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.”
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.
It’s been a week and I survived.
When everything fell apart, there were honestly moments when I didn’t want to survive. I didn’t want to have to live with the pain until it finally passed, and felt hugely overwhelmed by the work of dismantling a life on one side of the country and restarting on the other side. The last thing you want to think about when your heart is obliterated and pounding through your veins like broken glass is “I hope there are enough boxes in the building’s recycling bin for me to pack up my kitchen.”
(There was definitely a moment when I climbed halfway into one of those huge rolling dumpsters to grab the last empty box at the bottom. I can laugh about this now.)
In the past week, I’ve ended my life in Seattle and moved-cross country, settled into my room at Chez Bayer, and spent roughly 98% of my waking moments thinking about everything. What happened, why, how, what signs I missed, what red flags I ignored, how I could be so wrong about a person, what I could have done differently, how somebody I thought loved me could act that way.
It would be nice to stop thinking about it. I’m ready for a bout of amnesia, a little Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But my head doesn’t work that way – I’m that one final crow picking away at the long dead and desiccated animal carcass on the side of the road. I have to understand and process endlessly until everything feels great again. That is stupid because no amount of thinking or talking is actually going to fix these feelings. Loss and grief are only solved by time.
The good part about all of this (other than cutting my monthly housing bill in half) is that my friends and family have caught me in this fall better than I could have ever hoped. To everybody who has reached out: thank you. Your kindness, friendship, and support have made this bearable and carried me through the hardest moments. People I didn’t even know well have stepped into my life to offer friendship and wisdom. In the face of one person’s horribly hurtful actions, I’ve found a few dozen kind, caring people that make everything less painful.
People have asked what I’m going to do next and if I’ll return to racing. I don’t know. None of this was planned. It feels a little like asking somebody to solve a crossword puzzle right after their arm has been chopped off. Right now I’m focused on doing my jobs, working out every day, managing the team, and spending time with good people. Anything beyond that feels like too much to decide now. I retired for reasons that mostly still stand; I saw something different in life that mattered more and looked more appealing. Just because that man and our theoretical family no longer exist doesn’t mean I stopped wanting to move on to the next chapter of my life. If I decide to race again, it will be because I realized I was swayed by something that no longer seems right for now. I’m not there yet. Yesterday was the first time I rode a bike in over a week. I’m starting there.
Apparently a week off the bike is enough time for my butt to de-acclimate to a saddle. Will the injustices ever stop???
The hardest part about realizing I’ve been living in a network of lies is the loss of both the future and the past. Every experience we shared became instantly tainted and called into question: when was I being loved and when was I being deceived? The trips to Korea, New York City, San Francisco – all wonderful memories that hurt to go near now. Quiet dinners at home, big nights out on the town, birthday celebrations, race travel, road trips, afternoons at the park with his daughter followed by beer and ice cream. What was real? How can I even think about any of those times without hurting for both the real loss of him and the intangible loss of trusting that any of it was real?
What I can take from this experience are a few personal gains. I’ve finally been to Asia, eaten ramen in three different countries, learned how to properly roast a chicken and pick a good beer, broke the cycle of my eating disorder, and quit relying on sleeping pills and antidepressants (there’s some irony). These are all good things that no heartbreak can take away.
The rest of it – the memories and shared experiences, the love I have for his daughter, the life I’d built in a city that felt like home – remains to be filed away. I can’t think about any of those things now without physically hurting.
So that’s where I am now. Well, right this moment I’m literally riding the trainer in my parents’ garage sandwiched in the narrow gap between my mother’s car and four ladders (because apparently you can never have too many ladders). This kind of absurdity feels almost like a return to normalcy. A week out from the implosion, it’s as good a place as I could have hoped to be.
Something about what he said stuck out, like a nubby loose thread on an otherwise tightly knit sweater. I couldn’t let it go, poking and fussing at it.
I never expected that with a single tug, the entire thing would unravel.
A week ago, I was in Korea riding through the mountains. My life had been shifting and changing dramatically for the previous six months, but I loved where it was going. I was in love with a man and his little girl, running the team but stepping away from the obligations of training and racing, planning for grad school and to become a mother. I had finally relaxed my rules enough to start truly living every day. Whatever unknown remained, I knew it was going to be exciting.
A week later, I am driving to Virginia to live with my parents. My life is packed into the same car that took me out west with him into what I thought was my future.
