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Race Anecdotes: Darkblade Systems Thunderblade Senior Road State Championship

There we were, the four of us, joking about making it a group ride instead of a race. We asked Shawn if there were any cafes on the Air Force Academy base.

I had two thoughts: where the hell were all the Cat 3’s and I only have to beat three women.

The 3’s had notoriously shown up in small numbers over the past season. As a fresh Cat 3, struggling with internal motivation and realizing what other racers coined “the graveyard,” I was both discouraged that our category size was laughable but also motivated to win.

Truly the only goal I made as a new Cat 3 at the beginning of the season was to win one race. After mid-pack finishes after the other, I thought to myself, “I just have to beat three women.” The thing about courses and racing and racers is that people race to their strengths. Non-climbers didn’t sign up for this race. Hell, two of the women who raced against me admitted they weren’t climbers but they signed up to support the category. Like, how admirable is that?

After my sub-par performance in all the hill climbs over the season, I wouldn’t have called myself a hill climber either. Franky, the day before this race I came in DFL. While I held back in that race to perform better in this race, I still came in last, and I’m sure my holding back didn’t make that much of a difference.

So, there we were, lined up in front of Shawn, the Executive Director of BRAC. We had five 9-mile laps for a total of 45 miles. The four of us, Katie, Nicole, Ashley, and myself agreed we’d ride together as long as we could because truly that was more tactical than dropping each other at the get-go.

Ashley fell from the group first. While I wanted to make it a group no-drop ride, I remembered I came to the race to win, and I knew (at least I told myself) she realized it was nothing personal.

At one point, we caught up to the P-1-2 women who were really treating it like a group ride. We didn’t know if it was best to pass them or hold off in case someone attacked. Our group got bored enough soft pedaling that we ended up passing them.

One of Nicole’s teammates on ALPs shouted at her to not lead the pack. I laughed, knowing full well we were all taking turns at the front. I said something back to that effect. Also, I wanted to let her know she should worry about her own race.

A lap later, the Cat 4/5 women passed us. There were about nine of them in that group. I felt silly being passed by the Cat 4’s as a 3 in the sense that typically that doesn’t happen on these longer courses. But alas, there were only three of us taking turns at the front, which inevitably is harder than a group of nine women taking turns at the front.

I had to remind myself that I could not stay in the front the whole time, even if I was more comfortable there. I had to trust that Nicole and Katie would point out obstacles and people. And they did. We were working together, not against each other. There’s a time and place to be ruthless. Like 500 meters from the finish line or if someone is sucking wheel, refusing to take a pull. Sure, maybe that’s tactical, but it’s also kind of an asshole move. It certainly would have been with just the three of us.

With two laps to go, we lost Katie. It was kind of ironic to have been racing against her a year later on the same course. She was the friendly Cat 3 who I rode with in one of my first road races the season prior as a Cat 4. And then there we were: both Cat 3’s, Racing for the State Champ title. I tried to encourage her to keep pushing just as she had done for me the year before. When I looked back the distance between Nicole and I and Katie had doubled. Nicole asked if we should wait for her. I wanted to but I told Nicole, “I mean, this is a race.”

Again, I had to convince myself that Katie knew it wasn’t personal.

I noticed Nicole was taking shorter and shorter pulls. We were no longer chatting; only breathing. A couple of words between deep breaths and sips of water: “almost there,” we said on more than one occasion.

I saw the 1km sign. Hold back.

Then I saw Alison Powers, Nicole’s team coach. She usually bikes on the sidelines and yells out tips or motivation to her team. I kept the pace the same, waiting for Alison to yell to Nicole. I knew it was coming. I also knew Nicole would listen and do as Alison instructed. That’s how her team operates. I think it’s inspiring how dedicated the team is to Alison and vice versa. Alison knows her shit. And how, almost automatic the team operates. Everything is drilled and dialed in. When you race against ALP, you’re racing against a well-oiled machine.

Who knows what people get when they race against me. As the only Cat 3 on pedal, I don’t get that opportunity to train as a team with tactics. I’m learning as I go. And also, racing against the same people over and over again throughout the season, I picked up on some of their tactics.

I knew Alison was going to give Nicole the cue to sprint to the finish. I was exhausted. I always struggled with the sprint finish – which is where all the racing comes down to. The last 250 meters. I could only hope that Nicole had less gas in her tank than me.

I kept my eyes forward, Alison and Nicole in my peripheral, waiting. I could see the white line up ahead, the orange fencing approaching fast, and there it was:

“SPRINT NICOLE!!”

I could hear Chris up ahead yelling at me: “GO! PETER SAGAN!”

Thoughts flying through my head, all telling me to push, as hard as I could; that I wanted this win. Nicole dropped from peripheral. My lungs were burning, as were my legs. I didn’t dare look back or get cocky and raise my arms in the air.

And just like that, I came in first place. I congratulated Nicole for her finish on a tough course. I also thanked Alison for the cue. We waited for Katie and Ashley and cheered for them as they crossed the line.

We were all friends after that hellish race with those struggles in common. We endured head wind, exhaustion, climbing 3,700 feet, and the same awestruck of the “graveyard.”

Typically, winners will earn upgrade points, but there needs to be a minimum of five racers. I was the State Champ but I didn’t get a single upgrade point. At least I had good company in the grave.

Finding your tribe

‘Tis the season to find a team either for your first time or your 22nd. Applications are opening and recruiting is in full force.

If this is your first time, it’s intimidating. There’s a ton of information, but no real concise way to use it practically. I remember when I decided to join a team, I didn’t know where to start. I went to Google, as most of us do when we don’t know where to start.

Usually, finding and joining a team isn’t as simple as signing up and now you ride for Team Zissou. There are a lot of aspects to consider:

1. Location

The Google search I conducted when I first started out led me to the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado’s website which listed teams in Colorado. I wanted to find a team near me so I could jump on my bike and ride to meeting spots. Having to drive to team nights, team practices, team-building, etc. could get old fast. Find your city or where you’re willing to drive/bike to meet the team.

