Posts

Race Anecdotes: Estes Epic

To win a bike race, you first gotta show up.

As we corralled in front of the start line at The Estes Epic, I smiled across to my husband, and told a couple of riders, “good luck.” My legs were heavy and so was my mind. Everyone started as a group – I didn’t know who I was competing against. I assumed I was grouped with the 30-year olds since that was my racing age, although I was technically 29. The 30-something’s were a force to reckon with. I knew I had to get in front of them.

I wanted to add to the small number of women who were competing, especially after heated conversations about women’s bike racing. Maybe I wanted an ego boost because I knew not many women participated in the Estes Epic. It’s a 34-mile course with over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. It’s mostly dudes, as I found out. And after completing it, I understood why women weren’t coming out in droves.

Because I didn’t preview the whole course, I didn’t even know what I signed up for.

As we all pedaled out of the parking lot on to the main street, I told myself to keep steady; to stay on Kristi’s wheel. I didn’t have to get in front of anyone just yet. I could save my energy for the climbs.

The group thinned almost instantly as we hit Fish Creek Road. We had 1,000 feet or so of climbing ahead of us in the first 8.5 miles. I was anxious to get in front of people because I knew they’d catch up once we descended.

I kept pace as we winded through switchbacks, constantly pushing on the flat pedals on my 2011, 26’er Specialized mountain bike. I never expected to start racing on the bike when I first bought it. Originally, it was meant to spend more time with my husband and then I raced it at Battle the Bear. I came in first place and I caught the podium bug. And there I was: 7 miles in, tired but determined when my back wheel slipped on out a dusty rock.

Embarrassed, I pulled over to the side and started letting air out of my tires. Kristi passed me and asked if I got a flat. “No,” I said, “just too much air in them.” Other riders were catching up. I looked like an amateur. Hell, I was an amatuer. There was no pretending I was cool. I kept my head pointing down as I mounted the bike.

I couldn’t push back off with my pedals because of the steep incline, so I dismounted my bike, and walked it to the top. I lost Kristi. The one wheel I didn’t want to lose. I knew it was going to happen eventually because I wasn’t fast downhill. I was too scared. Too intimidated.

I often ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” when I don’t feel excited about a race. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll reconsider racing. Several times throughout the season, I just didn’t want to race. Part of me felt ashamed for not having that drive to race, to beat the other women, to land on that top step. The other part of me was nearly relieved I wasn’t racing, and then ashamed because I was relieved.

As I pedaled, I focused on the lines in the dirt and looked for pink, handwritten route signs. The course flattened out enough to catch my breath and give my legs a second to refresh. Often, I’d catch myself looking up at the sky and through the trees – enjoying nature, unlike road races. Maybe that’s why I was enjoying mountain biking so much – being away from cars and pavement.

In the road racing world, there’s an insurmountable pressure to constantly be racing; to earn upgrade points; to be training every waking moment; to be better than the day before. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was exhausted from pinning numbers on my back, waking up before our families, and driving ourselves to far-away races, to warm-up alone, race alone, and drive back home alone.

Mountain bike races were different. People didn’t seem as high strung and I was drawn to it.

I turned the corner and there were several riders walking their bikes up the shale-covered hill. As I swung my leg over my saddle and started walking, I noticed how loose the shale was. It felt like I had rollerskates strapped to my feet as I tiptoed through layers of shale, waiting to give way and wash us all down the mountain.

My heart raced as I quickly tiptoed up higher and higher along the 14% grade hill. I felt an unyielding pressure to be cycling up it, but as I looked ahead and behind me, everyone was off their bike. They were no different than me. There was no shame in walking your bike. Everyone did it.

I wanted to ride over the obstacles, but I didn’t have the skill. I didn’t know how to conquer them. I was too scared to try. Even though dirt is more forgiving than cement, I imagined slamming my face against broken rocks, breaking my neck, and wrapping my body around a tree trunk. I pictured myself paralyzed after a wreck from tumbling from the top of the hill all the way to the bottom, hitting every rock as I catapulted down. My mind has always been my biggest obstaclebigger than any boulder I’ve faced.

Every section of downhill I encountered, I imagined plummeting to my paralysis. I’d inch up to the lip of the hill and look down. I’d drop my saddle – as if that gave me a new kind of confidence – and level my feet. Tapping the brakes, I’d slowly descend the hill, hoping to make it down alive; constantly reminding myself to trust myself, to trust the bike, and go with the flow. The smaller hills were manageable, but when I reached the 14% grade hill I hiked earlier, I lost all confidence.

I managed to completely freak myself out. I pulled over and out of the way. I wanted to quit. I was exhausted, more mentally than physically  because I was constantly on guard for the next obstacle to roll over or avoid altogether. I didn’t want to walk my bike down because it was just as slow as trying to ride it; but constantly pressing on the brakes rattled the bike and my stiff limbs. Any jolty movement of the bike and my legs and arms tensed up. My fingers started to ache from all the braking. Meanwhile, men flew past me, hauling 30 mph as if there weren’t giant boulders their bikes had to clear. How can they do it? I thought.

They were fearless.

They saw over the rocks, the roots, the branches, the 14% descent.