Wednesday was literally the longest day of my life.
I woke up in Korea at 5am, restless from persistent jet lag, moody, and hungover. Went to the hotel gym and dragged my body through workouts until the sun rose and my head cleared. Spent the day wandering around Seoul – lunch, coffee, photos, stores – and then caught a cab to the airport. Made it onto the plane, then dinner (again), drinks (more), a movie, my head in his lap while I slept fitfully through the long flight. I remember his arm draped over me while I dozed feeling safe and loved. Landed in Seattle at 11am on the same Wednesday morning, passed through immigration/baggage claim, picked up a car, went for coffee and food, did some time-sensitive errands, home to unpack, did some work, showered, headed back out for more errands. I went to the grocery store at 5pm the day before Thanksgiving because our refrigerator was empty. Bought everything we needed for daily life and to make an improvised Thanksgiving dinner for two. Came home, stumbled onto a tiny detail, explored it further, and ended my life as I knew it.
The longest, worst day of my life ended 32 hours after it began. My biggest regret may have been going through the time and expense of buying so much food. I gave it all away.
The details of what happened are not mine alone to share. My part of the story is to say that in a instant, everything I believed in and planned for came crashing down, leaving me standing alone and shattered in the wreckage of what had been my life.
What came next is the part of which I am most proud. I brushed my teeth, slept, got up the next day, ate a few bites of food, showered. I kept going. Packed his things, reached out for my friends and family and held on for dear life, kept breathing. I started packing and loading my car, ruthlessly boxing and bagging and trashing the entirety of our home. It felt like I was dying inside but I did not stop moving. Slept again, showered again, finished packing and loading the car. Strangers from Craigslist came to take away the furniture for free. I wept through it all. The couple that took our bed hugged me, said everything would be okay in time, and gave me $40. The Xfinity representative who cancelled my account told me she loved me and was sending hugs. The inherent goodness of people was a tiny speck of light in a dark hole. When everything was packed and cleaned, I went to the leasing office and terminated the lease on what was supposed to be my home through next July. I cried into the paperwork and cried to the mailman who dug out my mail so I could leave right then, but I still got it all done.
Just 34 hours after being decimated and heartbroken, I was done in Seattle and on the road out of town. When looking back on this part of my life, I will always be proud that I mustered up the strength to act quickly and decisively. I feel so shitty about myself in every other way right now, but I have that.
What the hell comes next? I have no idea. The slate of my life has been wiped clean of all the plans I was actively pursuing. At some point when the hurt dulls to something less than agony and crushing depression, it will probably feel exciting, like the world is my oyster. For now, I am too raw and sad. He loved oysters; we’d eat them together all the time. I can’t believe it’s over.
There are three things I take from this chapter of my life.
First, always trust my instincts. My gut tells me a lot of things that I often ignore – don’t eat that much dairy, you don’t need three dinners, another scotch would be a mistake – and this was no different. For the rest of my life, when my gut says to be careful and pay attention, that something is not right, I will listen.
This does not apply to scotch, at least not for now.
Second, it’s better to live life than live by endless rules. He taught me to cut loose in so many ways and while I often panicked and clung to my old self-imposed restrictions, I also felt more alive than ever before. I know that a healthy balance between the two extremes is where I want to spend the rest of my life.
Third, crying and talking to friends and strangers is cathartic. There is no shame in loving and losing, in trusting and being betrayed, in genuinely trying and still failing. I overshare; it’s who I am and I’m not going to shy away from being open about my life and getting my ass kicked sometimes. This is what it is to be human and fallible.
Oh, and a fourth thing: people will haul anything away from your home in a hurry if it’s free. It usually took two of us to fold down the heavy hardwood futon into a bed, but I watched one skinny dude carry the thing out of my apartment alone.
The mornings are hard right now. I wake up to face and reprocess this new reality every day. It probably hasn’t helped to be waking up in South Dakota or Minnesota in roadside motels that make me wonder if I’m current on my vaccines.
The nights are hard too, when the longing and loneliness of losing my partner sets in.
The time in between is also hard, when I spend endless hours looping though why/how/why/how. An autopsy on repeat in my head. I can’t make sense of any of it and I have dozens of questions that will remain forever unanswered. Sometimes it feels like I’m in shock: surely this happened to somebody else, not me, or perhaps I’ll wake up still on the airplane home from Korea.