2. Clinics

Some teams offer clinics to teach their riders more skills. For example, my team, pedal RACING, has clinics for Road, Mountain, and Cross. They’re all scheduled out so as not to overlap the other disciplines. I’m a Roadie and it was important to me to find a team that offered clinics that covered Time Trials, Race Tactics, Group Riding, Criteriums, and Hill Climbs. Sometimes clinic fees are included in your Membership dues, while other times you have to pay extra. It’s good to find out.

Pedal RACING does both: we have set clinics that are included in your membership fees, but sometimes throughout the season, there is an ask for additional clinics. The group will either ask one of our elite team members to teach us a skill or we’ll all pony up some cash to bring in a professional coach.

3. Cost

Once you’ve picked a team, another important aspect to consider is the cost to join the team as well as finding out where the fees go. Some teams are very expensive and others are super cheap. If you’re interested in a team that has a high membership fee, ask what the fees go toward. For example, my team costs $150 to join. The money goes towards the clinics at the beginning of the racing season, tents, paying team dues, and race support. After 3 races, a team member can request a reimbursement for their races and end up only paying around $30 for their membership fees. Another option is forwarding that reimbursement to dues the following year. Some teams don’t offer this, so ask.

4. Racing Requirements and then some

Every team has a racing requirement – some more strict than others. Most websites will list their racing requirements so give it a looksee. If they don’t have a list of the number (and type) of races you must compete in, just ask them. This may influence your decision depending on your experience. Most people new to racing are intimidated by the race requirement, which is why it’s important to feel comfortable with what team you choose to join.

pedal RACING has a three race minimum. It doesn’t matter in what disciple, but we require our racers to race three times within the year. With the low requirement, I felt comfortable joining pedal back in the day. I knew it was within my ability to race three times.

Teams may also have additional requirements. For instance, pedal RACING also requires our members to volunteer. We believe it’s important to give back to our cycling community – whether that is helping out at our annual Twilight Criterium race, maintaining bike trails, or building bikes for kids. Helping out where and when we can keeps cycling alive and even helps it grow, which, as cyclists, we most certainly want.

5. Do You Fit In?

Go on a ride with the team to see how you jive. The team may look great, but until you ride with them, you won’t know if it makes sense to join them. Some teams take racing much more seriously than other teams. If you’re serious about racing, then those teams more focused on race tactics, strategies, and training will be a better choice. Conversely, if you want to give racing a try because you like a little competition now and then, but you don’t plan on going pro, there are teams that focus on the fun and fitness aspect of racing. And of course, there are teams in between.

There are a lot of other elements to consider when joining a team such as the number of group rides, friendliness and competitiveness of the team, the look of the kit, guidance from other team members, support, and riders at your level.

I took all those factors and made a scale. I looked at the teams in my area and started whittling them down. I rated each team on a scale from 1 (worst) – 10 (best) for each factor I considered important in a team I joined. Then I added up the numbers and chose the team with the highest rank.

I’d love to chat with anyone interested in racing about my team or racing in general. If you have a question, shoot me an email: Women[at]pedalracing[dot]org

Race Anecdotes: Pikes Peak Hill Climb

I thought it was going to be harder than it was…

…to convince Chris to sign-up for the Pikes Peak Gran Fondo while I raced it. I had all my support and reasons why I thought it would benefit him as a mountain biker, but when I casually said, “you should ride the Gran Fondo while I race it,” he replied, “sure.”

I didn’t know what to expect having never done it before. Last year, I was forced to work that weekend and the year before that I was just starting to dip my toes into racing and frankly, did not believe in my ability to race up a 14’er. So this year was it. I was also planning on racing the Senior Road Race State Championship the next day. Go big or go home.

Because both races were based in Colorado Springs, Chris and I found an AirBnB to stay at to shorten our commute time. Even though we were an hour closer to the start line, we still had to wake up before the asscrack of dawn – like 4:00 AM.

As Chris drove us toward the start line, I felt like we were cheating as we were halfway to the top of Pikes Peak when we finally parked the car. The sun still hadn’t risen as we picked up our race tags from the registration tents. Because it was my first year racing, I didn’t know where the actual start line was and I never had time to pre-ride the course so I didn’t know what I was in for.

As I pulled out my trainer, I realized I left my Garmin at the AirBnB. You realize how dependent you are on things when you no longer have access to them. Luckily, I had my watch, but I was still perturbed by not seeing my watts, cadence, and heart rate updating in front of me as I warmed-up.

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The gran fondo participants took off before the racers, so I wished Chris good luck and told him I’d see him later. I joked with him saying, “I’m going to try to catch you.” I didn’t think I actually would since they started nearly an hour before.
The Cat 3’s were called up to the start line. All six of us. I don’t know why I always do this to myself, but I lined up in front. My only strategy was to copy what happened to me at the Guanella Pass Hill Climb: take off at the start line, drop everyone, and you know, hope they don’t catch up.

I’ve learned (the hard way) this season that I’m not the strongest hill climber.

So, I did just that. As soon as the ref whistled  (after what felt like a very long and uncomfortable silence as we waited for him to countdown to 3-2-1..), I shot off, of course, with a couple of other women. Since there were only six of us, I split the group in half. Another thing I seem to do far too frequently is hang out in front of the paceline.

I think it comes down to comfort. I don’t trust riding six inches off the wheel in front of me, unable to see what lies ahead. For some unexplainable reason, I prefer to be in the front, expending more energy than anyone else, but knowing what’s ahead. As soon as I realized I was in the front of the paceline, I tried weaving off the front and slowing down to allow the chicks behind me to go ahead. It wasn’t happening. They slowed down and weaved behind me.

I pulled over even father and slowed even more down. Finally, the two women passed me and I hopped on the back. Well, lucky me, I emptied the tank in the first five minutes believing I could keep a steady pace  while thwarting off the three racers we originally dropped.

I quickly lost the two women who originally broke off with me, so there I was, suffering alone.