I’ve never been someone to roll with the flow; to let my bike guide me. As a control freak, I wanted to maneuver around obstacles; I didn’t want my bike to lead me through this. I didn’t trust the bike. I didn’t trust myself.

I didn’t think I was good enough to handle the steep descent mixed with giant rocks. I told myself I couldn’t do it, so I didn’t try riding over it. Instead, I stumbled my way down the rocky descent, watching out for mountain bikers with the gull to ride through it all as if they were biking over a smooth road.

As I made my way through uneven paths, shale, and unmarked trails, I had to force myself to keep going. Even if I wanted to quit, we were too deep in the woods for a SAG wagon. I wanted to give up. I started making silly mistakes. I wouldn’t change gears in time and get stuck. Other times, I wouldn’t lean into a turn, stiff from fatigue.

My eyes glanced down at my Garmin every few minutes, watching the mileage remain unchanged. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to cry – to feel something, other than the numbness filling my body and the achy joints in my fingers from gripping the handlebars too tight. Much like how we can’t let things go in life. Gripping too tightly to ideas, beliefs, people, things, only hurts us. My hands ached from death-gripping the handlebars out of a false sense of security; believing that if I only held on tighter it wouldn’t buck me off the saddle; that if I white-knuckled down the mountain, I’d stay safe. Instead, I latched on to the bike and with every bump, my hands pinched tighter.

I was trying to let go, but my insecurities held on. I knew I wasn’t a mountain biker if I couldn’t handle the descents, I thought.

I was running out of water; I had no more gels. Switchback after switchback of loose, sandy dirt, my brakes squealed as mountain bikers flew past me. With every, “on your left,” my self-worth drained. I attached too much of myself to the results of races. Who was I if I wasn’t first?

I was fucking average and I hated it. Average didn’t land pro contracts; it didn’t encourage other teams to seek your talent; my biggest fan was my mom because of course, she’s my mom. If I wasn’t the best, I wanted nothing.

As I turned the corner in the final stretch of the race, I heard Kyle, the Race Director, announce my name among the sea of cheers. A young man placed my finisher’s medal over my crusty hair and dirty cheeks and told me, “congrats!” My family rushed to my side and wrapped their lively arms around my exhausted body.

In mountain biking and in life, you’re constantly faced with obstacles. You can choose to sit there and wait for the obstacle to move itself or you can roll over it. I was awarded first place because I was the only woman in my category. I was quick to disregard my win, but then Kyle leaned over to me and said, “You have to show up to win.” And if I had anything, I had the willingness to show up.

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: WMBAcos Purple Pursuit

“I’m not gonna win, but I may as well try,” I thought to myself after reading Good Guy Tubeless’ contest for a free entry into the Women’s Mountain Biking Association of Colorado Springs. “I never win contests” I said out loud as I tagged my teammate, Stacey, in the comments.

WTf-specific

While the “free entry” posted across my Facebook feed initially piqued my interest, what actually pulled me more into the post was the fact that this was for a women’s mountain bike race. The Purple Pursuit reminded me a lot of the Beti Bike Bash held earlier in the year, but on a smaller scale and located in the springs.

I love seeing events pop-up for the non-male cycling community, especially because there’s a need and a want. Every race I’ve attended (with the exception of female-specific races) it’s a total sausage fest. And while I have always been more of a “tom-boy” and typically have more male friends than WTf (women/trans/femme) friends, I want to see more WTf-friendly races, events, and gatherings. The WTf community needs to know there is space for them and races like The Purple Pursuit start that dialogue in the racing scene.

Paired with companies like Good Guy Tubeless who become allies in this quest for getting more people, especially WTf racing bikes, the community continues to grow.

I wasn’t planning on signing up

Let me preface this by telling you I primarily race road. Before The Purple Pursuit, I tried two mountain bike races. I’m definitely a beginner mountain bike racer. To be perfectly honest, I doubt I would have signed up to race The Purple Pursuit. And that’s important to know if we want to get more women racing their bikes.

Why wouldn’t I have signed up for this great, women-specific mountain bike race? One that offered food, prizes, a solid course, and generous support?

I didn’t want to pay to suck and/or lose. I didn’t know anyone else from my team racing. It was a far drive to the Springs from our house. I didn’t have time to preview the course. And I was burnt out from all my prior racing over the season. Mountain biking takes a completely different set of skills from road, plenty of which I am still completely clueless. I assumed I’d be the less-skilled beginner and it intimidated me.

With a free entry, all those worries fell to the wayside. Saving $45 on an entry justified the 55-mile drive and early wake up, and winning was no longer as important as the experience. Granted, I still wanted to win.

When Hannah of Good Guy Tubeless congratulated me on my win through Facebook messenger, I was shocked. Like I said, I never win anything. She asked for a photo and I had to dig deep to find a good mountain biking picture of me. I found one from my first mountain bike race that was also a free entry for me. It was gifted from my teammate Teena, who unfortunately, crashed in another race and couldn’t compete in Battle of the Bear. She offered it to me for free (saving me $70). Then I was given a “friends and family” discount code to Estes Epic that it felt like I was almost getting paid to race.

See a theme yet?

Lower the cost and barriers to entry for women and they’ll show up. Provide a fun atmosphere and unyielding support and they’ll show up. I guarantee you that I will race more mountain next season because of my experiences this year. I’m going from a “roadie for life” to “I’m a cyclist who races road, mountain, and I dabble in cross.”

