Jess: “You know what would feel better than a drink right now? Going for a spin.”
Me: “There is a 0% chance that I’m riding a bike now.”
Jess: “You know what would feel better than a drink right now? Going for a spin.”
Me: “There is a 0% chance that I’m riding a bike now.”
When the air is warm and the sun shines bright on dry roads, cycling is a privilege and a pleasure, no matter how hard the ride. You clip in, savor the breeze on your bare skin, and feel positively blessed. Bikes are the best! Life is great!
Winter evokes none of these feelings. Winter is a slap across the face with a cold, dead fish.
There are a few lucky cyclists who live in climates that never turn against them. This article is not for those riders (instead please enjoy a friendly middle finger). This article is for everybody else who has ever had to spend twenty minutes bundling up just to venture out for a quick spin. Whatever hemisphere you call home, chances are good you’ve had a ride plan impacted or derailed entirely by weather that would put off the most intrepid athletes.
I’m from Northern Virginia, and never does the “Northern” qualifier feel more applicable than winter. We are blessed with a shitty and miserable mix of grey, chilly, damp, occasionally icy conditions from December through March. I can stomach cold but not cold plus wet, so more often than not I’m forced into training indoors. It eventually starts to feel easier to resign myself to indoor riding before even considering the forecast – fewer layers, a more consistent ride, no stress about climate concerns.
My obsessive compulsive tendencies also appreciate the scientific precision of working out indoors; there is no coasting or hiding from the requirements of the workout. I figure that if I’m going to do intervals, I might as well do them perfectly (or throw up and cry trying). On the trainer or rollers, the only thing that keeps you from nailing the targets is your own weakness. This self-flagellating philosophy explains so much about my cycling career, and yet I’m astonished when I burn out by May every year…
Even if you are not a glutton for punishment and boredom, you should at least try exploring the great indoors. It does wonders for fine-tuning your cadence and efficiency while offering excellent mental training. Many times in races I’ve thought back to suffering indoors as a reminder that nothing I’m experiencing sucks THAT badly, so surely I can keep going.
Whether you choose to be miserable inside or out, the important thing is that you just keep riding, because the fitness you build in the off season is critical to the rest of the year. With that in mind, I offer some helpful pointers on surviving the less lovely months.
Helpful Tips for Riding Outside in Winter:
My worst winter ride experiences have been the times I tried to ride outside, failed due to iced-over roads or borderline hypothermia, and had to restart indoors. It’s not worth the hassle when a warm, dry option waits patiently to offer you endless fun.
Helpful Tips for Riding Inside in Winter:
For my birthday last October, my dear friend Ivy gave me a necklace:
There was a moment last November when I almost forgot that. Everything felt broken and insurmountable. I sat alone in my apartment in Seattle and wept at the mess I’d made of my life. In that instant, I couldn’t figure out how to begin untangling the wreckage of an entirely derailed life plan.
But then I got up off the couch and did. One step at a time, one day at a time, with the help of my tirelessly loving family and friends. I got shit done. Now it’s time for the next step. I just left home to go on the road for the season.
I often write something here when a chapter of life comes to a close; it’s my way of processing things. When I thought of this time and what I’d say about the 10 weeks prior, originally it was going to be depressing as hell. “I spent all winter being cranky, training indoors, and doing work, WAHH WAHHH.” But while mentally drafting a recap of this past winter, I realized that’s not what actually happened.
Well. Not entirely. I was definitely irritable far too often. As Andrew delicately said, “I think you do too much and give too many fucks, and when it comes to anything beyond that, you don’t have any fucks left to give.”
I’m going to start a GoFundMe for fucks. Please help me overcome this critical shortage.
It was definitely a difficult period and there have been many moments when I felt lost or mired under disappointment and hurt. I spent a not insignificant amount of time eating Veggie Straws in my bathrobe watching old MTV shows. But in retrospect, this has also been one of the most productive, strongest times of my life. I guess I didn’t see how much was happening until it was time to stop and leave.
It started with a bike race at the beginning of December that reminded me how much I love this sport and want to keep racing. After that, training kicked off hard and provided a place to put my feelings and attention every day. It didn’t matter how shitty I felt; when it was time to train, I threw everything into the workouts. It paid off; testing with my coach last week showed the best numbers I’ve ever put out. While I love to complain at length about indoor riding, this winter it saved me.
Off the bike, I fixed all of the minor problems on my beloved M Coupe, got it detailed and ready to sell, and then decided to keep it because why the hell not. I moved out of my condo, fixed it up, put it on the market, and signed a contract to sell it. The relief of unloading that place after nearly nine years and being free to call anywhere home is huge. In the process of ditching my Seattle apartment and my Reston condo, I also got rid of boxes and boxes of stuff I no longer want or need. There’s something liberating about being able to fit all of your worldly possessions in one large closet. (There is something distinctly less liberating about telling people you live in a closet at your parents’ house.)