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I thought to myself: “if no one else passes me, I’ll get third place.” A recurring thought I had when I was a Cat 4. I wasn’t okay with the thought, but then again, I didn’t feel the urge to try harder either. I knew I had a better chance of doing well in Sunday’s race and also realized I climb at a semi-truck pace.

As I passed the gran fondo participants, I looked at their wincing faces, slowly grinding through their third mile of 12. We hadn’t even passed tree line. If I was suffering, I knew these people were right there with me.

All of a sudden, heavy breathing and shifting gears roared behind me. It was the women’s Cat 1-2 passing me. As they pedaled past me like they were on ebikes, they offered a supportive, “you’re doing great!” “…thanks,” I laughed. I almost felt like they pitied me but as we cycled higher, the more supportive people became. I was inspired myself to breathlessly say, “keep going!” to the cyclists I passed.

So many times during these extra-challenging races (climbs up mountains), I consider quitting, throwing in the towel, and giving up. Too many times these thoughts filter into my conscious, especially when I know I’m in the back, about to be DFL, soloing the shit out of the course. It’s easier to quit to when you’re in the back. Everyone’s already passed you, no one’s going to know. That is, until they see results and next to my name it shows “DNF.”

When I think about seeing those three letters, DNF, next to my name, I look 100 feet ahead of me, and keep pedaling. When I want to quit, like in this race, I focused on the next turn. I look ahead and close the gap between me and the rider up ahead. I don’t let my thoughts pervade my mind. It’s too easy to let them control you when you’re 13,000 feet high, no life, just road and rocks and sky.

Then I saw Chris and instantly felt motivated. Since I joked in the morning about catching up to him, believing it’d never happen, and then actually catching up to him, I figured I wasn’t doing that bad.

In racing, when you find your strengths, you hone in on those races. Which means, this was a climber’s course and if you weren’t already fantastic at it, you were going to struggle against the women who also think they’re climbers. The women I lined up aside (and stupidly in front of) are climbers and I respect the hell outta them to push those watts. Frankly, I respect anyone who takes on any sort of race course, especially if this isn’t your forte.

As my category disappeared into the sky, I wondered what my strength was, because I was struggling this season as a mintly Cat 3. Other than endurance, I didn’t come up with a race-specific strength. So I asked myself, “what do I want to be better at? Where am I losing the race?” (Yes. There was infinite introspective during these 12 miles.) Reflecting back on the season, all the races came down to sucking at climbing and sprint finishes. Right then and there, among the wheezers, gaspers, and moaners, I decided this off-season that’s what I’d focus on.

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As I looked at my watch for mileage, seeing I still had probably a mile left of this horse shit, I looked up and saw a family of unicyclists. Inspired again, I finished the race, un-enthusiastically, assuming and accepting my DFL before the results posted.

I pedaled to the Pikes Peak sign and watched the excitement of cyclists raising their bikes above their heads, in a victory salute, for having pedaled up the second highest paved roads in Colorado. Realizing that some people can’t even handle driving up this with the thin air, gives you more of a sense of accomplishment having ridden it with a bike, powered by two legs and half-a-mind.

An Open Letter to the People Who Want Me Dead

I recently read Phil Gaimon’s post about his near-death experience with a car. It reminded me of a post I wrote a few years ago when I rode the Red Rocks Challenge.

———

Dear Deadbeat,

At the Red Rocks Gran Fondo last Saturday, I realized what’s on the inside of you will come out, eventually. Whether that be sadness, happiness, anger, or fear, we all have things in our lives that inevitably makes us who we are.

Some people have poison within them. Let’s be honest, we probably all have a little. This is a term I learned from Don Miguel Ruiz in “The Four Agreements.” It’s that negativity, hatred, and unhealthy thoughts that cloud your mind. The problem with this poison is that people don’t want it inside them and they think the only way to rid themselves of the poison is to pass it on to others.

The poison that came out of you last Saturday was hatred and it was spray-painted throughout our route.

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There are a lot of problems with this message, most notably the misspelling of “you.” That actually bothers me more than the message itself. If you seriously took the time to go to Michaels, to pick your favorite color out of the hundred of spray paint colors (and theirs must be blue), to drive out to this isolated road, in the middle of the night (because cowards don’t do these things in public – for fear of getting caught), hunt down the positive messages the volunteers already spray painted, to have your buddies hold the flashlight over your head so you could see the road as you spray painted, as you laughed and thought you were just the cleverest son of bitch this world has yet to know, and to go find the next positive message to do it all over again – surely, if you spent all this time and your parents’ money to spread your poison, you’d spell “you” right?

Maybe it’s one of those words for you: “Is it u-before-o or o-before-u?” It’s three letters. If you could go out of your way to spread your poison, commit to proper spelling. This isn’t a text message, you’re not restricted to a 140-character limit. You had the entire road and you chose to spray paint, “u.” By this measure, cars should kill “u.” The letter “u” didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just hangs out between “t” and “v.” They’re a happy group of characters. You, you’re not happy.

If I can look past “u” and see the message, you, the degenerate, was conveying, then it is clear that you want cyclists to die, specifically by cars.

If you did your research then you would see a study published by NHTSA that in 2014 726 bicyclists did die and 50,000 bicyclists were injured. If you did the math, which I’m also questioning your math skills, that’s roughly two cyclists that get killed and 142 that are injured every day.

I want you to imagine 144 people in a row and I know it’s probably hard for you to count that high, let alone envision 144 people who have a mom, a dad, a brother, a sister, a kid or two, a home, a job, some friends; probably dreams and goals for their future. Do you have that in your thick skull? Do you see them smiling? Do they look happy? What are they wearing? Are they saying anything?

Now I want you to take a truck. Imagine the color, my guess is you’d choose blue. Is it diesel? Does it have a hemi? Does it have 4 tires? 6? What song is playing over the stereo? Imagine it all.

Got all that?

Visualize the 144 people alongside the road and take your blue truck with the music playing in the background and hit every. single. one. of. them. One by one, with your mirror, the front bumper, maybe run over a leg or two. I’m sure you pictured them on their bikes, so make sure you envision destroying their bikes as well. 142 people survived. Blood’s running down their knees, out their noses; squished raspberries clotting around their knees.