The course

Since I signed up for the Beginner category, we had a 6-mile out and back, while the Intermediate and Advanced women had a 13-mile loop.

We started in a dirt parking lot near the stadium. There was a small hill I used to warm-up. The lively announcer caught Chris give me a kiss as were staged under the blow-up banner before the start.

My plan was to jet off at the beginning to get enough distance from the group so I could go slower downhill as I’m still getting used to that. The course was perfect for a beginner race. Nothing technical and no hike-a-bikes. There were tree roots to climb over, sandy sections, and calm downhills. I felt confident and I was hauling. Anytime I looked behind me there wasn’t a rider in sight.

As I passed volunteers, I’d hear “pedal!” and their cowbells. At one point, I found myself at 4.5 miles thinking, “when will I be turning back?” I finally ran into a woman who asked, “are you racing?” “Yeah, I’m a beginner.” Shocked, she told me, “you’re on the wrong course. This is the Intermediate course. You have to go back.” So I did. I went to the previous aid station and the guy didn’t know where I had to go so he told me to go back another aid station. So I did. That man didn’t know either. So I continued to backtrack, hearing my number over the walkies, feeling quite foolish.

I finally returned to the aid station where I was supposed to take a hard right (instead, I went straight). When I showed up, there were new flags and ribbon indicating where we had to go. Unfortunately, they weren’t there when I originally passed. The volunteers smiled and apologized for mistaking me for an intermediate racer and pointing me in the wrong direction.

I remembered this was the first time this race was ever put on so I couldn’t expect everything to go off without any hitch. I also realized that I was gifted an entry, for which I was grateful. I told myself as I flew down a steep double-track that this was all for fun.

Racing doesn’t need to only be focused on winning. I thought about the skills I was teaching myself as I navigated downhill through sandy tracks that pulled my front tire back and forth. It reminded me of cross practice in a sandpit. I looked around the forest and again, I was completely alone. I knew I was no longer in first, but at that point, I didn’t care.

The Awards

Inevitably, I came in third receiving a large rock with a purple plaque and a bike chain glued across as an award. It was original which I absolutely loved. They had decorated with purple balloons instead of a car or trash bins in the background.

My favorite part was the DFL AKA “The Perseverance Award” given to the racer who came in last place. Rarely is anyone stoked to come in last. For me, it’s nearly humiliating and demotivates me. But at The Purple Pursuit, it was celebrated. It was awesome seeing the women’s smiles as their names were called; the crowd cheering even louder.

That’s a way to get women to return to a race. Celebrate everyone.

The Schwag & Prizes

Not only did I receive my rock award, but I also got a glass and coozy simply for signing up. I always wonder how these mountain bike races make money with all the free goods they give away with registration.

As we waited for awards, there was a raffle as well. Spirits were high between the free booze and burgers, brauts, and veggie burgers. Again, believing I never win prizes, my name was called. I won! I chose a hat and gave it to Chris as a prize of his own for persevering through the day. I knew he was ready to go home.

This race became more about supporting organizations like the Women’s Mountain Biking Association of Colorado Springs and new racers. It was about challenging myself and learning new skills. It was about thanking companies like Good Guy Tubeless for gifting new racers like me an entry into a race they probably wouldn’t have done. And if I didn’t race, I would have missed out on meeting two pedal RACING teammates who I hadn’t met before who are total badasses.

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

Riding the Ford GoBike up Hawk Hill

A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to visit Strava’s headquarters in San Francisco. It was a great opportunity to meet my co-workers and visit somewhere I’d never been before.

San Francisco’s Ford GoBikes are much like Denver’s B-Cycles in that you share these bikes across town, park them in designated areas, and try to stay under 30 minutes to avoid paying a rental fee. They also weigh like forty pounds or so I’ve been told by their frequent users.

During a rookie cookie conversation at headquarters with Simon, I learned a group of people joined him in racing Ford Gobikes up Hawk Hill, Lookout Mountain’s equivalent.

My interest piqued.

I had already grown familiar with the Ford GoBikes with my commute to the office from the hotel. I was also told that Hawk Hill had the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It really took no convincing on Simon’s part for me to agree to riding up Hawk Hill on a Ford GoBike.

Simon sent me the video from last year. It looked like a blast. I saw it as a challenge while most saw it as probably stupid.

It was supposed to be a recovery week, but I woke up in my hotel room, pumped to get this ride started. I threw on my exercise gear, filled up my water bottle, zipped my jacket, and walked to the Ford GoBike location.

The plan was to meet at 7:00 AM to give us enough time to be back at the office. 7:05 hit and I figured, “he’s probably just late.” And then it was 7:15 – still no one around.

Once i saw 7:20 AM, I assumed I was stood up. I sent Simon a message on Slack that I was heading out. I secured my backpack in the front hole on top of the bike with a small bungee cord, entered the code to unlock the bike, mapped the route with google, and with a surge of anxiety, I set out on my solo journey to Hawk Hill.

Rarely do I fly by the seat of my pants, or any seat, for that matter. I was worried I’d get lost or end up on a highway or arrive to work super late and get fired.

