It’s been a couple weeks since I had last raced, so I was pretty antsy to toe the line at this race. I’ve had a lot of work obligations the last month as I transition into a new clinical job, so I’ve been more in the “PA mode” vs “racing mode.” I was very excited to be in the Midwest and the course was suited well for me, so I really had high hopes for a good performance here.
Leading into this race, I intentionally tried to have less mechanical stress by having my bike looked over and worked on to ensure it was in tip top shape for this one. Unfortunately, when I was pre-riding the course Friday morning I felt my pulley go into my cassette after a bump but after soft pedaling and looking everything over it seemed fine and was shifting normally. However, in the evening after cleaning my equipment, I put my chain back on my bike. There seemed to be more slack and then it wasn’t shifting correctly. Panic set in for me in those moments. I try to be self -sufficient as much as possible, so when something is wrong with my bike and I don’t know how to fix it I tend to get upset about it. I think many people can relate to this, especially if it’s the night before an important race.
Thankfully, my teammate John is rather handy and was able to help. I also had 2 other people offer to help, both of which were racing the next day as well - showing how amazing this community is. After quite a bit of time, we finally got things in working order minus shifting in 2 of the gears at the top of the cassette. We joked that I just needed to go full send and never use those gears during the race and then I had nothing to worry about. :)
I share this because I think it’s easy to assume when people are racing well everything is a smooth process to get there. Smooth sailing never seems to be the case. It’s how we respond to the challenges - that’s what can make or break us mentally before the race even begins. As we were fussing with the bike, I sat on the edge of my teammate’s van literally questioning my life choices. I said “I think I just need to go back to being a fulltime PA, what am I doing?” I’ve given up leadership positions, comfortable salaries and sacrificed significant time and money to race at this level. There are fleeting moments where I doubt what I am doing, but generally I make these decisions because I believe in what I can accomplish in the next 10-15 years. I also feel this is what makes me happy and too often in life we choose what we feel we are supposed to do versus what our passions are. When I cross the finish line, I never question my decision to race but there are rare and fleeting moments (like this one) when I do. John, my teammate, put things into perfect perspective as he saw my panic set in. He reminded me it’s a privilege to race such a fast bike and to actually have the engine to make it go fast. He shared the many times he questioned his decisions when he also had mechanicals at the worst time.
It’s easy to fight those moments but the reality is this: it’s part of this process and these inopportune moments will continue. I just need to continue learning how to adapt to them and remember that I have a community around me that is always willing to help. I’m not in this alone, which really helps me manage some of the season stressors. After this conversation, I shifted my attitude and reminded myself there are certain things that are out of my control. What if I snap my chain or have a shifting debacle during the race that takes me out of contention? Well, it would suck, but I’m still the same person that I was prior to the mechanical. My family still loves me, my friends still value me and I still represent the person I strive to be. I still know what I am capable of, and I don’t need a race result to prove that.
I share the stress the night before the race mostly because I want to be honest, transparent and honest about my experiences. I also think it highlights that off road cycling is likely one of the most unpredictable sports. Not only do we have constantly varying terrain due to weather, but I think it takes a fair bit of luck to actually have everything go smoothly. The Lifetime Grand Prix has elevated the racing at the professional level. With the depth we have in our races, there is no margin for error and you need your equipment to be dialed.
But back to the race….This race has the age group athletes go prior to the pro race later in the day. I really like this format as I find the finish line experience is much more fun when everyone is there together. The downside is when conditions are poor the course gets torn up from all the other riders going ahead of you. As I packed up the truck to head to the race, I looked outside and it was sunny and the weather seemed perfect. I joked that we got all worked up about the rain and potential wet course for nothing. That joke ended quickly when we saw dark skies on our drive to the start to warm up. Soon the floodgates opened and heavy rain started coming down about an hour before the race. I knew the course was going to be shredded and muddy, I just didn't know how bad it would be until I was actually out there.
As the race started, the pace was hot with an uphill start and the first few miles were mostly uphill. It was aggressive but I felt in control and made the first, and rather early, selection of about 15 riders. This group stayed together for about 20 miles - but to be honest the exact mileage was a blur because I could not see my bike computer through the mud and I had also lost a contact in my left eye so reading the screen was even more of a challenge even if the mud was cleared. I felt the group was somewhat unorganized and didn’t seem to have much of a rotation at the front, particularly on the gravel roads which surprised me. I got the feeling some of those women expected a pre-established pecking order and the tension felt in that first hour of the race was quite high. Bike racing is dynamic and riders have different styles of how they ride - some are more vocal about disagreeing than others and that’s okay. I’m still learning my competitors and how they race and that’s part of the process.