2 never stood back up. 2 bodies lay on the pavement motionless while the other 142 people groan and cry. 2 human beings that are no longer considered people, but a ‘body.’ They’ve lost their identity and their life. That’s what you want.

That’s what your misspelled message represents.

You are a sad person. Let go of the poison within you. The human beings, myself included, that rode our bikes on Saturday did nothing to you. I’ve never wished harm upon you or your family. I’ve never tried to hurt you or your family. The only thing I’ve ever done to someone on my bike is inconvenience them because they were forced to slowly and safely pass me on the road. I’m guilty of that.

I’m guilty of riding my bike on the shared roads that my tax dollars also go towards. I’m guilty of flipping off cars that pass me too closely or shout mean things to me as they drive by. But that’s it. I never wished harm upon another person. Even as a driver, I’ve never wished harm upon a cyclist.

And unfortunately for you, dear tagger, not all cyclists are as forgivable. The cyclists may ride out in drones now because you want them off the road.

I hope that your misspelled message isn’t responded to with more violence. Violence begets violence.

My hope is that us cyclists take the higher road, that we keep the rubber side down, and our chins up. You will not deter us.

Real Body Image Talk

Hi. My name is Jessica and I have a problem.

I cannot look at my body without having some sort of criticism. Today, I found some broken blood vessel on my face. It looks like a freckle but up close, it isn’t. I stretched the skin around, inspected it as if I was a scientist, reviewing cells under a microscope. I found the vein. I leaned away from the mirror to see if it was noticeable as it was up close. All I could imagine were varicose veins plaguing my face, like some kind of connect-the-moles game. I started to relive fifth grade again. When the kids made fun of the moles on my face: “Moley! Moley! Moley!” mimicking Austin Powers.

I used to think I had strong, muscular legs. That was until I had a body fat analysis scan that revealed most of my fat is in my legs. Oh, and arms. Now all I see are sausage legs in my cycling kit. I don’t look fast. I look fat. I look like when you stuff a giant pillow into a tiny pillow case – seams and material stretching, pushing maximum density, as it curves into itself.

I am more self-conscious now in shorts knowing full well that there’s more fat than muscles. And I rub the sides of my thighs a lot as if I could rub away cellulite like you do with scuff marks on the floor. Once I scuffed the floor from my bike tires. I tried all different kinds of solutions believing one of them would finally wash away the black rubber streaked across the laminate wood flooring. Finally, I took a butter knife and etched away at the black.

I can’t etch away cellulite.

When I walk, I can feel my inner thighs rubbing together. I know it isn’t muscle because of how much it jiggles. It’s soft and flimsy like silly putty. Only I can’t mold my thighs like a stone statue. And my thighs smash into each other when I sit – doubling in size. I try not to look down when I’m sitting because I know I’ll see a single thigh. One giant, jiggly, fatty thigh.

And I eat another piece of chocolate.

My shirts lay against my stomach just right where I can see the little bump that no matter the number of crunches, planks, or skipped meals, it stays there. I constantly tug at my shirt to hide it, pulling material loose. Using two hands sometimes to stretch the material if it hugs my belly too tight.

I’ll dig my thumbs into my hips trying to find the bone. Then pinching the excess that peeks over my jeans. If no one’s around, I’ll lift my shirt high enough and stare and scrutinize my midsection. Twisting and turning to view every possible angle in a desperate search to find the most flattering. Tightening my stomach, pushing it out, and sucking it in to find the right amount of contraction it’ll take to make it look flat. But it never gets as flat as I want it to. I look down and see that fucking bump every day.

And my gaze travels up. Up to my back where skin folds along my bra strap. Months and months of back strengthening exercises and there’s still back fat leering. Months of attempting to cut portions, match my carb-to-protein ratio, and staring longingly at cookies. Sometimes, I’ll reach behind with a false sense of optimism believing that I’ll be unable to pinch anything.

I call my breasts “orangutan boobs” and now you’re picturing it. A sign of getting older and the effects of gravity. I joke their small size keeps me aero on the bike. Always self-deprecating. Never self-appreciating. I also joke about my “bingo flab,” also known as triceps.

Again with the months of Tricep exercises believing that one day I’ll defy gravity and there won’t be loose skin hanging below my arms. That when I do the first place stance my arms will look strong and mighty, not droopy.

And while I complain about all the physical limitations and imperfections of my body, I never apologize for taking up space. Rarely do I complain to the general public about the size of my thighs or the numerous moles on my face. And when I get really fucking down about my body, I remind myself that at least I have a working one. It takes a single accident to lose it all. With all the activities I do, my flabby stomach drops when I consider what it’d be like to no longer ride my bike, hike, run, stretch, walk, and take care of myself. At that moment my eyes look at the blue sky instead.

Race Anecdotes: Littleton Twilight Criterium

I’m not a fan of crits with its tight turns, repeated 1-mile lap over and over and over again for forty minutes, and the crashing. Now, crits are no more dangerous than any of the other races. I know because the only time I’ve ever been in a crash was in an organized ride, not even a race. Unfortunately, for crits, they haven’t rid themselves of the stigma and I haven’t rid myself of it either.

Regardless, my team, pedal RACING, held our inaugural Twilight Criterium race in August and I couldn’t not be there.

Lining up to any race has my nerves running haywire, but this being my team’s race I felt an extra sense of pressure to perform better than ever.

And I fucked that up.

I didn’t want to race and at one point I was bored enough of hiding in the pack, dodging wind and women who didn’t hold their lines, I figured I’d take risks I normally wouldn’t.

One woman had sprinted off and no one wanted to chase her. After two laps, still feeling pretty energized, I sprinted off the front in an effort to catch her. As soon as I caught up, she thanked me, and I said, “we gotta go ‘cause they’re coming for us.” I said it as if we had a chance to fend off the rest of the pack for another 20 minutes.

The group caught us and there we were again: going in circles like some kind of merry-go-round. With about three laps to go, I was still feeling pretty fresh and strong. I took to the front of the pack.