I listened to google in one ear while commuters zoomed past. If it weren’t for their sunglasses I would have seen the weird looks I’m sure they gave me, like, “why is she taking a Ford GoBike this far out of the city?”

Google directed me all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge with only a few minor I’m-going-to-pull-over-and-double-check-this. By the time I reached the bridge, I knew there wasn’t enough time to climb Hawk Hill and get back in time for work, so I turned around at the other end of the bridge and headed back to the office.

When I parked the bike, I read through my Slack messages. I wasn’t stood up. I had the date wrong. I was a day early.

I’m not totally sure where I thought I read Wednesday, so I felt quite stupid having waited around for Simon and then biking my solo journey to the Golden Gate Bridge on a Ford GoBike.

Thursday rolled around and I didn’t want to stand up Simon so I planned to ride again, but this time up Hawk Hill with a friendly face. Simon showed up at 7:00 AM, just like he said he would.

We both had on our Strava kits. We packed our belongings in the semi-basket on the front of the bike, started our Garmins, and were off on our Hawk Hill adventure. Because I had Simon with me, we took an entirely different, yet more direct route (although with more hills) to Hawk Hill.

We got the same crooked neck response as I did the day prior because who takes a 40-pound bike up a hill, outside of city?

Once we hit the hill of Hawk Hill, it was frankly pretty moderate. I settled into a steady pace and watched the fog hide the Golden Gate Bridge from us. Without my clip shoes, it felt a lot like mountain biking, since I still have flats on my bike. Pushing down on the pedals all the way up to the spot that I was told had the best views of the city.

As cyclists bombed down the hill, they smiled and laughed at Simon and I as we pedaled our 40-pound bikes up to the lookout spot. All I could do was laugh as Simon rang his Ford GoBike bell at the passerby’s.We’d smile and wave at the cyclists, and I couldn’t help but think that this is the cool thing about life: going on adventures, doing things out of our comfort zones, saying ‘yes’ to opportunities, and making friends.

We stopped at the spot I was told had the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was completely hidden by fog. Nothing but a white cloud laid in front of us.

I joked about where I SHOULD be seeing the bridge and that I’d just imagine the sight. We couldn’t relish in our effort for too long so we kicked back the kickstands and commenced our descent.

The 40-pound bikes flew down the hill. I started to second-guess the brakes. Simon, being all-too familiar with this rode and the Ford GoBikes bombed down the hill, while I slightly tapped the brakes every few minutes, to confirm they were there and working as they should. Honestly, I guess I don’t know what I would have done if I tapped the brakes and they didn’t slow me down.

We took a different route back to the office – directly through the city, but also through the Presidio with the tallest trees I’ve ever seen. I ended up riding 20.16 miles that day. Definitely didn’t recover much on the trip.

Moral of the story: say ‘yes’ to new experiences, even if it’s your recovery week.

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.

Race Anecdotes: Boulder Stage Race

If you weren’t a climber there was an ice cube’s chance in hell you’d podium in the three races. Friday was an uphill time trial. Saturday was a time trial in Hygiene, which, flatter than the other two days, still had quite the hill to overcome. And Sunday, glorious Sunday, was a 36-mile road race, which pretty much felt like another hill climb, but longer, with more ugly-face efforts.

 

Friday: Eldora Uphill Time Trial

I wasn’t sure if it’d be more beneficial to bring my time trial bike or my road bike for this course. Half of the 7.5-mile course was relatively flat and I knew the TT bike, Zissou, would be beneficial for aerodynamics, but the other half of the course was a gnarly hill climb, which favored my road bike, Thunder. I opted for Thunder because I didn’t want to haul Zissou up the side of a mountain.

I honestly didn’t expect much from me or Thunder seeing as how I had yet to make the podium so far this season. I was up against some stiff competition in the likes of Anna and Andie, so I figured I was just paying for training and you know, the experience.

As I continued to warm-up on a side road, my bike didn’t want to shift to the little ring. I had a mini panic because that’s the bike’s job. Especially if I’m climbing up a steep ass hill.

I lined up with the other strong women, who you knew, had to be good at climbing because it takes a special kind of crazy to drive deep into the mountains on a work day to pedal uphill.

Ever since my bike fit with Pat last season, I’ve been conscious of holding my handlebars at the top instead of adamantly staying in the drops. I was so strict about following Pat’s orders that I completely spaced the aerodynamics of the drops at the beginning of this race.

More focused on pacing myself and watching my watts, I was quickly reminded by Alison Powers (nbd) who shouted at me from the side to “get in your drops!”

All I could do was laugh because duh.

My goal for the race was to keep Anna in sight. I knew it would be damn near impossible to catch her so I set lower expectations. Any time I couldn’t see her, I tried picking up the pace. At the same time, I kept an eye out for Andie who started after me. I’m surprised I didn’t get motion sickness from swiveling my head around so often.

The Hill wasn’t letting up and neither was Anna. She was quickly out of sight so I focused on my own efforts. My cadence was fast enough to churn butter. I didn’t see the other women behind me but I assumed I wouldn’t make Top Three.

There was no way, I thought. The other women are stronger than me. I haven’t been making the podium. Today’s not going to be any different.

The course winded around the hillside. People lined up along the edge with cowbells and music blaring. There were a couple of people taking pity on us, cheering just to cheer, but didn’t personally care how well we did. No one knew who I was or what pedal RACING was all about. I was just another cyclist who loved the pain of hills.