The first hour of the race was fairly straightforward in my opinion. There was a lot of grassy ski trail which was pretty slick with all the rain but then it opened up onto a gravel road. Once we entered into some of the 2 track wooded sections and the very minimal single track, that’s when the separations occurred. I have minimal to no experience in mud like this. CX racers certainly had an advantage here. Given how aggressive some of the riders had been, I felt somewhat uneasy being at the front entering the mud carnage. I had to balance being aggressive, but also being in control of my own bike to stay upright. I’ve already had one crash and a surgery this season, I don’t want more of those. I felt mostly in control during the mud, and I say mostly because you can’t always control your line in that thick of mud. It was fun at times, but also demoralizing other times to be riding 3mph with such a hard effort. I was tailing the back of the chase group, which I felt was a good position given the nature of the course for me and I was comfortable with my ability to close the small gap in front of me on the upcoming gravel road. Unfortunately, on one of the downhills with thick mud I lost control in the mud and went down hard. I broke the BOA off my left cleat but thankfully crashed the drivetrain side up and the bike was unscathed. My knee was sore, but I knew it was rideable. I reclipped and started to do what I do best - chase and TT back to the group.
I’ll be honest, I had thought about backing off my effort. The day was pretty uncomfortable sloshing around in the mud and I had some good excuses of a lost contact/poor vision and a crash resulting in a busted cleat with a loose foot sliding around in my shoe. I had also lost a bottle early in the course, which included 90g of my carbs for the race too.I had good excuses for a poor performance. But excuses don’t make you stronger. Excuses remove opportunities. That’s not my style. It’s easy to keep fighting when you are in contention to win, but what kind of athlete are you if you lose that fight when you find yourself further back than planned?
So from there, after I removed that fleeting thought of doubt and buckled up to chase. I entered a gravel section and I found myself about 30s back from the chase pack of about 5 riders. Sofia was up the road chasing back on as well but I couldn’t quite catch them entering the woods again. When the next mud section came, FireTower climb was fast approaching. The mud was so slick and I had to unclip in 2 different areas which I think was the norm for most of the riders, even the pros. After the early part of that hill, I was able to ride again and I was feeling strong and determined once I survived that section. I’m not sure if it was the man with the running chainsaw chasing us at the top of the hill (not joking haha) or the boost I had from knowing that section was over that I had lifted spirits.
Eventually, with about 8 miles to go, I caught up to 2 other riders. Their pace was a lot slower so I immediately went to the front to get the effort back up - knowing this would put pressure on them to work and hopefully get a rotation going and our speed higher. Sometimes that can crack a rider if they are hurting but also shows me how they are feeling. As we turned onto the ski trail again I knew to be on the front of this small group and with the couple small climbs back to back I put in a large dig to hopefully drop both of them. This moved me up to 8th place, although at the time I didn’t know that. Eventually as I kept my effort high, I saw another woman up ahead and I was gaining on her. I was feeling confident I would catch her, but then the previously grassy ski trail was now 20ft wide mud pile to trudge through. My focus went from catching her to surviving that section and staying upright. It was carnage and probably my least favorite section knowing we were so close to the finish but yet so far away. We also had to pass age group riders which made choosing a line a bit harder. I tried to cheer for them as I passed and they did for me as well which always lifts my spirits. Misery loves company right?
From there, I just survived that last section and kept my position. I didn’t catch 7th but considering I was about 14th place earlier in the race I was happy to move up in the second half of the race despite going down as well.
Days like today are the dichotomy of bike racing where you love playing in the woods covered in mud but then also question your life decisions when you are trying to clean everything - including mud out of my ears 2 days later! But in all seriousness, these days are the ones you never forget. Ripping through the woods covered in mud doing what I love the most. It’s a privilege to ride bikes at this level and I try to cherish all these races. These women are fierce, strong and amazing and I consider it an honor to race against them.
After this fifth stop, I am now sitting 12th in the Grand Prix series which I’m honestly happy about given my crash/surgery and then COVID set backs this season. I’m finally feeling strong and back in shape. My legs are feeling stronger and I continue to learn so that I can race smarter as well. Big Sugar will be an opportunity for me to continue to improve my rankings and I’m already looking forward to that race. The stakes this season are high as the competition is ruthless and there’s no room for any errors. But as George Perles once said when asked about pressure, “Pressure? There’s no pressure when you’re prepared. We’ll be prepared.”
Chequamegon Race Stats:
Distance: 40 miles with 3,200K elevation gain
Place: 8th pro female (Race Results)
Location: Hayward > Cable, Wisconsin point to point race
Bike: Hardtail, still on a borrowed bike - Thank you Nate :)
Tire: Maxxis Race Rekons 2.25, 16psi front, 17 rear (thankfully swapped from Aspens 4 days before)
Strava Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/7824838792