Here was my thinking and probably why I’m still an amateur racer and not a pro:

I was going to sprint off the front of the group after the last turn before it became a straightaway. I assumed I’d get away for three laps to hopefully take the win.

I didn’t like crits so I had nothing to lose if this spur-of-the-moment strategy didn’t work.

So there I was, front and center of the pack, darting into the 90 degree turn (maybe at 20 mph), women all around, I’m so ready to dash off that I start pedaling before I had straightened my bike and click.

I strike my pedal against the pavement that jettisons me across the road straight toward the metal fencing, which is conveniently where my grandmother is sitting right behind. My family’s watching me fly directly toward them and the whole time this is happening, I’m thinking to myself: “how can I avoid breaking myself and my bike?”

The metal barriers are coming at me 20 mph, I’m fumbling with my handlebars attempting to gain control and turn before becoming one with metal, and at the absolute last moment before my tire and then my body plows into the fencing, I direct my bike left.

I’m still upright, unscathed, heart’s racing, and the pack of women I naively thought I’d leave in my dust are pedaling away.

I have a hundred voices yelling at me from all directions: “keep pedaling!” “Go go go!!” “C’mon McWhirt! You got this!” “Pedal!!!”

I start to pedal furiously again and nothing’s catching, I’m not moving forward. I look down at my chain and see it’s limp between my frame and crankset.

I pullover to set it back and still, people are screaming at me to “GOOO!” With trembling fingers, I manage to get the chain back on and I’m told to get a free lap because of a mechanical. I walk to the pit and am quickly rejected as we had less than 7 laps left.

The only reaction I could muster was a pathetic laugh: at the situation and at myself.

How did I honestly think I could pull-off what I whimlessly thought I could do? I felt like a joke.

Instead of moping, throwing my bike across the road, blaming someone else, or taking a DNF, I hopped back on my bike and started pedaling to finish the last rounds.

I came around the following corner and was directed by policemen, volunteers, and EMTs to stay to the left. Then I saw several women on the ground. I realized: that could have been me. I could have been in that crash. I saw one of the women who was sketchy during the race on the ground as well. I knew she would be involved in a crash based off the numerous times she cut me off through a turn and who knows who else – and it was clearly not a race tactic.

I pedaled passed the carnage and quickly caught up with the 4’s on my team. As they were soft pedaling at that point, I assumed this was the last lap.

Making my way around the turn that had it out for me, I saw the lap counter and there was still another lap to go. I tried giving it my all, to catch up to as many racers as I could, to smile at the people screaming my name and my team, all while trying to keep my shit together.

I crossed the line solo and somehow ended up in 11th out of 16. I assumed I’d come in DFL.

As my buddy, Anna, told me in my podcast, “race to fail.” To fail is to learn and as a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I’ve never been okay with failing. But as an avid learner, I constantly seek experiences that teach me about the world and about myself.

Sure, I tried a few different “tactics,” just to see what I could get away with.

Who knows how the race would have turned out if I didn’t drop my chain. But these things happen. But I did race to fail. I pushed myself. I tried breaking away from the group. I took sketchy turns. I raced out of my comfort zones. I recovered from a near-crash (thanks to mountain biking). And I didn’t eat pavement. And the best part was having all the support from my friends and family.

A woman’s place is on two wheels

That is, of course, if that’s where she wants to be.

 

Ever since I donned my first pair of cycling shorts, I noticed how few women there were in bike shops, on trails, and in organized rides. Per usual, women were a minority in the cycling industry. Four years later, we still are – and you can add racing to the list of the women’s shortage.

While I’ve met and ridden with a fair amount of awesome and supportive dudes, it’s always disheartening being one of the few women who race my bike. I know there are women out there, yearning for two-wheeled connection, inspired by competition, and aren’t finding it.

I first noticed the lack of women at bike races last year among the sea of Lycra-clad men nearly bursting at the seams with old-school bike-racing philosophy and sweaty testosterone. “Where are the women?” I wondered.

Surely, there are women on bikes, otherwise, there wouldn’t be brands like Liv, that build women-specific bikes. Then I wondered if there are tons of women already cycling, why weren’t more racing?

I joined the board of directors of Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado to help inspire change for women’s racing. In one of our monthly meetings we brought up the small numbers of women who raced in Colorado. We didn’t know. We couldn’t come up with a reason as to why there were women on bikes but the majority of them didn’t race.

I went to Facebook to find an answer; specifically, a Facebook group called Women Bike Colorado. There are 3,106 members in the group. I posed the question,“For ladies who don’t race their bikes, I’m wondering what your reason is not to.” (Read the blog I wrote about this for Bicycle Colorado here)

It generated 300-something comments, half of which were from some seriously offended women. The resounding attitude toward racing was that it’d take the fun out of cycling. Second and third to that was time and money. Women didn’t have either.

Then the race season started. I got distracted and didn’t follow-up with the data I collected from my one Facebook post. Plus, I wasn’t even sure what to do with it.

Last week, a teammate pointed out that the women’s SW 4/5 and juniors categories were nixed from the race schedule for the Louisville Crit. He pasted the announcement:

Saturday is the day (August 25th). Louisville is the place. Please read the flyer. Things have changed a bit since it was first published. Due to some constrictions placed by the town, the schedule had to be jumbled, shortened, and cut. Make sure you know if and when your group is participating. The race now starts at a leisurely 9 AM. As a special bonus, some of the stars from the Colorado Classic are going to drop by to race and/or hang out for the awards party, so you might get to see those riders you just watched all week. Pre-reg closes at 11:59 PM on Thursday night. Race Day Registration is available.

You didn’t know which categories were axed until you went to the flyer. I asked my teammate where he saw that as I scoured the BRAC website and social media outlets. My teammate pointed to the weekly BRAC newsletter. I asked my fellow BRAC board members about this change and for an explanation. Apparently, there was a wedding scheduled in the area and they complained about the bike race.