I also kept up with my plans to keep traveling, and spent a few weekends wandering all over Philadelphia and Charleston, seeing and eating everything. Back home, I caught up with friends, met some wonderful new people, visited new places, and even decided ice skating would be a good idea (wrong). Most excitingly, after fifteen years of fussing with glasses and contacts, I finally got laser eye surgery and can see perfectly. IT IS AMAZING. As the eye doctor said during my final check up last Thursday, “Your flaps look good.”
There’s an uncomfortable compliment.
Finally, between work and running the team and training, I also started writing a regular column for Peloton Magazine and launched a podcast, The Dirt Field Recordings, with the help of Bill Schieken (aka CXHairs). I’ve wanted to do more creative projects for a long time but always felt like those ideas got pushed to the side because there were too many other tasks to do. In rebuilding life into what I want it to be, those things finally became priorities. We only get one shot at life and nobody dies being really glad they knocked out their to-do list.
Things still hurt. There are still moments when I feel lost. But living a full life means accepting that with the good comes the bad and from the bad, there can also come good. This past winter wasn’t what I expected or thought I wanted, but in the end it was so much better.
What a year! I will forever look back on 2016 as the year that overflowed with joyful moments like slamming into the ground repeatedly, getting my heart pulverized, and finding out we’d elected Trump. What a time to be alive! And yet, in the wake of a year of sometimes crippling defeats, I have never felt more alive, excited, and ready to plunge ahead.
So many things happened in the last 12 months. We launched Hagens Berman | Supermint and had an incredible season of highs and lows, victories and learning experiences, and a roller coaster of thrills that took the team all over North America and to Italy for the Giro Rosa. (Meanwhile, I went to Canada. So that’s basically my 2016 life choices in a nutshell.) It still feels surreal, yet we’re now well underway towards our second season.
In my own cycling career, I raced hard, crashed harder, stubbornly kept going even harder than that, and then retired. It seemed like a good idea at the moment, sort of like jäegerbombs or that time I pierced my nose. But like any good pro cyclist, I quickly unretired and kept training because that is what we do.
Off the bike, I drove back and forth across America a time or four, in the way that other people run to the grocery store. Oh, you need something in California? BRB. I don’t regret the experience – I love a good roadtrip and the thrill of motorpacing behind my car for three hours along the highway – but maybe the next time a guy suggests I move across the country for him, I’ll just pack a carry-on and fly. Because there’s a good chance it’ll be a short trip anyway.
Which brings me to that little thorn in the side of 2016, the Great Shocking Heartbreak Adventure. I rearranged my life for a dude that turned out to be not what he seemed, or maybe exactly what he seemed had I been willing to be less delusional. I made a serious of bad decisions that culminated in realizing abruptly that I was a sucker and the unfortunate owner of a fully-furnished and now entirely unnecessary home in Seattle. So I cried and screamed WHYYYYYY at the heavens and then moved back across the country and cut my losses.
Now it’s the end of the year and a great time to reflect on a number of valuable lessons to take into 2017 and beyond. Let us all learn from my foibles so that at least some of us can avoid the joy that is letting somebody break your rib AND your heart.
1. If you are not sure about a new living arrangement, stick to Ikea options. It makes bailing in a hurry much less painful and expensive; nobody weeps over the loss of a particleboard bed frame.
2. Say yes to adventures that make you feel anxious. Say no to people that make you feel anxious. It’s a great idea to step outside your comfort zone to explore the world and branch out personally. But if somebody tries to tell you, “no, really, you LIKE this,” and your gut says you don’t, listen to it.
3. Consider refundable plane tickets. After retiring, I bought a plane ticket to Japan for a 3-week adventure in January. Hooray spontaneity! Then I unretired and need to spend January training. Changing that ticket to a trip after the season ends was an unpleasantly expensive undertaking. Lesson? For big trips, it might be worth building in flexibility.
4. If you are looking for a way to spend all of your time and money, start a professional cycling team. This requires no explanation.
5. Money can buy neither love nor happiness. “But it can buy a bicycle and that’s basically the same thing!” Oh, please. Seriously, though, if you think you can throw money at yourself or somebody you love in hopes of making everything better/happier, just stop. It doesn’t work. (Or throw it at me instead.)
6. Always do your workout. You’ll rarely regret it. Getting up and moving when all I want to do is read the Internet and eat Veggie Straws never fails to make me feel better. And besides, the Veggie Straws are always there waiting when I’m done.
7. Compromise is key to making any relationship – personal or business – successful. But compromise by definition is mutual. Be willing to give, but not everything all the time.