As I shifted gears, I came over the corner and saw the finish line. The announcer hanging out in a camping chair calmly saying over his mic, “here comes Jessica McWhirt” with pedal RACING. Then I heard Stephen yell out, “GO JESSICA.” I smiled as I pedaled over the white line taped across the road.

I had lost my voice I was breathing so hard. My legs quivered as I dismounted my bike to talk to Stephen and Anna. We watched and cheered for Andie, Jessica, and Sandy, I didn’t want to stay too long after the race and I was convinced I wasn’t making top three.

We knew Anna came in first, in which I called her out for thinking she’d do any less and I made some self-deprecating joke about my race performance. Then Stephen walked up to our group with the race results: “You came in second so now you can’t talk.”

I started cheering, “I’m number two! I’m number two!” like they do in that Ellen Page roller derby movie. Even when I came in second I was still self-deprecating.

I immediately texted Chris, my mom, and sister to tell them I finally placed in a race. I was pretty stoked.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to believe you’re going to win and be disappointed when you don’t or if it’s easier to set low expectations because then you’re pleasantly surprised with your results. I’ve always stuck with the latter. And I think that’s what has made racing so much harder than it needs to be. I focus entirely too much on results rather than this “journey” everyone tells us it’s all about.

I think it’s both. If I didn’t care about my results I wouldn’t train as hard as I do. I wouldn’t look at what I did wrong in a race and try to figure out how to do better the next time. But when I only focus on my placing and not the fact that I’m challenging my mind and body, overcoming fears and setbacks, and having the opportunity to race against badass women then it’s less fun and I get burnt out.

 

Saturday: Hygiene Time Trial

Today’s race line-up was reversed based on times. Jessica was first, followed by Andie, myself, and Anna. My goal was to not only try to pass Andie and Jessica, but to stay ahead of Anna.

Here’s what’s impressive: Jessica, Andie, and I all had TT bikes. Anna had her road bike and passed all of us.

You can have the fanciest bike but unless you have a powerful engine, your bike gadgets don’t mean shit.

Trying to stay at a steady pace while also trying to catch Andie, I was also focused on staying ahead of Anna. I was pedaling into the first hill and I could just feel her. I didn’t have to look behind me to know Anna was closing in. Then I heard shifting that wasn’t mine. Within the first mile, Anna caught me.

I yelled, “nooooo!” And then followed it with, “go get it!”

I was asked recently how are the other women whom I race against. “They’re awesome,” I said.

Sure, we are there to beat one another on the course, but off the course, we chat, we joke, and we congratulate each other. I’ve yet to have a bad experience with another female racer. I also don’t look for it though.

I go to the race with encouragement and humor. I want all of us to do well, to set PR’s, and accomplish goals. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt or treated badly. I’m there to win but I’m also there to encourage the women next to me.

I watched Anna grow smaller and smaller ahead of me as Andie grew bigger. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d pass her. This is where I lack strategy. Like when do I push it past her? How hard should I push? Am I pacing myself correctly?

We hit a flat section on the course so I turned up my watts. As I closed the gap between us, some random dude (who apparently doesn’t know basic cycling etiquette) cycles past me on my right without announcing himself. I’m lucky I didn’t cut over to the right fast otherwise I’m sure we would have crashed.

I waited for him to pass and then loudly announced my passing to Andie. I tried staying off the dude’s wheel as I hauled past her. I searched ahead for Jessica but couldn’t see her. I wasn’t sure what place I’d get, but I knew every second counted.

I took a slow right-hand turn and booked it to the finish line. Completely spent but energized by the race. Again, I didn’t think I’d place because I’m always quick to disregard my abilities. I rolled up to Anna at the registration area where other cyclists gathered to share their race efforts with each other.

I didn’t really want to know my placement, but at the same time, I was curious to find out where I placed since I passed Andie but never caught up to Jessica.

I was 9 seconds faster than Jessica. Anna blew me out of the water by two minutes. I hung around for the podium because I finally made it to the steps. We joked about flexing our quads as we stood atop the wooden boxes. After a very mediocre season thus far, it was a relief to finally have my name called.

 

Sunday: Lyons to Nederland Road Race

It’s classified as a road race, but let’s be honest, it’s a 36-mile hill climb.

Having two days of racing back-to-back then racing this bastard of a race, I knew would be a challenge. I tried getting extra sleep, dialing in my nutrition, and recovering properly, but if you’re not ready, then you’re just not ready.

I lined up with the women and made a couple of jokes out of nervousness. Knowing full well I was tired and that there were strong women next to me, my goal was to try to stay with the group.

It was a neutral start, which simply means we slowly follow a vehicle to a certain point and then we can go race-pace. I learned from my last road race at Superior Morgul that if I hold the front more often than not, I’m going to be tired at the finish.

I was at the front at the start of the race, I don’t know, hoping to set the pace, next to Anna, and realized I did not want to be at the front, especially next to Anna. I knew my pace was child’s play compared to hers, so I dropped back and held on to her wheel as long as I could.

We were maybe three miles in and just like most of the road races this season, the group maintained speed and I couldn’t. I saw Anna, cool as a cucumber pedal off, as a group of five other women sucked her wheel.

