Race Experience + Recap
Those have been my go to phrases over the past week when people have asked me about the race. Yeah, they are very true statements... but lets get real for a moment: I came in last. Well, last of the finishers, and there were about 20 riders who didn't make it through all the stages, so I can feel mildly good about that. But still, I was last. Which is not really where I'm used to being. It sucked. I think that's why this recap is coming a week late... I've struggled with how to sum up what happened and how to process the race and move forward. Being last sucks. It was super disheartening to go in feeling well trained only to get my ass kicked.
Okay now that I got that admission out of the way... here's a recap of my experience in each stage, things I learned, and where I'll go from here.
I got to Bend on Monday (race started Wed) to get set up. This involved the typical things, checking into the AirBnB, grocery shopping, putting the bike together, going for a test spin... On Tuesday I met up with Emily, a strong racer out of Denver and guest riding teammate for a prep ride. After getting lost in Bend for roughly 11 miles, I found her and we rode a lap of Sunday's course together. It was awesome to be able to take in the views since both of us knew we'd be dying on Sunday and not able to really enjoy the ride. Glad we were on the same page. The ride was beautiful. Rolling hills, sweeping decent, tough steep climb with great scenery. We were both surprised at the lack of cyclists out. There were only a handful out riding that we came across. It made doubt start to set in 'should we be riding, are we in the right place, where is everyone...'. Of course this all changed 15 minutes post ride when we got into downtown Bend for coffee. Thump Coffee was our destination and minutes after we arrived so did about 25 other cyclists. Cycling is definitely a coffee sport. This was nerve racking as well. In our local race team kits, we sat in awe gazing at the fully kitted mean and women with their team issue bikes and confident smiles sip espresso around us. It quickly became clear that we weren't in the club and would spend the rest of the trip on the outside looking in.
Tuesday evening we had race registration and a team meeting in the evening. Meeting the other girls on Team Fresh Air Athena was great. We all seemed eager, though frightened, and came from all different racing backgrounds. A strong TT rider, an Aussie who spent all year racing around the world, a young racer with lots of potential... I think only 2 of our 6 were real members of the team, the rest of us guest riding. For this reason, we decided to not have too many team strategies. Basic rule, work together when we can, do not race 'against the team'. It was a brief mtg. We handed over our UCI licenses, got our kits, signed waivers and left with our numbers and tech guides.
At home that night I was antsy, an intense mix of nerves and excitement. I made a carb heavy dinner of quinoa, avocado, banana, and coconut. Did some race prep of pinning numbers, getting my nutrition ready, etc... Luckily I was still feeling the East coast time zone and was able to climb into bed early. Morning would come quickly.
Up early. Tour de France on TV. Coffee made, stretching, some core work... I made a bowl of yogurt, superfood oats, banana, nuts... I got maybe half down. This would be a real problem for days... I couldn't hold down food; too nervous. I made an emergency pancake and brought it in the car with me. The start of stage 1 was roughly an hour from our house with a 10:20am start. I spent the ride with headphones on trying to de-stress and look over the course profile. It looked daunting.
The starting parking lot was in the middle of nowhere desert land. The men had rolled out an hour prior so it was just officials and women in the area. Our team had a tent... Other teams had vans, wheel /follow cars, coaches, trainers etc etc... Again, outside looking in. It was clear which teams would ride strong based solely on how decked out their entourage was. Fresh Air Athena gathered and got ready, none of us did too much warm up, just a quick spin up and down the street.