8. There are three things on which you should never budge: How much you’re comfortable spending, how much you’re comfortable drinking, and what saddle you ride. Your butt deserves better.
9. If you find yourself Googling “is this the right person for me?” you can stop right there because you have your answer.
10. There is always time to stop for coffee or a snack. Life is short and nobody ever dies saying, “Thank god I never made time to sit and eat ice cream.”
11. Sometimes stopping entirely is the only way to move forward. This is hard for me to accept because I stubbornly refuse to back down under any circumstance, even while losing a fight with a tiger that is poisonous and covered in angry wasps. But I wish I’d sat out the Gila race after I got a concussion, and I wish I’d given my body time to recover from the crash at North Star, and I wish I’d walked away from the relationship that made me feel badly long before it imploded. A well-timed cease and desist would have made all the difference many times over.
12. Instead of trying to have what you want, want what you already have. I’m perpetually discontent and always chasing more in life, and frankly after 32 years of this, I can tell you it’s not doing me any favors. Don’t make the same mistake. Chances are, you already have everything you need to be happy.
There were a lot of painful moments this year, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Maybe I needed to learn hard lessons in cycling to make me a healthier, wiser athlete. Maybe I needed to get my heart trampled by a guy to figure out how to be smarter and stronger (and more careful with the concept of joint checking). Maybe I needed to walk away from everything I’ve worked for to realize just how badly I still want it.
All any of us can do is weather the shitty times, learn from them, and keep going forward. I am so happy to be here now, surrounded by people that make me feel lucky to be alive, doing things that make me excited to wake up each day. There is no better way to start a new year.
You know those nights when you go to bed and nothing happens? You lay there and lay there and eventually start to grow moss but sleep doesn’t come. That was me on Saturday night. After several hours of chewing my pillow in exasperation, I resorted to reading until sleep finally came. When my alarm went off at 6am so I could volunteer at the Capital Cross Classic, I had been asleep for less than four hours and woke up ready to punch somebody in the face.
My beloved 14-year-old dog was the my first interaction of the day. Okay. No punching.
So I got up feeling exhausted and cranky, put on fifteen layers of clothing (how many pairs of leggings equals one pair of actual pants?), and headed to the race. I began my volunteer duties, caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in months, and was bordering on hypothermic within two hours. Eventually I headed to the heckler’s tent where there was a campfire that I bonded with so closely that it burned a hole in my pants. I was sitting there with friends discussing our vague intentions to ride “later” when somebody (HI FRANK) jokingly suggested that his girlfriend and I should enter the elite women’s race.
Haha. Ha. That’s funny. Lemme just put on another five layers of clothing and become one with this log.
Except the idea poked me in the brain hard enough that I looked up the start time. It was in an hour. I had no cross bike, no cross shoes, no cash to register. I was sitting in the woods a quarter mile from the parking lot freezing my ass off and I hadn’t eaten in four hours. Also no sleep.
Of course this seemed like a brilliant idea. “I’m going to the car for a snack,” I announced, not wanting to commit to the plan I was 110% committed to in my head. I rushed back to the parking lot, stopping only to grab and inhale a handful of Oreos from a random package on the ground. Whatever. I was dumpster diving a week ago.
The events of the next forty minutes were a blur. I borrowed a cross bike from a very kind and same-sized friend. Changed into cycling clothes in the parking lot. (See? I really did intend to ride later.) Tried to source shoes. Remembered to raise the seat. Registered and pinned a number. Borrowed shoes from the same friend and realized that donating my foot sweat to him meant I owed him more alcohol than I could probably afford. The plan was crazy and last-minute and haphazard but my friends all came together to make it happen. I couldn’t have pulled it off without them.
With 10 minutes to spare, I was ready. That seemed like enough time to practice a few dismounts and remounts on a grassy stretch. While I was no Katie Compton, it wasn’t a total trainwreck and my biggest struggle was clipping in. There was a perpetual missed connection between the cleats and pedals and when I did manage to latch in, there was no obvious click and I could only confirm by yanking up on the pedal. It’s great to be a beginner.
I rolled to the start and staged at the back, where officials store people who have accomplished nothing thus far this season. The official gave brief pre-race instructions, saying, “You all know the drill,” and I had to call out that no, I actually didn’t and, um, how many laps are we doing? IS THERE A FREE LAP? When she asked if everyone was ready, I yelled NO and then the whistle blew.
The race started fast and unsurprisingly, I did not get the holeshot. I was awkward in the group, but also fired up and excited. Racing cross is so physical: it’s you and the bike pushing hard over varying terrain, but also you and the other riders vying for space and squeezing each other out at every turn. My first lap was not pretty. I hadn’t seen the course other than the parts I’d crossed briefly on foot and wasn’t exactly smooth on the technical sections. If you were behind me, you have my sincerest condolences. But I fought to pass riders and stay ahead because it’s bike racing and the part of me that fights to the death when there’s a bike involved was out in full force. I smashed every part of the course as hard as possible.