And there I was. Trying to focus on breathing and counting my pedal strokes when Julie, my teammate, came up alongside of me. I jumped on her wheel among the rest of the group. There was probably 8 of us or so. Julie and I pulled for a while.

And seriously, it was just a fucking grind. There is no better way to put it. The road continued at an incline. There was no recovery. Slowly, women dropped off the group. I told myself I couldn’t lose the group. It would have been unbearable to Time Trial that race with the headwind and never-ending hill.

A couple MW 40+ attacked trying to drop as many of us as they could. As I pushed and pulled up on the pedals, my hamstring seized up. I didn’t have experience dealing with major muscle cramps so I didn’t know what to do.

The group was pulling away, my right hamstring was cramping, I was letting off the pedals in hopes that the cramp would pass, and I realized there were still ten miles left before the finish.

I had to make a choice and it had to be fast: suffer for the next minute to catch the group and hope the pain would disappear or pull back, let the cramp dissipate, and time trial alone for ten grueling miles that I knew would feel so much worse.

I shifted gears, stood out of my saddle, and pedaled my ass off until I caught back up to the group. One Cat 3 woman was left behind in the headwind and never-ending hill. And as I caught up to the group, the sigh of relief was both for myself and the would-have-been-miserable Jessica I didn’t leave behind.  

The women attacked again. We countered. I was hanging on by a thread. I wanted to rest. I wanted them to ease up. Hell, I would have been thrilled if someone was like, “Let’s take it easy for the next mile.” It wasn’t happening. We hit a downhill and I found myself stuck behind a nervous Cat 3 descender, much like myself. We lost the group. I told her we could work together until the finish. I hadn’t preview the route because why would I do that? It would have only been just a little beneficial.

I’m being sarcastic.

Because I didn’t know what to expect the last mile or so of the course, I blew out my legs on the last big climb. There were cars parked at the top, people standing around, waiting for their family member or friend, and it looked like the BRAC trailer was there too. I took it up a notch (because I definitely didn’t have the energy to sprint) and saw her drop back. As I pedaled closer to what I thought was the finish, I soon realize I still have 300 km to go. If I didn’t have such big sunglasses, the crowd would have seen my panicky eyes looking for the finish.

Laura caught up to me. I was gassed and regretful that I spent my remaining energy on a false finish. We went back and forth the last 300 km. She’d get ahead, then I would. Neither of us seemed to know where the fuck the finish line was. I even said that out loud as we hauled up the rest of the way: “Jesus, where the fuck is the finish line?” There were more people up ahead. I saw the 100 km sign. I tried to muster by last bit of energy, but I was totally spent. Laura was ahead at the finish line and beat me by a few seconds. I ended up fifth, which wasn’t a surprise.

Anna had been finished for 12 minutes by the time I finished. It’s inspiring to see someone excel so quickly and humbly like Anna.

While I was bummed about my mediocre finish, I was excited to see my husband waiting for me at the end. When you give so much of yourself to a race, you also seem to lose a bit of yourself at the same time. When you’re expecting better results and they don’t come, it’s discouraging. When you see other competitors kicking ass, you wonder what you’re doing wrong. We’re told not to compare ourselves to others; to race our own race, but what is competition if not trying to be the best? You compete to win. How you define “winning” is up to every individual.

I struggle between the notion of competing against myself and against others. I race because I like the competitive aspect of it, even when I hate it. I also race because it makes me stronger and faster than before. And because I’m competitive, I can’t stand losing. It makes me feel like a failure; like a poseur. Like, if I’m not winning, how can I lead a team of women racers? If I’m not winning, what will my family be proud of me for? If I’m not winning, how can I be proud of myself? I see plenty PR’s on Strava, but seeing a PR on a segment is much different than seeing my name next to #1.

It’s important to find that balance between self-improvement and competition. And I think it comes down to self-compassion. We end up being our biggest bullies instead of our biggest fans. You can be competitive AND self-compassionate and I’m trying my best to learn and implement that.

Battle of the Bear: My First Mountain Bike Race

I had given up on the idea of racing a mountain bike after choosing the Guanella Pass Hill Climb over the Beti Bike Bash. The Beti Bike Bash has a race category specific to women who have never raced before. I was all about that because mountain biking intimidated the shit out me. To factor racing in totally freaked me out.

I thought that if I could take on a race with other first-timers, it wouldn’t be as humiliating as opposed to racing another course with experienced athletes. At least if I was going to suck, I’d have the camaraderie with other noobs.

When I saw one of my teammates, Teena, offering her registration to Battle of the Bear, it was hard to pass up. Especially when my husband was also planning to race it. I was originally planning on racing the Senior State Time Trial Championship which was the same day as the Battle of the Bear, so it came down to racing a 40K Time Trial to prove I was better than last year (DFL last year) or racing 16 miles on a mountain bike having absolutely no clue as to how that race would turn out. I opted to throw myself out of my comfort zone (and hopefully not off my bike) in a big way and race my first-ever mountain bike course.

I asked and verified with my teammates the technical difficulty on the course as I’ve never ridden the mountain bike trails in Breckenridge (note: this race was rescheduled and relocated due to a storm on the originally scheduled date). I knew my weaknesses were downhill and weird, technical spots on trails. I certainly wasn’t going to huck myself into a race that would be absolutely above my abilities and therefore, making it completely miserable. I knew I could take some misery, but not 16 miles worth.