The start was extremely abrupt from what I expected. In local races with 6 women we get briefed for 10 minutes about the course and rules and blah blah blah.... here it was line up, flag waves, you're off and rolling. By rolling I mean the neutral start pace is faster than most of the local race average paces completely. Finally, I was in a REAL RACE! This was great! There was a pee break. Idk which woman had enough power to call a pee break in the first 6 miles of the race, but apparently someone was desperate. Also, since when does a women's race get a pee break?!?! This was definitely a first. We had the entire road and no one was just chilling or sitting in or holding the lead pace at 15 mph to save energy. I was excited and feeling good. I realized very quickly that it was a lot of work to stay still and keep position. There were over 80 women in the pack and things were moving and rotating all the time. I'd have a great position and then suddenly be at the back and have to rotate around and back into position. Since we had the whole road, there were many big sweeps from one side to the other. Watching for cars parked on the left side was also very important. There was a smaller, but legit climb at mile ~15. I thought for sure that it would separate things out a bit. I rode to the front of the group, mainly surrounded by Twenty16 women, for the effort. I was glad to be securely in the mix going up that hard effort and moved back in the group a bit as we leveled out again. Only then did I realized we hadn't dropped anyone!!! Well I didn't think we had, again with 80+ people in the group its impossible to tell if you're missing a few. The ride pressed on. Besides the constant movement within the group, the pace was good, but not unbearable.... until around mile 55? Attack after attack. I was near the front at that point and was involved in two of the attacks, one break and one chase. The chase involved a teammate, she had got away with other riders, but none from a couple big teams so they were chasing hard. As I was in the front, I chased too. Not to chase her down, but bc I was sure that break would not stick with the chase intensity and I did not want to be shelled off the back. Then things start going uphill at a very high pace. The sprint mark was nearing and people were getting competitive. I had zero ambitions for the sprint and was just trying to hang on at that point. things started to string out and riders were struggling. After the sprint mark there were 2 crashes. The road dropped off on both sides and riders were likely tired and got pushed too far to the edge and fell off.. There was one on either side leading up to the final climb. They caused a lot of slowing/chasing/chaos but I think the cyclists involved ended up getting up and continuing. Mile 75 ish is were things really started breaking up. As the climb began, I was struggling. I had used too much energy keeping up with the pack's sprint pace and was feeling the hurt. I watched cyclists ride further and further away from me. UGH. I wasn't alone, there were many dropping off at this point. I sucked it up and got into my climbing rhythm and just kept going. The climbs are long and grinding, not very steep. I was in the big ring and used all my effort to spin easy, then stand and attack when I felt good. It was working. I was passing cyclist after cyclist. Then there was a group of roughly 6 that I attached to for a minute but needed to go faster. I passed the group and then they caught back up a mile or so later. I knew I couldn't sit in their pace so I ended up pulling them up the remaining climb. I wasn't thrilled about this, but I didn't have the energy to drop them. They were able to hang on, well maybe 4 of them... We passed 2 QCW women in the last mile as well. At the finish, the group I pulled up was able to come around me. It happens. I work, I don't win sprints. I finished 58th and 2nd from my team. I was so thrilled to be done! I was hot and exhausted and hungry. My parents were at the top cheering and I was super happy to have them there. It felt great to get through that.
When I learned of my placing later on that day, I wasn't as excited.... It seemed like a tough effort for 58th place! But I learned some things and told myself to rest and recover and get my mind in a positive place. However, the recovery did not go as smoothly as I would've liked. I made mac n chz in the motor home's microwave which was gross, but I choked it down. At the house I iced my legs then took a mini nap when I got back home. But then I went walking with my parents and took part in a wine tasting (just a tasting!) and ended up having a pretty late dinner.
Individual TT. This even was also a solid drive away. The morning started out roughly the same: coffee, stretching, Tour on TV, breakfast attempt... I arrived a solid hour in advance for some warm up. I met up with the team and Emily and I rode for a few miles. The area was super crowded as the men and women were all around, racing and warming up. The course was a rolling 16 miles. 8 out/8back. Start times were posted... but luckily I was at the start tent early bc we were being released ahead of schedule. Again, no official briefing... an official called your name, measured your bike to UCI compliance, and lined you up behind the cyclist about to go. I went as hard as I could.... but again, this isn't my event. Johnson City was my first TT experience and this was my third time practicing using clip on bars; far from the uber sweet TT set ups most girls were racing. My expectation was to hold over 21 mph as I thought thats what would keep me in the race. Remember, 2 of the best TT racers ever are in this race, driving the pace at crazy fast levels. The rolling hills in OR are not the same as in OH. They are longer, more drawn out, more tiring. Downhills aren't breaks, you still need to pedal your legs off. I was passed by... 3? maybe 4.... idk. One thing I was very shocked to see was the amount of drafting that occurred. This was not draft legal. But, bc it was out and back, you could see what was happening and yeah, tsk tsk you cheaters... I did catch up to one cyclist who passed me earlier but just barely. I was happy to be done and I believed I averaged just over 22mph. Fine with me. After this stage I was prepared with ice bags for my legs and a big salmon salad for my stomach!
