April 27, 2016
Once upon a time, I spent my evenings traveling out to a boarding stable to ride my horse after work, my weekends driving to horse shows across the Midwest, and all the hours in between wondering about equipment, training techniques and nutrition (mostly for my horse and occasionally for me). My mom rode her trusty steed during my entire nine-month stint in utero, so I came naturally to riding since it was the one thing I did consistently during my time before time. When I was 10, she bought a young prospect that was a grandson of Secretariat for about the price of a coffee table, because the brothers who bred him couldn’t get the registration they needed to race him on the track. Law suits ensued, and they just needed to unload him.
We got lucky. He turned out to be a once-in-ten-lifetimes kind of jumping horse. I rode him to national championships. His owners down the pike rode him to national championships. He was golden.
But then I got burned out by the constant hassle of horse showing and by the pressure to win, mostly self-imposed. So I quit. We sold the horse, and I started taking photography classes after school. After a five-year break, I came back to riding, bought a young horse that required some serious cowgirl and horse-whisperer skills, and gradually worked my way back to the show ring. That horse was a lovely, lovable jerk. But he taught me more about creative thinking and process than anything else in my life. Ever.
I could go on and on about horses. But six years ago, I sold my last horse – and three years after that, I bought a bike. Which is basically a metal pony that doesn’t require a boarding stable or organic carrots. But it still needs a lot of things: chain lube, baths, new components. Now I spend my evenings finding hills to ride up again and again, my weekends driving to bike races, and all the hours in between wondering about equipment, training techniques and nutrition (mostly for me).
Not much has changed. And yet everything has changed. I now speak a weird language. Functional threshold power. Anaerobic threshold power. Lactate threshold. CO2 max. Bike racing involves lots of thresholds, each of them revealing something more about the actual power you’re able to produce. And power is measured in watts, like a lightbulb, which is a strange concept to most people.
When I bought my trusty road bike, I thought I might race, but I didn’t want to step back into a quagmire of endless competition that turns the freedom of riding into a drudgery. So I took my time. Last year, I participated in three road races and was happy with my results. So this year, I decided to go for it in a bigger way – and while it’s still early in the season, I’ve already checked a lot of firsts off my list.
At the end of April, I rode in the Ken Woods Memorial Classic road race, which unfolds over a short 21-mile course that traces the edges of farm fields just south of Cannon Falls. There are absolutely no wind breaks, and the race is always plagued by blustery crosswinds that can push you into another rider’s wheel if you’re not paying attention. This year, I warmed up by backtracking the course from the homestretch of the finish line. I figured that approach would offer up some good race recon so I’d know exactly which landmarks to look for before I made a break for it. That paid off. Unlike everyone else in the breakaway group, I knew when to turn up the heat and ended up taking them by surprise. I finished second in that one.
After last year’s races, I wanted to try leading the break in a race, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. Even if my legs eventually blew, I wanted to get an idea of what it felt like to start the sprint so I’d know how to throttle my finishing pace in future races.
One first checked off my list.
During the first weekend in May, I traveled to La Crosse with a bunch of Birchwood teammates and rode in my first omnium, which is a fancy term for a three-event weekend of racing. On Friday evening, I raced my first time trial up Grandad Bluff, which is a 2.5-mile climb that induces lung-searing pain and makes you temporarily forget your own name. In a time trial, racers are sent off individually every 30 seconds – so it’s you against the clock. You want to get up the hill as fast as you can without turning completely to mush in the process. If you happen to pass someone, then you’re beating them; and if someone happens to pass you, then they’re beating you. My goal? Don’t let anyone pass me.
In the end, I made it up the bluff in just under 11 minutes and ended up second overall in my category. But I also pushed my lungs so hard that I basically gave myself bronchitis. Oh, the glory…
Another first checked off my list.
After Saturday’s road race and fifth-place finish in the most competitive pack I’ve ever raced against, I faced the last event: my first criterium race on Sunday. In crit races, you sprint around a closed circuit that’s usually around a mile in length. In a pack of sprinters. Around tight corners. For a set length of time. A lot of people call is the “NASCAR of bike racing” – and that’s a little what it felt like, when I could feel anything at all. Crashes are common in crits, so I was terrified. I haven’t felt that nervous about something since my horse-showing days.
I felt more calm on my wedding day than I did on that Sunday.
In fact, I was so nervous when the official blew the whistle to start the race that it took me four tries to clip into my right pedal. As 40 women swerved around me, I thought I would tip over and seep into the pavement in shame. But then SNAP! And I was on my way. Initially, I stayed in the middle of the pack to breathe in the dynamic of the race, to get a sense for the speed and to figure out how to pace myself as the riders at the front stepped on and off the gas. As we raced around one corner on the second or third lap, my front wheel snaked into a groove between the sidewalk and the road, where there was also a dusting of sand. As my front wheel shimmied – and I imagined myself going down – I automatically softened my grip on the bars and loosened up at the elbow. Just like I used to do when I was in trouble on a horse. Somehow, the wheel tracked back to the road, and I managed to stay on top of the bike.
After that, I charged closer to the front, where I thought I’d be safer and could manage the pace for the group. As the speed increased, I felt a flood of adrenaline in my body, and it was like an aggressive, primal instinct took hold. I took the lead and held it for two solid laps as the others chased me down. Suddenly, I was soaring, not riding.
The group swarmed around me again and I was enveloped by riders on all sides. We took the second-to-last lap in a pack, and for two-thirds of the final lap, it was like nothing was happening. Then the bells rang as we closed in on the finish line, and everyone started to sprint like hell, like their lives depended on on it. So I did, too.
And I ended up crossing the line in fifth place. But more importantly, I didn’t crash.
I couldn’t shut off the spout of my adrenaline from those 30 minutes for about three days. We averaged 26 mph, which is consistent with the more competitive men.
Another first crossed off the list. That weekend taught me more about winging it and trusting my inner speed demon than anything else in my life. Ever.
Now I’m hunting for a bunch of nexts for me and my metal steed.