With a schedule cut 1.5 hours shorter than originally planned, the only categories that were affected were the Senior Women’s 4-5 and the junior girls categories. As this was a Master’s State Championship race, those categories were safe.

After I sent the group email, Audrey responded offering a revised schedule that stayed within the confines of the new time requirements, didn’t affect the Master’s categories, and still found a way to let Senior women 4-5 and junior girls race.

We couldn’t understand why this wasn’t thought of first before cutting out growing categories. We already know bike racing is waning, especially with Jelly Belly and UHC pulling their sponsorships on pro teams. If we want to keep the sport alive, we need to keep categories racing. We need to inspire more people to race. And we need to keep it fun.

I reached out to Barry, the race director for the Louisville Crit, and offered him the schedule Audrey presented me. Luckily, Barry was open to the idea and gave Shawn the final say in the new schedule. Everyone came together in the matter of eight hours to bring the categories back.

Our next biggest challenge was getting women there to race. I personally reached out to several influential women in my network and asked them to pass on the message: prove that women want to race. Don’t give anyone a reason to cut the category ever again. It reminded me of the poem by Martin Niemöller,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Granted, this is nothing like the Holocaust, but the point is that when we don’t stand up for vulnerable populations, even if it doesn’t affect us, there will be no one left to speak for us later. I wasn’t a Cat 4 or 5, but I used to be. It reminded me of why I joined BRAC in the first place – to reestablish the Women’s Development Committee and improve bike racing for women through women’s programs and beginner racer programs. The results? 14 Cat 4-5 women showed up to race that day. The biggest women’s group that day. That’s what happens when women work together and look out for each other.

I remember when I started racing – not knowing anything about it. I didn’t even know what category to sign up for, licenses I needed, or what I needed for racing. I want to find a way to make it less intimidating for a woman to try bike racing. I want to make it exciting and fun; to give women confidence to take beyond bike racing.

We had our first Women’s Development Committee roundtable discussion this past Sunday. 12 enthusiastic and passionate women showed up to the Brew on Broadway with their ideas to improve women’s racing:

  • Upgrade points depend on the number of participants
  • State champ jerseys in men sizes
  • Shorter courses/times, unequal payouts
  • Promote BRAC/racing at women’s events
  • Grow racing by making it fun, supportive, and friendly
  • Need good promoters and sponsors
  • Barriers to entry: cost
  • Are there too many races not enough quality races?
  • Need to consider national events when scheduling races
  • Add mentoring program
    • 1-2-3’s ride with beginners
  • Beginner Racer Program
    • 4 races through the year (crit, road, time trial, hill climb)
      • Preview the course, cheer on the sides, and debrief afterward
  • Spring women’s clinics
  • Women’s-only race
  • Combining categories
    • Open Women’s categories
  • Make races more easy to find
  • Start community rides out of shops for recreational riders to ride with amateur racers
    • Give them the opportunity to ask questions and learn about the sport
    • Make it social

I’ve already begun the process of updating the Women’s Program page, working with BRAC Executive Director, Shawn Farrell in reestablishing the Beginner Racing Program/Women’s Program (BRP/WP), brainstorming race directors/races who are open to including the BRP/WP at races, and reaching out to organizations like 303cycling and Bicycling Colorado to see what we can do to grow bike racing, especially women’s bike racing, in Colorado.

As Margaret Thatcher said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

If you’re passionate (or know someone who is) about women’s bike racing and want to be involved, email me: jdmcwhirt@gmail.com

Race Anecdotes: Mt. Evans Hill Climb

The person who wins the race won because they were able to suffer the longest.

I suck at suffering.

It’s probably why I haven’t stepped on the top podium this season so far. Sure, I can handle racing, being uncomfortable, the pain, and aches, but I know when I’m really suffering, I ease off just enough to where I can stand it.

Racing 26 miles up a 14’er was no different.

The 3’s were grouped with the P-1-2’s (because that’s women’s bike racing) and I knew from the get-go the pace was going to hurt. I found myself in the front of the group, setting the pace, as it were. No one wanted to get out front. I figured at my pace, I could do this ride all day long, but I also knew that this pace wouldn’t last long and I was riding myself out for no reason.

I dropped the pace slow enough so that an antsy racer could take the lead. And then I was barely hanging on. There were surges after surges and every time I was able to spring back, my Suffer Meter raised a notch. We lost a few women and I didn’t dare look behind me. I didn’t want to see my future.

Finally, a Cat 2 surged with enough gusto that I lost the group. I tried to throw my weight on to the pedals. I tried pulling up, using any sort of hamstring strength there was, and the group was trailing away.

I thought I could keep them in sight with my current output but the distance slowly grew. And with seven miles, I could no longer see the group and I was completely alone.

Enter Mental Toughness.

You can’t solely rely on physical strength to carry you through the finish line, let alone catch you back up to the group. You need the mental stamina. And it’s even harder to train sometimes than hitting certain watts.

What did I do to earn third place?

I gave myself small goals.

When I was completely alone in the forest I focused on making it to the next mile. Thinking about having to Time Trial another 19 miles alone sounded awful. When I thought about it like that, my legs wanted to give up, and my brain was like, “nuh uh, girl.” I didn’t want to do it. At one point I considered quitting, taking the ol’ DNF. But my penny-pinching ass refused to pay $90 to quit 1/3 of the way through a race. So I continued on.

I focused on mile markers or made them as I went. “Get to the end of the road.” “Push it until you’ve made it 1 mile.” “To that tree.” “Get to that switchback.” I did it over and over again until I made it to the top.

I counted my pedal strokes.

When I couldn’t focus on the next mile marker, I counted to 3 by pedal strokes. 1…2…3…1…2…3 as I pushed down on the pedal. I’d match my breath with the pedal revolutions.

And when that didn’t work…

I sang songs to myself.

Any song I could think of I’d sing in my head. A lot of them were Sia songs, oddly enough. “I’m still breathing. I’m alliiiiiiiiiiiiive.” You get the point. Whatever popped into my head, I sung.

I stayed positive.