I took another walk in the evening. Bad idea, I knew it at the time... but I wanted to enjoy Bend and the vacation as well as race. Lesson learned, you can't have it all! But this is what separates the PRO teams from the outsiders. We are largely unsupported, just trying to make it happen, they have teams, get massages, have cooks... you know. I was torn between enjoying life, racing hard, making my own food/transportation/schedule... so anyways, I should have recovered and rested more for the next stage instead of walking to shops and again eating a late dinner of fruit, vegetables and rice. I think I was more excited to see Luke than race stage 3. He was supposed to get on a plan after work Thursday and be in Bend by the wee hours of Friday morning. I was sooooooooo happy to have his support for Friday's stage as it was likely to be the toughest: tired me + hard course profile. However, that evening I got texts saying his flight out of Chicago was delayed. It was set to take off at midnight... 2 hours later, it was completely canceled. WTF. I was in tears. He would not be there when I woke up in the morning. After a long wait, he was told there were no options and SouthWest couldn't get him on any flight to Portland until Monday. Well that obviously wouldn't work, so he was set to fly back to Columbus in the morning. I went to bed in tears, really stressed out and upset. Having my parents there for support was great, but Luke knows me and what I need to calm down and how cycling is on someone's body and energy levels... sigh...
I got up Friday morning and tried to psych myself up. I ate another pancake with coffee. Luke called to say he found an open seat on a flight out this evening and would arrive around 11pm, a day late, but better than never!!! Friday's stage was only ~5 miles away so Emily came over and we rode from the house to the start to warm up.
We had another long stage to look forward too. I made sure to eat more before the start, a peanut butter + banana + honey + coconut sandwich. I had a good start position and felt pretty good about things. The ride started out rolling, at a consistent and relatively easy pace I had figured the race would get HARD at mile ~5 due to a big climb early on with a KOM. I was right. Things sped up. There was one woman who rode away from the pack. No one went with or after her. We started climbing. Again, the constant pack rotations where starting. Instead of getting caught up in that and either pinned to the back right or use energy constantly moving through and around people... I went to the front. This was s steeper bit of the climb and I used my Ohio hills (short and steep) to my advantage. I just rolled in front and then away from the pack. Now, my intention was not to 'get away'. I wasn't delusional! But I was ahead. Luke had clued me into the live Twitter feed on stage one so I was just thinking, well if he doesn't make the flight, at least he'll see this on Twitter! ha. and I did get my 30 second of fame.
While I knew I would be caught, I didn't realize how difficult it would be to get back with the group. Think of a tight, sold pack of 80 women coming by you... I slowed too much thinking I could just jump back on, but there was no wheel... no opportunity. I was shoved down the right edge and to the back and had to rotate around the group to try to get in. It was too late. I was falling off. UGHHHH. I tried to keep cool and keep riding hard. Others started to fall off too. The climb was really picking up and KOM getting closer and closer which drove the pack pace up. I was clicking off people as I climbed back up... but not enough. I passed a teammate, then caught up to 2 others. I tried to rally them to get on my wheel and along with 2 other riders, we worked our way up the hill. They were dying off fast tho, asking me to keep the pace slower and steady. I was just trying to catch a group in front of us. Knowing that I would need support after the climb, with the decent... I desperately wanted to catch the next group. I left the teammates and other riders I was pulling along and got behind another cyclist who began to sneak behind cars and use them to pull her up. This was shocking to me, as you never see this in a local race. I was afraid at first to follow her. Would I get DQed? Is this allowed?! I figured I would try to stay on her wheel. We made the left turn to start the decent just behind the group I was trying to catch. Oh well. I soft pedaled to wait up for the teammates and group behind me, knowing one of our teammates is strong at this and would really be able to help. Apparently all the riders left had bunched together by the top of the climb. I wasn't expecting that and suddenly a pack of 7-8? women came flying by me , too far over to the side for me to catch on. I tried hard, but with the speed they had over me on the decent and the gap between us... I just couldn't get a wheel. There was no hope. It wasn't until the bottom that I saw the follow car behind me and realized I was last. Well it was like mile 20 so I was close to tears. No way would I catch up to the group being solo. Would I be able to ride the 55+ miles alone to the finish? Would I get pulled as Luke was finally on his way out? Devastated. I did ride the course solo and I did finish. The last 20 miles were brutal, but the follow car was still there, I had not been pulled, so I kept riding. It was hot and uphill for MILES; a slow grinding grade that was just wearing away at my legs and spirit. I reached the top and it was practically deserted. I wanted to cry but didn't have the energy. Luckily my parents waiting around at the finish and got me. Emily and I had thought the finish was very close to our house and we would ride home... HA! Google maps maps had given me a similarly named location and the real finish was like 20 miles away. We loaded into the car and drove home before walking to the rive and soaking our legs in the icy water.