When I received the email notification that Teena transferred her registration to me, boy, did the butterflies start whirling around in my belly.

I told Chris we had to preview the course before the race. There was no way I was going into this blindly. Chris, on the other hand, was comfortable with the unknown. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) with road races, I’ll neglect to preview courses. And usually it doesn’t work out in my favor. At the very least, if I was going to give mountain bike racing a try, I sure as shit was going to see what I was getting myself into.

Saturday morning we packed up and drove to Breckenridge (which, in hindsight, we probably should have found a hotel room so we didn’t have to drive so far). On the drive up, it hadn’t quite settled in that I would be hauling ass over trails. I had no idea what the course was like, other than what my teammates promised; which was, “You’ll do great. It’s not techy at all.”

Luckily, the race organizers had the signage up, making it easier to learn the route. Within the first ten minutes, we hit a pitchy climb and it continued. This is where I do well. I can do climbs. There were more climbs and I was feeling good. I kept up with the group although the quads burned a little. (Note: I only have flat pedals on my mountain bike so it’s all quads.) About a mile in I was like, “Sweet. I got this.” And then we hit the downhill, which, as a Roadie, fucks with my head too much. And I know I let it.

And it couldn’t just be a downhill; it had to be a downhill coupled with sand and tight turns, a combination of worst-case scenarios for a roadie. On pavement, you would never see a cyclist take a tight turn with sand sprinkled all over, let alone a pit of sand (unless, of course, they’re racing cross, and they already know it’s there). That’s a straight line to blood, bruises, and broken bikes.  

IMG_2442

So there I am, inching my way down this twisty, turny trail at a snail’s pace. It would have been faster if I just walked it. I wanted to “session” the section so I could figure out the best line or at the very least, get a tiny bit more comfortable with it. But by the time I caught up with the group, they started rolling out. Any confidence I had on the uphills quickly eroded – much like the sand that used to be rocks.

I think Chris realized my anxiety when he saw me death-gripping my handlebars as I traversed the sandy pit of hell. He reared up behind me and reminded me that a lot of racers struggle uphill so that’s where I needed to focus because that was my strength. I needed to “stop fixating on my weaknesses and to race to my strengths.”

We continued previewing the course, my confidence steadily waning. I kept telling myself that this was supposed to be fun. If I wasn’t having fun, why was I doing it?

There was one rocky section toward the end. The group sat at the bottom, watching me descend, which makes anyone nervous. “Don’t stryder. Don’t stryder.” I wanted to put my feet down, but with the pressure from my audience, I kept my feet on the pedals. I knew this part could make or break the race for me.

The last section of the course was like, a bmx park. It’s obvious I don’t mountain bike often. I don’t know the terms. There were berms and it winded back and forth. I could have jumped off a couple hitters, but I tapped my brakes instead.

We rode underneath the official finish line and my nerves were still rattling. Previewing the course made me more nervous about the race, but I was also happy to know what to expect.

My legs felt heavy from the first loop so we decided to stop after one go-around instead of going through it a second time.

After picking up some grub from King Soopers, Chris and I drove all the way back down to Littleton. I didn’t sleep well that night. 

IMG_2460

As we packed the car, Littleton weather was beautiful. Which is why I neglected to bring cold-weather gear. It was a tough lesson when we rolled up to registration, wind gusting, cold rain tapping against my sunglasses, and the hairs on my arms standing at high salute.

I quickly realized how different mountain bike racing is from road racing. Unlike road races, mountain bikers were chatting away, drinking beer, and taking naps. I kept looking at my watch, wondering what time we’d start warming-up.

And there wasn’t much of a warm-up. I think I went up and down the same hill six times before lining up to chat some more. As we grouped together, I checked out everyone’s calves and saw that I was only racing two other women (also, unlike road, they mark your calves for your category and age group).

The ladies joked that all we had to do was finish and we’d place. I didn’t want to place that easily. Like road, I wanted to earn my placement. If I was going to land on the podium, it was because I worked my ass off for it. Because in the road races, I’ve worked my ass off and still ended up in dead fucking last place.

I watched Chris line up ahead of me and as soon as the whistle was blown, he was gone.

My goal was to stay on Kristi’s wheel as long as I could. I knew uphill wouldn’t be an issue. It was the downhill. She’s a strong rider so I had my work cut out for me.

The whistle blew and us seven women shot off. I was on Kristi’s wheel, just like I planned.  We quickly dropped the rest of the women. I wanted to pace myself, but I wanted to stay with Kristi more. We caught up to the men within the first ten minutes of racing. I didn’t think I’d say, “On your left” at all, but I called it out several times as Kristi and I pedaled up the first steep hill.

I shook as I kept speed with Kristi, focusing on her torso, watching her seamlessly weave around rocks and slightly brushing against bushes that lined the trail. She stopped several times from some mechanical problem, apologizing each time I slowed down with her. I was doing well until we reached the twisty, sandy downhill. She was off like the White Rabbit and I was Alice wondering where the hell she went.