Early on, I felt like an octopus riding a unicycle while drunk and on fire. I even had to ask another racer if we were supposed to use the drops or not. I fumbled to clip in and stumbled over the running sections. But then it got easier and I felt things coming together. I passed more people, opened gaps, and found it easy and even fun to dig painfully deep. My heart rate was somewhere around 190 and my legs were screaming WHAT ABOUT RETIREMENT but oh my god, I felt alive and so damn good.
To everybody who cheered all around the course, thank you. Realizing how many friends I had out there would have brought tears to my eyes if I wasn’t already nearly weeping from the exertion of trying not to crash into trees. At one point, I heard a guy on the sidelines ask, “Is that Lindsay Bayer?” Trust me, dude, I was as surprised as you.
After six glorious laps of fighting and flailing, I finished third, winded and hurting and thrilled.
WHY DID I NOT DO THIS SOONER?
There are real answers to that question that end up being part of a much larger discussion about racing and my career and life in general. I made choices in the past five months to move in one direction and along the way, lost the fire and fight that made me the kind of person who turned getting the mail or eating cheese into a do-or-die competition. Throw in a broken rib a few months back and there went the hypothetical cross season I’d planned. But one minute yesterday I’m freezing my butt off on a log in the woods thinking the people on course look insane and the next minute I’m throwing elbows and smashing pedals trying to get ahead.
It was the best moment I can remember in a long time. Months, really.
Things haven’t been good for a while now. The last 12 days have been the hardest of my life, and the months prior were filled with uncertainty, insecurity, and conflict. Somebody hurt me badly, but I also put myself in a position to be run over and allowed it to happen. I’ve felt off-kilter and unsteady for months, trying to figure out what I was doing and who I was becoming. It wasn’t going well; I was lost and depressed and frustrated by ‘choices’ I was making that didn’t feel like my own. I thought I was compromising for love, but instead I was compromising myself. Yesterday I did something wildly impulsive and bold and it felt fantastic. Like waking up after a bad dream.
It wouldn’t have been possible or nearly as enjoyable without the help of some really great people. To Frank – thank you for the crazy idea. To Alistair and Laura – thank you for the bike and shoes. To Arden and RJ and Mary and Jim and Andrew – thank you for helping me make it to the start line. To Bruce – thank you for putting on a kickass event and letting me participate. To everybody cheering – thank you for the reminder that the mid-Atlantic cycling community is an awesome place to race. To the person who owned the Oreos – I really hope that bag was fresh.
The first thing I did after deciding to retire was spin for an hour on the trainer.
Of course that’s how it would go. I decided to retire; I didn’t stop breathing or being a head case.
But I should back up.
In early June of 2007, I bought a mountain bike and later that month, I started racing it. By August, I’d decided I wanted to go to the Olympics for cross country racing and by the following December, I was in training. My whole life shifted: my diet became healthier and actually included water, I rode a bike all the time, and every day included some type of cross-training. Sometimes I loved it; others I’d put off training all day and throw tantrums as I dragged myself onto the trainer at 10pm. How I felt about the process was mostly irrelevant – I had a goal and absolute tunnel vision to that end. My whole life shifted to being about training and racing and I made choices repeatedly to support that goal and abandon everything else.
When I stumbled into road cycling (or crashed into it, as some of you may recall), everything changed except for the steel-trap focus on making it to the highest level of the sport. I was more successful on the road than trails and that stoked the fire to work harder and sacrifice more. Two years later, I was racing professionally all over the country and have been there since. It’s been a wild ride.
Starting the Hagens Berman | Supermint team was an incredible experience and I enjoyed racing this past season more than ever before. I was fitter and stronger then any year prior, and finally had the confidence and experience to feel in control in races. I didn’t achieve some of my personal goals but have no regrets.
What I do have is the certainty that I need to step away from racing now. Not from riding, not from running the team, but from the demands of being a professional cyclist. The negative feelings started months ago but I ignored them or chalked them up to temporary injury/fatigue/burnout. They didn’t go away, though, and I would listen to myself chatting with people about racing and the coming season and it sounded like I was talking about getting teeth extracted or attending my own funeral. There is nothing in professional cycling so rewarding that it is worth doing when you don’t feel like it anymore.
As for the why? part: Phil Gaimon had a great interview recently talking about his own decision to retire and many of his reasons mirror mine. It felt like my fire to race dimmed to the point where it no longer blotted out the magnitude of the risks and sacrifices. I’ve missed events and holidays for years, begrudgingly put my body through grueling workouts when I wanted to be doing ANYTHING else, and visited the ER more times than people who work there. Throughout all of it, I kept seeing the goal the goal the goal and that was enough, but when the goal stopped meaning as much, I couldn’t figure out why to keep going.
In the middle of a Saturday morning while visiting the San Francisco area in October, I abruptly decided to retire.
There was an immediate feeling of relief and excitement about how wide open my future suddenly felt. There was also panic – who am I if I’m not a professional cyclist? – but that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep going anymore. I told a few people about the decision, did my daily core workout, and then rode the trainer. Although I was done racing, I wasn’t done being fit or feeling compelled to ride and I needed to spin my legs out in advance of the next day’s big ride.
The rest of the week in San Francisco was spent smashing my body on long rides and not giving a shit about being totally cracked, having terrible legs, or stopping for coffee mid-ride. Off the bike, I ate and drank like it was my last meal and spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I wanted to be next. I bought a plane ticket to spend three weeks in Japan exploring because this is the first time in nearly a decade that I felt free enough to travel without thinking about training or racing. It felt a bit like being let out of jail.
When I think about racing, I do feel sad and miss it already. I’m certain it will be hard to watch or hear about races I should be in and know that I’m not part of the action anymore. But it’s like outgrowing a romantic relationship; you can look at the person and love them so much but know they’re not right for you anymore and it’s time to move on. I love racing and everything it has done for my life, but it’s time to figure out what is next and plunge wildly, terrifyingly, and joyfully into that unknown.
One of the best things about this past racing season was no longer constantly worrying about signing my next professional contract. When you run your own cycling team, you worry about everything except whether or not you’ll have a job.
Jono and I did have a conversation about this few months ago.
“You’re hiring me as a rider again,” I said. “You don’t have a choice.”
“I could say no, but then you could fire me. And we haven’t talked about whether or not you’re hiring me back as the director.”
And so that was settled.
After five years of stressing all season about getting a job the following year, it was a relief to let go of that concern and race my bike without thinking about a result on a resume. [Instead I worried constantly about the team getting results to keep the sponsors happy and the team in existence. No pressure.]
I also didn’t have to spend July through October desperately checking my email for good or bad news. Rachel Heal and Linda Jackson are likely still relieved that my emails have stopped coming, while Jono would probably give his right arm to go back to the sweet old days when my emails to him began with “Dear Mr. Coulter…”
Now I’m on the other side and would like to offer some advice to every rider hoping to sign a professional contract. I’ve been you, I feel your pain, I know that hunger. There were times where I would have traded a major organ for a contract. But here are some things to consider:
1. Just race your bike. Results do matter, but if you spend all season chasing results just for the sake of getting hired, you are asking to be unhappy. I remember dragging my burned-out, weary butt all over the country because I was desperate to get that stand-out result that was going to make all the team directors swoon. At one point, I paid $900 for a plane ticket to do a single crit in Aspen, took a 5am flight to Virginia the morning after, had 36 hours to rest/recover/attend a bachelorette party, then drove 6 hours to race another crit the next day. When I finished 4th in that race, I cried hysterically and felt like a crushing failure because it wasn’t a podium and I wasn’t going to get noticed by directors and was probably going to die alone in a cave. That is the definition of doing it wrong. You should race because you love the challenge and want to be the best — that’s the only way to keep it rewarding enough to be worth doing.
2. But no, seriously, race your bike. Please do not spend your entire season racing locally and then send your resume to national/international pro teams telling them about your great results. You need to learn how to race at national-level events and show directors that you can be competitive in those races. Yes, it is expensive and challenging to do as a solo rider. Life is not fair but that’s the price of climbing the ladder in this sport. True story: I genuinely believed after winning my first few local races as a category 3 rider that pro teams would want to hire me and sent out my resume accordingly. Please do not be me. I am still embarrassed enough for us both.
3. Being hired to a team is not going to make or break your life. Yes, it is great to be able to call yourself a professional cyclist, to have things paid for and given to you, and to be part of a collective organization in matching clothes working together towards a single goal. Some of my best moments in cycling have come from traveling and racing with a team. But some of my worst moments in cycling have also come from the drama and politics and budget struggles inherent in so many teams. The wrong environment can wreck your season and motivation. Before you structure your whole season and personal sense of worth around getting a contract, make sure you figure out what you want from the sport and THEN decide the best way to get there. A pro contract on a team where you are not a good fit isn’t going to get you anywhere you want to be.
4. Be sure you’re ready to be on a team. Unless you are a very special snowflake, you are probably going to spend your first few seasons on a team as a domestique. It is hard to go from being a hometown hero with brilliant results to finishing 58th consistently because you are part of the leadout train. My ego struggled with that because I worried that people back home would think I suddenly sucked. My own parents spent most of my first pro season asking why I kept doing so poorly in races where I’d gotten top-10 results the previous year. Figuring out how to be truly happy that you got somebody else on the podium doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re not ready to take orders and be a cog in the machine and give up being an independent agent, that’s fine, but don’t join a team. Go into a team ready to learn, willing to listen, and happy to cooperate.
5. Prepare a strong resume and introductory email. Your resume should be succinct, current, and easy to process. Directors do not want to wade through five pages of lovely photos and touching narrative. When you write your introductory email, focus on what you can do for the team, not what the team can do for you. If your objective is “To find a team that can help me accomplish X, Y, and Z,” you are doing it wrong. Your parents, friends, coach, therapist, significant other, and pet all care about your hopes and dreams. Directors care about the team’s hopes and dreams, so you should focus on telling them how you will be an asset. Make an effort to show that you want to be part of their team for a specific reason so it seems like you’ve done more than just cut and paste the same message to a dozen directors. If you email me and mention that you were so impressed when the team set Scotti up to win at Stage 1 of Redlands or that you have a fetish for polka dotted bottles, I am going to be impressed enough to at least open your resume. If you want a director to care about you, start by showing that you care about their team.
Note: This advice can also be applied to your resume/cover letter in your professional career outside of cycling. In my non-cycling career, I review a lot of resumes where people seem oddly convinced that corporations care about their personal career goals.
6. Ask the right questions. Ask directors what their race program goals are for the following season. If your heart is set on going to Europe, be honest about that so you and the director can determine if the team is a good fit. Ask about the team’s views on riders having outside employment, if significant others or family members can be accommodated on travel plans, whether the team prefers to keep riders on the road or send them home between races, and what expenses are covered or not. It’s okay to ask these questions and if the director won’t answer them, then it’s probably not a team you want to spend a year with anyway. As for the salary conversation, people seem very uncomfortable about this all around. That is stupid: cycling is a business and this is a job. Even if the salary on offer is low or non-existent, let’s all agree to have the same professional discussion one would expect in any hiring dialogue.
7. Rejection is not the end of the world. I have received a lot of rejections in cycling. Jono himself has rejected me multiple times in past seasons. (NOW WHO’S LAUGHING??) There are a lot of great riders and not a lot of teams. There is not a lot of money to go around in the sport, and there are tons of politics and weird relationships that make navigating the world of teams even more challenging. If you get rejected, just keep riding and racing your bike. If you were only doing it to get on a team in the first place, please go reread point #1. Don’t give up because you never know what could happen. Teams often bring on guest riders throughout the season that end up getting hired. Teams also make final hiring decisions at the end of the year or the start of the new year to round out their rosters. If you always focus on racing your bike hard and being a generally decent person, your time will come.
Hello from the off season! Everything is going really well here. Wait, no. That is a lie. Much like every road in the city of Seattle, things are continually up and down. Sometimes life is peachy and I’m living the dream and other times I would very much like to wake up already, damnit. That shift usually occurs several times before noon each day.
I went on a great ride last week. By great I mean “possibly, if not likely, the worst ride of my entire cycling career” but in retrospect it was at least memorable. My training plan called for a three-hour endurance ride and, because my legs were crap and I was exhausted, I decided to plan a chill ride exploring West Seattle for several hours. No pressure, no big efforts, just some quality time on the bike seeing the town.
Then it rained.
It was very windy by the water.
I flatted again.
Stopped at a bike shop to buy more supplies.
Stopped at another bike shop to buy even more supplies.
Ended up with too short of a valve stem on the tube; struggled to inflate the tire.
The ride was gloomy and gritty and tedious.
My riding partner crashed on slick pavement and took me out.
Then he had to get a car and drive home (while dripping blood) because the ride had run an hour longer than the day’s schedule permitted.
I stubbornly refused to stop (SHOCKER) and spent the final hour of the ride limping home slowly while struggling to breathe through the pain in my back/shoulder.
Then I got home and was still struggling and moping and grimacing and he asked me to take a picture of his wounds and beer.
Then I stabbed him.
Okay, that last part only happened in my head. Clearly crashes happen and it was an accident that could have happened to anybody. I am not an unreasonable person (that is actually a lie). I know he didn’t mean to slide out and bowl a perfect strike with his large bike and flailing limbs and I know he felt terrible about it.
After a week, the pain in my back/shoulder/somewhere inside was actually getting worse instead of better. It hurt to breathe/sneeze/laugh/cough/have a pulse and don’t even get me started on how terrible it was to move. Drying my hair the other day resulted in shrieking obscenities. So I went to see a doctor yesterday and found out that my T7 rib is fractured.