I was just waiting for results to be posted and to be either cut or not. I was not cut and would have to prep myself to race Saturday's crit. Since it was a late crit and I was so disappointed, I finished the night in bed with a book, big rice salad and can of wine (yes CAN).
Luke had made it in late during the night. Hooray! We spent Saturday morning going to coffee shops around Bend and then to a local farmer's market before heading home to rest up and race prep. Again the coffee shops were pretty mobbed with cyclists. Many were kitted up and already riding. PRO teams out warming up and getting caffeinated. Again, I couldn't ignore the fact that they already looked race ready at 9am while I was in 'normal clothes' out strolling around, only noticeable as a cyclist by my ever present tan lines well below the hem of my normal shorts.
I rode to the crit early and met Emily to warm up. It was great to connect and bond with a teammate during this crazy tough experience. The course wasn't technical meaning the pace would be insane and having 80 (or close to) riders start for such a short course... I didn't have high hopes. This would only by my 2nd PRO level crit and I knew holding those paces while cornering would be tough for me. As we loaded into the start corral, the released one side prior to the other. Yeap, I was on the wrong side and ended up at the very back. Not good. Minutes before the start, a teammate was called out of the corral, apparently she had forgot to sign in and was being pulled from the race. A couple others had the same fate. UCI is tough, its more than showing up, there are rules and fines for everything. The start was ON. Immediately fast and the girl in front of me couldn't clip in and I couldn't move around her. I struggle for a few laps to just stay on the back, catching up through the turns, getting strung off the back on the straights. I tried to get myself in better on the turns, but I just couldn't move my way up. Then I was really off. There were 2 riders with me and I rode a lap with them but mentally was just giving up, I knew we'd be pulled. I rode another lap alone and then saw the official hold up a red sign. I pulled off the course, again, just hoping to have made it to the next round. Emily had been behind me and pulled as well. She had higher hopes than I had for the crit and was visibly upset. We joined Luke and my parents and had a nice meal and cocktail and watched the rest of the women's and mens race. Only 41 of the women finished the race and everyone (except those pulled or not complying with UCI rules) would get to ride in Sunday's stage. Yay!
The end is near. This day was easier... I mean starting the day was easier. Less stress as this was the end, there was no need to freak out, I was last in the standings and that wasn't likely to change in this stage due to being like 20 minutes back from Friday's stage. So I warmed up, ate a sandwich, hydrated... and it was go time. The day was HOT. The air was so dry it hurt my lungs. The pace was immediately high. You could tell girls were getting tired and competitive and there were attacks, unsafe maneuvers, and crashes right away. Emily and I were right about not enjoying the course during the race! Honestly it seemed completely different. There was a climb that started just before the first feed. I dropped off at that point. A group of...8? riders grouped together and we chased, catching other women on the next lap. There were riders behind us, but many more ahead. Many women were dropping out. I worked hard, rotating with the rest of the women to keep the pace moving. We were doing well. Caught a couple Colavita women who immediately informed us that they were taking it easy and did not help rotate at all. Great. At the last mile, 3 of us were working hard up the climb and got a gap on the group. All of a sudden a spectator yells "TURN AROUND!" and we look back to see the group behind us turning left. Apparently the course changed for the finish and we had to turn left for the final sprint up the climb to the finish line. Thanks a lot traffic marshall. I was super bummed bc it meant 5-8 women just placed in front of me because of directions. Not that would matter in the end, but you know.
And that was that. It was all over. Emily, Luke, my parents and I headed to the river and rented rafts. We spent the next couple hours relaxing down the river before heading out to a local brewery for dinner and birthday/post race drinks.