Slowly traversing down, trying my damndest to stay loose, Marc and the men we previously passed, caught up to me. I pulled over and told them to go. Marc yelled, “You’ve got this, Jessica! Trust your bike!”

IMG_2457

I knew he was right, but I also knew my back tire was sliding and I hated it. They took off, leaving me in the sandy pit of hell I thoroughly remembered from the day before.

I knew I’d catch up with them on the fire road and told myself so. I tried convincing myself I was fearless, that my bike and I, would be fine. I took the last few turns and saw them on the hill ahead of me.

The fire road was simply an uphill dirt road. I saw the men ahead of me. I took a sip of water and kept pushing my pedals, slowly cutting the distance between us. I caught up to them on a very short yet very steep hill. I didn’t have enough momentum to pedal up so I jumped off the bike and started running up the hill.

Marc and Simon both yelled, “You got this, Jessica!” And I yelled back, “Let’s go, guys! Come on!”

I jumped on Marc’s wheel. “Let me know when you’re ready to pass!” He said. We came to another hill and I took off. We continued leapfrogging through the first lap. They’d drop me on the downhills and I’d pass them going up.

Kristi was long gone but I knew that would happen.

As we pedaled under the main banner, signifying our second lap, seeing my mom and Dean, posing for Kyle’s photo, I told myself I couldn’t keep leapfrogging Marc and the guys. I knew it was messing with everyone’s race. I knew I had to buck up, stay loose, and trust my bike. So I pushed harder on the uphills and loosened my grip on the downhills. I felt like I was flying (really, I wasn’t that much faster than the first lap but our brains like to play tricks).

I tried looking ahead on the trail instead of directly in front of my tire. In a few of the sketchy sandy spots on tight turns, I threw my foot down to help with the turn. I had nothing to prove to anyone and if using my toe to keep me comfortable made me go faster, then so be it, I thought.

Every time I saw a racer ahead of me, I’d take it up a notch and catch up to them.

IMG_2459

My quads screamed. My lungs burned. And my hands shook from adrenaline.

One section was a steep, sandy downhill, with washboards. On the first lap, two dudes yelled at me to let go of the brakes. The second time I rolled around, they yelled at me again. I yelled back saying I was a roadie and to hush it, semi-jokingly, of course.

As I took off, their departing words were, “Sweet tattoos!”

I spent the next five minutes ruminating over those two dudes who found it easy to tell someone how to ride, yet they were standing on the sidelines. It’s always easier said than done.

As I took a second to catch my breath, I looked up at the sky and saw the mountains encircling me. It was clear why mountain biking is preferred by my husband. No cars. Just nature.

And then I was thrown back into the reality of racing when I came upon the rocky downhill section that freaked me out. This time I was ready for it. I lowered my saddle and followed the line clearly taken by all the bikers before me. No one was around but I still felt the pressure to stay on my pedals. And I did just that.

Shaky and exhausted, I shifted up and kept pedaling. My goal was simply to finish unscathed and not totally ashamed of my performance. I crossed the finish line without expectations and a cheering crowd. I kissed my husband, gave Jim his gloves and Kyle his arm warmers, and hugged my mother. We continued to cheer as other racers rolled in. We reminisced on tough sections, sketchy descents, and funny moments. Then Chris offered to get my timing receipt for me.

Chris handed me my race report. I finished first.

I was shocked and excited. No way in hell did I think I could pull off a first place in a mountain bike race when it totally terrified me. But this race was less about my placement and more about the experience. And while I was full of stoke as a climbed up to the top step, I was also regretful that I rarely give myself credit for the road races.

IMG_2474

The mountain bike race was a way to try something new with no pressure or expectations. I didn’t expect anything of myself except to finish. I’ve never patted myself on the back for finishing a road race. If I don’t land on the podium, I feel like a failure. If I come in Dead Fucking Last, I usually sulk and maybe cry behind sunglasses when no one’s looking. I take road racing too seriously and I think it’s because I have these lofty goals of becoming some sponsored racer where I get to travel the world and ride my bike. I’d love that.

And when I’m not excelling, I realize that dream may only ever be a dream.

I applaud myself for my mountain bike racing efforts because I don’t have those same goals with mountain biking as I do with road racing. I’m thankful to have another form of biking that I can just enjoy while also pushing myself. I’ll keep Road where it’s at: serious and my number one passion. Mountain biking will stay as my let-loose sport where I can cheer on teammates while we race along the course; where I can enjoy the beautiful scenery as I pedal and gasp for air; where I can leave for the day without a podium and still be proud of my efforts.

Give Yourself Grace: An Interview With Stacey Richardson

Mental health is something everyone has either heard about or deals with, but it’s often not talked about. It’s one of those topics where we feel weird discussing with others. It’s especially vulnerable when you’re an athlete.

As athletes, we’re kind of known for toughening it out, grinning and grinding through injuries, exhaustion, and failures. You need to be tough to compete, it’s as simple as that. Even though most of us are physically tough, mentally, a lot of athletes struggle. And we don’t talk about it. We don’t want to be seen by our teammates or our competitors as “weak,” so we stay silent.

I recently read an article about athletes struggling with depression and how they cope. Stacey, my teammate on pedal RACING, and I talk about famous professional athletes in our honest discussion about mental health and what it’s like to excel in cycling while managing mental health issues.

Give it a listen: