but looking at Inga's performance in the trials, I'd say she has the best chance. In Spokane she was great on the hills, she sprinted, she did everything. No one really knew what to expect of Inga, but I don't think anyone expected a performance like that."
Benedict's father, Newton Thompson, a Reno physician, says Inga has been athletic all her life. "She played everything and played everything well. She rode cutting horses, was on a state championship cross-country team, and a state championship ski team and ran the mile and two-mile on a state championship track team."
"My main sport as a kid was running," says Benedict, who didn't take up bicycling until 1984, when she made that year's Olympic team. She finished 21st in the Games.
"I started biking only a few months before the trials. I wasn't going to be world-class as a runner, and bicycling fascinated me, particularly the idea of stage races like the Tour de France—day after day of grinding it out. Although I do get lazy, the harder something is—physically and mentally—the more it intrigues me. I looked at bicycling and wondered, Can I do that?
"I went to the '84 trials for experience. I had no expectations, so it was easy to go hard." Benedict boldly attacked the hilly course in Spokane and muscled her way onto the Olympic team. "She did it on strength alone," recalls Novara-Reber, who was a competitor. "Inga's always been one of the strongest riders. After L.A., she just needed to learn how to do the sport and she'd be great."
But in 1985 Benedict hit a roadblock. "I was in and out of hospitals all year," she says. "They thought I had MS; they thought I had a brain tumor. I guess it was the Epstein-Barr virus, but no one knew what it was at the time." She was in her second year at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo but had to drop out. "When you're that fatigued and depressed, you feel you have no future," she says. "I thought I'd never race again. But I recovered, and '86 was a much better year."
Benedict joined the 7-Eleven team, and she started to compete again, coming in third in both the Tour de France Fèminin and in the Coors Classic, the premier stage race in North America. She became engaged to Chris Benedict, and not long after they were married, the couple settled into their one-bedroom, six-vehicle-garage home in Reno. "Life got good again," says Inga.
It has remained good. Last year she won four races in the U.S. and finished second in the Coors. She won the silver medal in the Pan Am Games road race and won this year's Coors. Because one of last month's Olympic trials doubled as the U.S. road-race championship, Benedict is now the national champion as well.
In both the '86 and '87 Coors races and in the Tour, Benedict finished behind a daunting Frenchwoman, 29-year-old Jeannie Longo. "She deserves to be the Olympic favorite," Benedict says. "But I like the situation on our team better than I like the situation on-hers. She is the girl for France, so they've selected two workhorses to pull for her and block for her. They [the others on the three-woman French team] won't be fast enough to win; they'll just be out there to work for Longo. We have three women who are strong early and are strong sprinters. Since it's the Olympics, it's going to be an awfully fast pace right from the start. That's good for the U.S. All three of us will be up there the whole two hours, I promise."
And don't be surprised if Inga is first at the finish.