This is where The Guy will say PICS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Sorry, I was too busy weeping like a baby over my misfortune to snap a photo of the X-Ray.
The doctor said it will take 4-6 weeks to heal (“On the bright side, you’re already a week into the healing process!” The Guy chirped optimistically while I fantasized about pulling out the broken rib and shanking him with it) and in the interim, I am supposed to let pain be my guide for physical activity.
Okay. I can lift my right arm to get a drink to my lips NO PROBLEM.
But truly, it could have been worse. I could have fractured the rib through my own error (something very likely given my life choices) and then I would not have this great line to drag out all the time for the rest of my life about That Time You Broke My Rib. This is killer leverage.
Living in Seattle has given me ample opportunity to explore the idea that every cloud has a silver lining.
Things have been unraveling since I slammed into the ground during the first North Star Grand Prix crit on June 15.
When the crash happened and I was cleared by the hospital and the stage was neutralized, I went back into the race the following day like nothing had gone wrong. I did that stage and all the others after it, limping along stubbornly and pushing my body so hard. There was no logic in what I was doing but I couldn’t stop and wouldn’t let anybody around me say otherwise. That mindset is my greatest gift and curse as an athlete – I never stop.
But I should have. Then, or in the days after, but I didn’t. I tried to race and then started another cross-country drive out west. I called that drive my “time off” but who the hell is ridiculous enough to think driving 5-6 hours a day for a week is restful? Apparently me. So I made it to Missoula, MT “fresh and ready to train” except that I was still in so much pain and my body wasn’t functioning.
To properly recover, I took a day off. Literally one freaking day, and then I was back on the bike pushing. When my body balked and the pain increased, I got annoyed and pushed harder. Off the bike, I kept up with corework every morning despite my mid-back being in perpetual spasm. There were so many signs that I needed to stop moving but I just couldn’t. I sobbed through intervals that were sub-par at best, ate far too many salads to compensate for what I thought was not enough hard training, and bludgeoned myself mentally around the clock for not getting it together. There was also another visit to the ER to rule out the possibility that the lump in my leg post-crash was a blood clot.
Then once I’d concluded my refreshing rest in Missoula – which was at least made enjoyable by time with my teammate Ivy and her wonderful family – I packed up the car again and drove to Seattle. Signed a lease, set up an apartment from scratch, and started a whole new life with completely new routines in a new place. Three days later, I left to race BC Superweek.
It’s weird how I didn’t feel fresh and ready.
Then my heart kept acting up with arrhythmia episodes and my back kept aching and the first race was crap and so I decided to stop. But of course I still kept riding because insanity knows no bounds, and then the Gastown Grand Prix came around and I couldn’t bring myself to sit out another race. So I lined up and actually raced the crap out of that event. It was great – I didn’t feel good at all but it didn’t matter one bit. I ended feeling a bit like myself again and ready to focus on the next step – a block of cyclocross racing!
So I took one day off to rest and then started running. Started off gradually with a nice easy FIVE MILES which is somewhere near the upper limit of the farthest I’ve ever run. I ran for consecutive days and then started riding again a day later and are you getting the gist here? I never stopped moving, despite injury, travel, fatigue, burnout, and major life changes.
Along the way, things in my personal life took a nosedive. There was anxiety and emotional times coupled with stress from work and meeting all sorts of obligations and deadlines. To figure out my heart issues, I had to wear an annoying, uncomfortable three-lead heart monitor at all times and carry a stupid device that looked like a clunky beeper from 1993. I lashed out during rides, dropped out of a local weeknight crit, and struggled to figure out who I was and what I was doing if I wasn’t a successful professional cyclist. What do you do when the biggest thing that defines you and your life goals stops having meaning?
It was more than just my body not cooperating. This season has been tough personally, with the concussion at Gila, the illness during Tour of California, and the crash at North Star. Racing while running a team and holding a full-time office job was harder than I expected (dude, duh). I’ve also seen friends and fellow racers get decimated by this sport and come away badly injured. It’s hard to think “oh, this is TOTALLY worth it” when you’re in the ER for the second time in weeks because you slammed your body into pavement. I started questioning why I kept going and what I wanted out of my life and the sport. What mattered the most? What sacrifices were just not worth it anymore?
Things have started to settle down now. My injuries have faded, riding a bike feels good again, and my personal and professional lives have stabilized into feeling mostly manageable. I stumbled through some of the hardest times I’ve ever faced, doubled my antidepressant, leaned on the best friends and parents a person could have, and then gradually stumbled back towards feeling okay. That’s where I am now. Mostly healthy, mostly okay, mostly focused on what lies ahead.