Lessons, thoughts and whats next:
To give myself a little credit, I went into planning for this race before the UCI rule was announced. I didn't realize just how difficult that would make things. Instead of just stepping up to my second Pro1/2 race I was adding 2 extra stages, 3 days, elevation, professional international race teams, and about 70 competitors to the mix. WTF was I thinking? Well it was too late to back out. I didn't realize until I got there what a difference it made to be UCI. The real teams got follow cars, extra feed and support. There were also penalties and fines that a real team could afford... say a rider was suffering and needed a few minutes to bounce back, sticky bottle anyone? The team would be fine $50, but that might be worth it... So there was all that, plus the general intimidation of seeing these tribes of united women out in full forces. Seriously its the A-team just strutting through town, knowing whats up, knowing who they are, and striking fear into everyone who dares look their way. Riding with a composite team was a lesson in itself. I am super thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the race. I also learned that as a guest rider with mostly other guest riders making up your team, it can be a struggle to communicate well and learn each other's riding style so quickly. It was also a huge step in elevation, terrain and weather conditions too. Everything takes a toll.
Like I said at the start of this post... I'm not really sure where to go from here. Part of me is depressed into thinking ' forget cycling, it wont happen for you' and part of me stays positive and thinks 'that was a huge step, you learned alot, you need to keep trying'. So I'm not sure. I added another race to my calendar for late August. See if I can put this experience into a better result elsewhere before I take some time off the bike to run a couple marathons.
Q & A:
I asked for questions as I know there were people interested in how things played out...
Q - I'm curious about a couple of things. 1- on a very macro level, what sort of calorie intake were you aiming for, off the bike, and 2- do you feel your training prepared you well, and if not, what would you think you'd need to do differently? I know you spend a lot of time running as well as cycling and wonder if you think that might have been a detriment?
A - Calories... I will post later this week more on food intake during a race; both my experience and my professional advice). For now, I didn't have a set intake. I was accustomed to riding this many miles, so I tried to stick with familiar, more carb heavy foods and eat more than I wanted too. Of course like I mentioned, my stomach was definitely rejecting food intake, eating was a struggle. Running... yes and no. I didn't run much leading up the event. After R2R2R, I barely ran 4 miles a week. However, I do think my running season went too long and this year, if I do return cycling, I will only run thru November to ensure plenty of early winter bike miles.
Q- you raced against many women who we watch race on tv, how did you stop yourself from comparing yourself to others and mentally defeating yourself?
A - You dont. Or at least I didn't. Like I mentioned before, it was super intimidating. There's a world champ, a record holder, an olympian, another olympian... yeah, FML. I mean, sure, I can say that I was an outsider and they had an obvious advantage (experience, talent, support, etc)... but in a sense, you have to fake it til you make it right? I can't sit back and say 'oh if I were only pro...' because that won't get me anywhere. I need to do the best that I can and show I have the ability to be an insider.
Q - What would you do differently to prepare. What have you learned from the experience. Has the experience inspired you to improve. How should your training be adjusted to be competitive at that level. I thought I read an 18 year old won a stage. Were you older or at an average age with those around you. Would you do it again. Surely no technical advantage against what you were riding, correct?
A - I'll start with the age thing, I think cycling is a sport that allows you to be competitive at any age really. Sure there were young talented cyclists, but there were also more experienced cyclists racing. I mean, Armstrong is 42 and no 18 yr old is beating her!! As for the prep... There are weaknesses I should have trained harder. I have weak power from 0-60 and I didn't improve on that much. Like I found out Friday, I have the endurance to solo ride a stage but not enough omph to make bridge that quick gap needed to stick with the group. Also, I would put my 400 mile weeks /endurance build up earlier in the season and likely hire a coach to help me with my weaknesses. At this point I'm still unsure on if I feel inspired, I guess that means no. I think I'm a little numb right now. Check back later ;)
Q - How did your results compare to your expectations. As you stood at the start line what were you thinking the first day? How nervous were you, same as standing at the rim of the Canyon?
A - I expected to do better. Stage 3 was really my downfall, idk... I guess overall I do not feel like my placing in this race is a true reflection of my riding abilities. As for the Grand Canyon... I've said this before in regards to running vs cycling; running is easier, its a solo sport while in a road cycling race, everyone around you can affect your outcome. I was much much more nervous lining up at Cascade than R2R2R.