This was probably the hardest for me because I have an easy time tearing myself down, which we all do. We’re our biggest critics afterall. When I saw the rest of the women leave me in the dust, the negative thoughts started pouring in. I didn’t think I was good enough to be racing with these women. I know I called myself a poseur more than once. And for what? Because of a single race.

I realized in the grand scheme of things, this race won’t matter. The results won’t matter. What I’ll remember is the hard work I was putting into pedaling. The feeling of accomplishment. And the stories that’d last longer than the beer we were awarded.

I kept telling myself to keep trying hard. I wasn’t going to get stronger if I gave up. “You can do this.” Over and over.

And when I got to the top, I saw all my friends. We shared our stories of pain and fun. Took some photos and rode down the mountain. As I flew back down the mountain, I reflected on the spots where I was done, cooked, and wanted to give up. Flying by those spots, I already forgot what the pain felt like.

When I reached Idaho Springs, I surprisingly ended up in third. The entire time suffering up that 14’er, was for a step on the podium. The thoughts, “I’m not a climber,” quickly silenced as my team clapped for me.

——-

What are ways you motivate yourself when you want to give up?

Race Anecdotes: Sunshine Hill Climb

9 miles. 6 miles on paved road. 3 on dirt. 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

I continually try to to convince myself that I’m a hill climber. Sure, I do them. I sickly enjoy the burn in my quads and hammies when I’ve been turning the pedals for miles on end, unable to see the top of the hill, wishing for it to level off, sweat dripping from my nose, my chin, my hair.

But riding hills and racing hills are two very different animals. During a ride, if you’re fatigued, you lay off the watts and cadence to catch your breath and simmer the fire stoking in your legs and lungs. In a race, the moment you pull back is the perfect time for another rider to attack.

I race my bike because it gives me a sense of control. I control the outcome of my race. I send the signals to my body to back off or push harder. It has always felt the opposite when it comes to my life: events out of my control influencing the direction of my life.

But that’s kind of bullshit.

Just like we can choose to push harder or ease off in a race, we can choose what happens in our lives. So many of us blame the world, the economy, friends, family, “god,” for the good and bad, but in reality, it’s only us.

This is what I think about when I’m racing. It’s what I thought about during the Sunshine Hill Climb. Otherwise, I’m counting my pedal strokes. I’m trying to control my breathing. I’m feeling the drop of sweat slide down my forehead, over the tip of my nose, and settle in the dip above my lip. Or it slides into the corner of my eye; the uncomfortable burn that no amount of blinking rids you of the irritation. And of course, during a race, I have a difficult time moving my giant “Terminator” sunglasses to rub my eye, so I blink and blink and my eyes tear up, and then there’s only a slight burn.

The seven of us lined up where the official pointed. I joked, as I always do before a race, for Cassidy to pull us up the hill. As soon as the official blew the whistle, Cassidy took off. I told myself I’d try to keep up with her as long as I could.

I don’t like being uncomfortable.

I stayed on Cassidy’s wheel for about a half mile before my legs started screaming, “no.” Laura was right behind me and when I dropped off, Laura followed Cassidy. I tried keeping Laura insight while also staying ahead of Andie.

As Laura disappeared from sight, Andie was gaining on me.

You should know how the story goes by now: I let my self-defeating thoughts have the best of me. I called myself a loser because I couldn’t keep up with the stronger 3’s. We hit the dirt and they were gone. With every switchback, my confidence shrunk.

“How do they do it?” I thought. Surely, I wasn’t the only one in pain, losing the breakaway.

It’s times like these where you need to stay positive, to break down the race into manageable pieces, to actually trust your training, and most of all, have fucking fun.

I usually forget the most important aspect which is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing the thing you’re doing? Life can be taken away from you at any moment so why spend it doing shit you don’t want to do?

So I smiled and cheered on Darrell as I finished the last 1K up the hill. Anna was there to cheer me on at the finish line. I saw my teammates and we shared our racing stories. We descended together and parted ways at the bottom.

It was when I pulled up to Chris waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, lounging under a tree, that I understood why I do this: because I love the challenge. I love knowing I control the outcome. I love the friends I’ve made through racing. I love how much stronger I’ve become because of it. And mostly, I have someone always cheering me on when I can’t muster the stoke myself.

PHP: voluntarily kicking your own ass before the sun comes up

For at least the past year, I was consistently told, demanded, and jokingly harangued to join the pedal RACING men on this unofficial-yet-has-an-official-name ride Tuesday and Friday mornings near Cherry Creek State Park. And for eleven months, I found excuses to avoid it: “Gotta work,” “maybe next time,” and my favorite: “one of these days, I’ll join you.”

I knew it was a sausage fest and the thought of hammering out the watts elbow-to-elbow with testosterone-pumping broski bros didn’t turn me on like it did my male counterparts.

I didn’t see the benefit of waking up at the asscrack of dawn, trying to find the elusive meeting spot, only to potentially make a fool out of myself or crash or hell, maybe both.

Then one of my female pedal RACING teammates swallowed her pride and dropped all apprehension and joined the dudes. After seeing her activity glittered with kudos and Strava bling, I had immediate FOMO. Kinda what social media does to us, right?

All the encouragement and positive comments convinced me that, sure, I can at least give it a try once to see what it’s all about. Not to mention the fact that this season as a Cat 3 has been exceptionally soul-crushing and challenging watching my competitors leave me in the dust as I suck [wind].

From all the mediocre finishes, I was desperately seeking another type of training that’d increase my speed, skills, and maybe confidence. The pedal RACING guys had been telling me the past year how PHP would make me faster and it wasn’t until I saw my female pedal teammate speak highly of this impervious ride-but-actually-it’s-a-race-for-us-newbies that I realized, “shit, if I try to ride [operative word being “try”] this with faster people, maybe I’ll get faster.” Sure, we all have to figure these things out on our own.

So I hardened the fuck up (Rule #5) and on May 22nd, I joined my first PHP ride. The meet-up was on the bridge at Cherry Creek and Holly. I didn’t see a single person when I drove past looking for a parking spot. Am I in the right spot? I frantically thought.