This sport is so demanding and costly and sometimes now I’m not sure it’s worth the price. But it’s also been the greatest love of my life. I started in June 2007 and haven’t been able to stop since, despite a hundred setbacks. So for now, while I’m still unsteady and uncertain, I’m trying to focus on the love part and just keep moving forward until the rest of the plans and motivation fall into place.
I talk to a lot of other athletes about their experiences in training and competing and it often seems like we all see these setbacks and doubts as a deviation from the road to being a great competitor. But that’s not correct. Part of being a professional at anything is learning to see the crappy times as a real part of the process, not a detour. I’ve never felt more like a professional athlete than now, when I am able to accept that shit happens and I can still keep moving forward and that it is actually all part of the plan.
I’m sitting in a stranger’s living room now, doing my laundry in his washer with my feet up on his ottoman. I’ve never met the guy before but I’m going to sleep in his bed tonight and go through his cabinets to find a pot to boil water in the morning. After breakfast, I’m going to pack up my things, get in my car, and relocate for the weekend to another city I’ve never visited.
This is basically my every day. Tonight it’s Cory’s house, last night it was Chelsie’s, for a week before that it was Ayman’s, before that it was Angie, and Alice, and Gretchen and so on. The year started with me living in a studio in Tucson that I was subletting from a guy I never met named…..David? Michael? Can’t recall. But for three months, I used his dishes and sheets and towels, lounged on his couch, scribbled notes on his decorative chalkboard.
His, mine, hers, anybody’s – it stopped mattering a while ago. When I left home at the end of last December, I didn’t know when I’d be back. Andrew and I had reached a point where we were happier apart than together and I needed to relocate to warmer weather to train. I packed the Chevy, took Tanner along for the ride, and moved west. When the race season started, I left the Tucson apartment and moved around California, staying in various places sometimes with Tanner, sometimes without. Eventually I drove all the way back east for a block of races in Winston-Salem, Philly, and Northern Virginia, but then it was back on the road to Minnesota to race North Star. Now I’m driving to Seattle by way of some time in Montana, will race in Vancouver and Bend in July, and then figure it out from there.
Tanner is still in California, living in Redlands with the most amazing dogsitter on the planet. She spoils him rotten with hikes and runs and adventures and games and I’d feel inadequate by comparison except she’s so much better than me at dog mothering that we’re not even comparable. Apples and oranges.
My father asked me the other day if I’m tired of traveling and I realized no, I’m not tired of it anymore because it no longer feels like traveling. Sometimes I miss the concept of “home” but it no longer feels weird or inconvenient to live out of a suitcase. I’m still a creature of habit – breakfast is the same every day, core work happens every morning, I follow the same bedtime routine every night – but it’s possible to have those routines in a perpetually shifting area code. Home becomes a concept defined by certain comforts; my same pajamas, my morning coffee ritual, my family and friends instantly accessible by phone (and spread all over the country themselves anyway).
It helps that I have a car here. People mock my seeming aversion to air travel (and yes, I loathe airports and airplanes and delays and boarding passes and seatback pockets) but it’s so nice to be able to have my “house” available everywhere. All of my cycling stuff and snacks and spare toiletries and winter clothes and cooking supplies are parked outside and make it easier to live comfortably and feel settled anywhere. My car is organized sort of like a Container Store fantasy: there are drawers and bins and even hanging fabric shelves that make storing and finding things easy.
If you put something out of place in my car, I will stab you.
So this is my life now. I travel around, use Airbnb to find places to stay, see places across the country I’ve never visited, and still carry out some semblance of a typical life with training and working. Sometimes that looks almost normal: I wake up, do work, go for a ride, do more work, go to bed in the same place. Other times that looks odd: I wake up, motorpace for 2 hours behind the car while somebody knocks out a chunk of that day’s required drive, work from my laptop in the car, and spend the night in a stranger’s home in a town beside the highway. The basics are always the same. Wake, work, ride. And eat. I do a lot of eating, from my sack of food in the car to roadside grocery store stops to interesting local places.
I went back to Virginia for a little over a week at the end of May and while it was good to be back and wonderful to see my parents, Andrew, and friends, it also didn’t ignite any real desire to stay. When it was time to go, the only thing that felt hard to leave was the people. Home isn’t a specific place anymore.
This lifestyle will probably get tiring at some point. Not knowing where I’m going to sleep in a week and continually getting used to new pillows can be tiring. I’ve eaten hardboiled eggs every day for the past 10 days because it’s more convenient than cooking in new kitchens. I don’t actually like hardboiled eggs.
But for the moment, I am happy. My life feels like perpetual good luck, even during the difficult, stressful, or lonely times. Andrew is my best friend and family rolled into one. I’m dating somebody great. My dogs are happy. My team is awesome. The bruises from last week’s crash are starting to fade. If this is the best my life ever gets, then I am pretty damn lucky.