It’s all hard, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I love instant fixes but there is no cure except time.
This is life, right? Live and learn, love and lose, break and rebuild.
What a time to be alive.
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.
My friend died today.
I knew this was coming – she has been losing a fight with cancer – and I have been waiting for the phone call for several days now. This friend, Helen, is a dear friend of my family and I was expecting (dreading) a call from them back in Virginia to tell me the sad news. Waiting for the phone to ring with bad news is a terrible feeling; yesterday I thought about hiding my phone so I wouldn’t have to face it, but that doesn’t actually stop life from going forward. Or death.
My alarm went off at 6:55am today, slicing through my pitch-black room and sound sleep to wake me up for a 7am work teleconference. I was barely awake as I dialed in and then while waiting for the call to start, Andrew texted: “Hi.”
I responded, whining immediately about being exhausted and on a call. Andrew replied that he was sad, and I asked why.
“You haven’t heard yet?”
I had been awake for three minutes. No. Was Trump elected overnight?
“Helen passed away last night. I kind of feel like you shouldn’t hear that from me, but I guess it’s just as good me as anyone.”
I read that a dozen times, struggling to process. The work call got started, people introduced themselves and talked about a document. I have no idea what document.
Andrew explained that my mother had let him know this morning. As he was explaining this, she texted him to say she planned to call me once a reasonable hour came around on the west coast. Oops. Guess that ship sailed.
Finding out that somebody you love has died is terrible. Finding out by text message in a roundabout way while trapped on a teleconference is almost funny except that it’s also shocking and breathtakingly sad.
The good part (if you can call it that) is that Helen had been in a very bad way for a week now and her passing comes as somewhat of a relief to everybody who has watched her suffer. It’s not for me to say “she’s in a better place now” but at least she isn’t in pain anymore. From what my parents tell me after being by her side every day for a week now, she was ready to go and to stop being sick.
I first met Helen when I was 15. She and her husband lived down the street from my parents, and they were part of the neighborhood social group that started having regular get-togethers. These people had better parties and more fun than I had in my own social life; everybody would eat great food and drink too many good drinks and things would get loud and crazy and I loved it. Helen was always a fixture at these events; a bold, classy, blunt lady who could drink me under the table easily. Over the years, she and her husband became a part of my extended family. It wasn’t a Bayer family event if they weren’t present, and they became my parents’ best friends. The expression says you can’t choose your family, but Helen is proof otherwise.
A few years back, she was nearly at the 40-year official retirement mark for her job and we spent a lot of time talking and joking about what she would do next. I said she should go be a cocktail waitress for fun, because her brash, confident, take-no-shit demeanor would make her the perfect person to dish out drinks and banter. She was more than ready for that official deadline to come around, but when I suggested bailing early to get started on the next step in her life, she was adamant about seeing her work through to the end. Her loyalty and determination were impressive and unwavering.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. She was stoic and fought it hard, made it to her official retirement date, and kept enjoying life while battling the cancer. I was away more and more for racing and missed a lot of opportunities to see her while she was still healthy and strong. Maybe that’s a normal part of life – you grow up and go out into the world and leave behind people back home – but in retrospect I feel selfish and filled with regret. She was around for years and I wasn’t, and now she is gone and I can’t take any of it back.
The last time I saw her in August, I was caught up in personal drama that left me wandering in a depressed haze. She came over to my parents’ house for dinner and I was poor company at best, silent and withdrawn and emotional. It was so good to see her but I was too focused on myself to appreciate the time we had. At the end of the evening, I came back downstairs from where I was hiding in a dark room to hug her goodbye and that was it.
That was literally it.
She spent the last days of her life surrounded by family and friends that adore her. My parents were there every day, and Andrew went over last week to share a message from me to her. She was loved and cared for until the last moment, but that still doesn’t make the ache of her absence any less now. She was a wonderful person and my life and family are richer for having included her and emptier now that she is gone.
If I could tell her one last thing, it would be to thank her for demonstrating how to be strong, loyal, feisty, determined, and the life of any party. If she could tell me one last thing, it would probably be to stop crying already and go pour myself a double of something strong.
She was amazing. We were lucky to know her. There is never enough time in life to spend with the best people and it always seems we figure that out too late.
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.