I parked alongside the road and scanned passing cyclists for any hint of a gathering. I applied my chamois cream, buckled my helmet, slid on my shades, and started my Garmin as I attempted to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going.

I slowly rolled up to the bridge five minutes ‘til and there were two dudes hanging out. Seriously, five minutes before and no one is here? I’m totally at the wrong spot. I finally mustered up the courage to ask one of the guys if this was the meeting spot for PHP. He smiled, “yep.”

And like clockwork, 60 (that’s a rough estimate) cyclists appeared out of nowhere. Just in time to Hammer. I found my teammates who were both shocked and excited to see me finally own up to my word. Then the game plan was laid out for me: “this is just the warm-up before we get to the park.” “Watch out for the potholes. It’s the worst right here.” “You’ll get dropped up the first hill. It happens to everyone. Just wait at the top for the group to come back.” “Oh, the ‘S’ turn. You want to be toward the front because it’s like an accordion. If you’re on the back at the ‘S’ turn, you’ll get dropped. That’s what happened to me.”

Loads of tips were offered as I tried keeping pace during their “warm-up.” Of course I wouldn’t keep up at the first hill. It was race-pace for me. I could only speak a few words before another giant breath.

“The fuck did I get myself into,” I thought, as we made our way down Colorado Blvd.

We rolled into a parking lot just outside of Cherry Creek State Park to reconvene. I was told sometimes they broke into A and B groups. This time they didn’t. A couple of other teammates showed up and we started rolling out as a giant peloton-ish group.

As soon as wheels touched the perimeter of Cherry Creek, it was full gas. I picked a Jersey in front of me and held on. Luckily, drafting kept me on the pace line.

The group rides the Cherry Creek Time Trial course, which I’m quite familiar with, so I knew where the hills were and sections of the road to avoid. As the first Hill was coming up, I kicked it down a gear (high cadence, lower power) and tried to keep up with the quickening pace.

Men flew by me on my left, they flew by on my right, and the rest of us left on the hill, pushed and pulled on our pedals, trying in vain, to reach the top of the hill before the peloton was completely gone. Our heavy and rapid breathing became a choir of novices and determination.

I was dropped.

The peloton was nearly at the bottom of the hill by the time I recovered. My buddy, Zuzana, and I, collected ourselves, and followed the group down the road.

We watched the giant mob grow smaller and smaller and just like that, it was like the group of 50 men were never there.

Too proud to not do the full route, I zoomed around the lollipop loop with a couple of other stragglers. We formed a small group of three as we pedaled up the second Hill (which, on later rides, I would eventually be dropped) desperately seeking the peloton.

We didn’t even know what direction they went, so we guessed. We didn’t know which road to take to get back to our cars either. As we biked back to the entrance of Cherry Creek, we saw several dropped riders, like discarded litter on the side of the road. One man was headed back to the elusive meeting spot where he was also parked, so we jumped on his wheel.

The meeting spot was as bare after the ride as it was before.

As soon as I was back to my car and uploaded my ride to Strava, the kudos, the bling, and the comments poured in. I PR’d segments on the route I didn’t even realize.

I saw the others with whom I started the ride and kudo’d them. It was like I had been initiated into a secret society that anyone who follows them on Strava knows about. My own friends asked what PHP was and I had to tell them I had no idea what it stood for, but… then I’d detail the crazy ride I experienced.

I’ve since started commuting to PHP with a few men from my team. It’s about ten miles from the Littleton meeting spot to the PHP meeting spot. The guys told me it’s also a warm-up to PHP, but by the time we get to the bridge, I’m drenched in sweat, I’ve QOM’d segments, and my glasses are foggy from my warm face. Then PHP commences. I follow that with a ride on Cherry Creek path to work. I end up clocking in about 54 miles by the end of the day.

I’ve only seen a few other women ride at PHP, notably two Cat 2 women from Palmares who seem to be regulars. I could see why this would intimidate anyone who just started racing: you’ve 60 amateur cyclists trying to be like the pros, riding on public roads, 99% are dudes, testosterone is raging, and you’re privy to crashes.

One time I joined a B group actually formed. Some people think the B group is slower, but I work harder in this group because I actually get a turn to pull. It was both a good and bad experience. It was good because it was bad. It taught me how to handle myself and my bike around people who didn’t.

The men didn’t understand how a paceline worked and once they came to the front, they’d take off. The group would break up, there were no longer two lines, and we had to reel them back in. Halfway through the the route, I was sick of no one calling them out and I was concerned for my safety. I finally asked this one older dude, dressed in his green PHP kit (to prove his seriousness and dedication to an elusive bro’s club), if he was part of the paceline because he kept shooting off the front.

He growled back at me, “I’ve been doing this for ten years. Don’t tell me what to do!” Now, 18-year-old Jessica would have opened a bottle of verbal whoopass. 29-year-old Jessica swallowed her pride and bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. Instead, I told him, “calm down, it’s just a ride.” Another teammate of mine tried to settle him down as well as a Palmares racer rode next to me and very loudly said, “For what it’s worth, you’re fucking right and he’s wrong.”

I tried to not let the dickhead ruin the rest of the ride. But it also made me realize it’s guys like that who turn women off from joining PHP. To men, it seems like it’s all about comparing not just dick sizes, but bikes. I know women can be combative, catty, and of course, competitive. But for a woman to join PHP, it’s much more than riding with the bros. We want to get faster. Stronger. We want to learn skills. And there aren’t many opportunities for a woman to do that in a big group setting. When there are women’s workshops, we’re lucky to hit double digits.

I think the fear is what I worry about each time I go to PHP: being the only one who can’t keep up. Getting in a crash. Not having anyone I know there.

Luckily, I have teammates who care about my wellbeing and are great examples of how to treat others in the peloton. They hold their line, they call their pass, they tell me where I need to go.

Each time I’ve joined PHP, I’ve been able to stay with the group longer, which says something about where my fitness is going. My good cyclist friend, Anna, tells me all the time to ride with guys because it’ll make me faster. And I think I found the guys who will do just that.