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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: 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.

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.

Happiness Watts

I wish I could remember who first brought “Happiness watts” to my attention so I could attribute the idea to them. Although, there are tens of thousands of hashtags on Instagram so I highly doubt they invented the idea. Regardless, “happiness watts” are a thing.

As a self-coached athlete, I’m more in tuned with when I need “happiness watts,” but also, I rarely listen to myself. This past weekend was different. I focused exclusively on Happiness Watts. I took the hubs up to Grand Lake for a mini vacay. We brought our mountain and road bikes just in case.

I’m a planner and my husband isn’t. He likes to go with it. I like to know what I’m going to be doing every hour. I’m often told to “just be cool.” That was my weekend challenge. It wasn’t hitting certain zones or watts, but simply being “cool.” I think it would have been easier to go 200% of my FTP for a few minutes than remain “cool” the whole weekend.

So, we slept in on Saturday and finally rolled out of bed around 8:30. We walked across the street to find the Cat Cafe closed for the season. “Just be cool.”

We found another restaurant open so we went in and ordered. We walked around the lake. We found a mountain bike trail on Chris’s app and packed up. When we finally found the trail, it was too wet to ride.

“Just be cool.”

Chris thought we could drive around looking for another trail. After driving for five minutes, I was stir crazy and suggested just riding the dirt road we were driving. He said that was a “noob thing to do.” I said I didn’t want to drive around for hours and miss out on being on the bike. After our back and forth he agreed to ride the newbie road.

We rode the dirt trail as far as we could, even going on to a section we weren’t really allowed on. We turned around, calm down. The clouds grew darker and I felt little drops. I didn’t want to get stuck in a torrential downpour. Chris didn’t think we would.

“Just be cool.”

I kept looking back to see Chris messing around on his mountain bike. I doubled back several times to check on him. He was cool as a cucumber.

We only rode about 18 miles. The athlete inside me considered it a recovery ride because it was “easy.” The “cool” kid inside me said, “they were happiness watts” even though I don’t have a power meter on my mountain bike.

Several restaurants were closed for the season which I did not anticipate. We had our choice of Mexican or pizza, neither of which were approved nutrition for my inside athlete. But “cool” Jessica said, “pick the healthiest option and move on.” I had veggie fajitas.

But then “cool” Jessica was a little too cool and followed the veggie fajitas with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Anxious Jessica still feels guilty for eating it. Chris and I had a carb coma and napped from 6:30-7:30 PM. We woke up from the Peggy Mann Band playing across the street. We walked the bare streets to see all the business owners inside the venue dancing between tables and guzzling two-for-one margaritas.

The newest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was calling my name so we headed back to the Fox Den cabin to end our night with a politically-charged tv show. It’s wild to think that a situation as portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale could happen in real life.

The night was still relatively young after the show. I asked Chris what he’d like to do and he said, “Why can’t we just chill?” I told him we could and proceeded to pull out “Tribe of Mentors” and read. It felt weird not attending to something “more productive,” like working on my clients’ training plans or freelance copywriting.

“Just be cool.”

Sunday morning we woke up early to head back home and ride the trails in our neck of the woods. Mostly because we had to check out of the hotel and I didn’t want our bikes chillin’ in Chris’s car unaccompanied while we rode Trail Ridge Road. I also didn’t think it’d be much a couple’s bike ride knowing full well that I’d be halfway up the mountain, leaving Chris behind.

We waited for breakfast for forty minutes. It was a constant reminder of staying cool. Chris was about to lose it. I sipped my coffee and enjoyed the blinding sun hitting my face through the window.

Chris took me to one of his favorite mountain bike loops: Mt. Falcon to Lair of the Bear. It was strenuous and felt like an actual training ride, so the athlete inside was satisfied but “cool Jessica” was also enjoying it. I realized that mountain biking is a great way for me to learn more skills without the pressure of performing. I don’t race mountain and who knows if I ever will. Climbing up Mt. Falcon was an exciting challenge. I loved the struggle of pedaling over steps and rocks instead of hitting certain watts on my road bike. Mountain biking is a release from structure. A release I need.

As a coach and self-coached athlete, I realize even during racing season, you need to unload, whether that is one day or two or a week. We can’t always be “on.” We make our biggest gains during rest. Most of us aren’t paid to race. Most of us are paying to race. If we don’t let loose every once in a while, we’ll likely burn out at a faster rate than others who put their mental rest on the same level as physical.

Happiness watts are the gains from enjoying and remembering why you ride your bike in the first place. We all have our reasons why we ride, but it all comes down to enjoyment. Sometimes we forget how pleasurable it is to simply get on two wheels and fly.

Happiness watts comes from having fun and riding your bike without an agenda. Go out there and get your happiness watts.