It’s taken me a day or so to process this race and know how or what to write in this blog/race recap. I’ve always advocated for my blogs to be transparent and honest. This race was difficult for me due to an experience that I hope no other female cyclist has to experience, but unfortunately I know that they will. I hope talking through my experience, as well as my mistakes, will help others learn how to react in these situations going forward. I hope sharing my experience sheds light on the dilemma that a lot of female gravel cyclists have to go through when working with men in a race.
I had been feeling well overall after LeadBoat. I was starting to feel some cumulative fatigue from the 1200K and LeadBoat, but I trusted my coach’s plan and knew my legs would be ready to go race day. This year, the women started a few minutes prior to the men. Even though I don’t think this format worked very well, I truly applaud the race organizers for trying something different and prioritizing the female mass start which is generally very hectic and stressful for us. The obvious plan was that none of the females would truly work until the men’s group came by and we could latch onto their groups. The men’s peloton was not typical, there was an early attack which strung things out as they passed the women’s field. Keep in mind, it’s still dark out and the Nebraska gravel roads are not butter smooth so there’s usually 2 good lines in the road with a lot of loose gravel between. As the men’s strung out pack came barreling through, I made a jump into a small gap and then tried to hammer as best I could. I was in a large group of mostly men but about 4-5 other women as well. I had no idea how many women were up ahead, but I didn’t see Lauren in the group so I knew she was likely further up in the men’s main group up the road. That group was smaller, so I was actually thinking the group I was in might be better, but it’s hard to tell in those moments.
Our group kept working hard, and eventually the females had dwindled down to me, Heather Jackson and Whitney Allison for the 2nd - 4th spots of the day. We had about 8 other men in our group but I could feel the pacing getting complacent and we didn’t seem to have a groove in working well together. I even went off the front 2-3 times just to see if any of the men wanted to start working with me to separate and continue chasing. You could say I was starting to get antsy since I knew Lauren was up the road and I was feeling strong. However, I also knew the other two ladies were riding well and all of us seemed to have the same goal to catch Lauren. At one point, the three of us ladies went to the front of this group of men and we started pulling and doing the work. I felt a huge sense of pride as the 3 of us women were clearly the strong work horses wanting to put in the efforts. We were motivated, but like I mentioned, the group didn’t seem to work well together and I felt our pace was slowing. This happens in gravel, or any racing for that matter - sometimes the group has a great dynamic and other times it’s more static. But I made the decision to not go solo off this group since we had a lot of headwind ahead of us and still 100+ miles. I felt my best strategic plan was to stay here for now and at some point later in the race make a large move that couldn’t be matched. Around this time when I was starting to think through my strategies, I saw a guy on the side of the road with a mechanical. Whenever you see this in a race, you can often make the assumption that this person is probably very strong since they flatted ahead of me and likely were in the lead men’s group or chase group. As a personal tactic, I always make note of these riders and try to recognize who they are because at some point in the race they will fix their flat and come barreling through. You want those wheels! So as we approach, I then recognize it was one of my teammates who unfortunately had a flat. As we pass him, I verbally tell the others in my group “he’s strong, we are going to want his wheel when he comes through.” Then for the next 10 miles I listened like a hawk for a fast rider coming through.
Sure enough, some time passed and I could hear someone fast approaching. My team is very clear that we do not work together so he knew not to say anything as he was passing. Giving a heads up that he was coming through would be helping me, so no heads up was given. But as I could hear a fast wheel (still not knowing who it was at this point), I shifted into a harder gear and got ready to jump. As he came barreling through, I put in a mega effort and got onto his wheel. After a few moments he looks back and gives the “holy shit, you are keeping up with me” look. I knew at that moment this move was a risk. It was a risk because this pace was considerably higher than what I had been doing and it was still early. But I knew this was my main chance to secure a second place finish over a fourth place finish and it was also a chance to start chasing Lauren down. As I could feel the tension in my legs from the increased power, I just started to eat more, hearing the words of my coach in my ear. Very shortly, about 2-3 minutes of the two of us riding we picked up another guy who was off the men’s main group. He seemed tired, but he got his bearings back quickly and started to work with us as well.
As the hot pace continued, we started to gain on Lauren. We had a third guy join us and he had told us some time gaps but truly we didn’t know. Gravel Worlds is very clear that no team support is allowed out on course. My team manager and his wife were at the event, but they knew and respected those rules so I never even saw them out on the course the entire day. At times, I was tempted to ask Christie who was doing live coverage for the women what the time gap was, but I felt that was breaking the rules and would be not respectful of Lauren so I never did. I just focused on working and riding my bike hard.
While I was riding, I oddly saw a CINCH team car or truck nearly every few miles. I saw Tom Danielson and his crew about 10 times in that middle section of the race when the chase was really on. He had his camera out, and of course, whenever we turned a corner and he was there with his camera I was behind the two guys working with me. And yes, one of those two was my male teammate. A teammate who flatted (unplanned) and who came barreling past my group (no warning) who I was strong enough and smart enough to jump their wheel. If this was ANY other male, I would not even be writing this out. However, as the frequency of seeing Tom and his camera grew, I began to feel unsettled. I could see the panic setting in for him as he watched the time gap on Lauren close. So much so, that he starts yelling at me from the side of the road. He would yell “are you serious right now” and “you’re going to let him pull you like this” while violently throwing his hands up in the air. It was obvious he was very angry with me. I felt like he was heckling me from the side of the road. I felt like I was being framed with his massive camera lens doing his “media coverage.” I quickly thought through some scenarios. One of those was actually catching Lauren, but all I could focus on was the anger and yelling from Tom and his camera showing only one side of the story. I felt like he had the power to discredit any and all work I had done to get to this point. I am the last person to support any sort of male domestique. I’ve made that clear in how I ride and anyone that trains or races with me would attest to that. But suddenly, I felt this rut in my stomach and what I value more than a race result is my dignity and respect among the community I race with. When I felt that he had the power to put that on the line, the decision was easy. I told my teammate and the other two guys to go up the road. I soft pedaled for a minute and one of the guys that was struggling stayed back with me for a couple minutes. I couldn’t tell if he felt bad for me as I explained how I felt or if he was struggling and just needed a slower pace. But that didn’t last long, as my motivation decreased and my soul was crushed I let up on my pace as well and then was just solo for the last 50 miles. Sadly, 30 of those miles were directly into a headwind. My goals changed from catching Lauren to just securing and protecting my second place finish.
Now I want to add in specifically that my emotions felt during this race were never directed at Lauren. She’s an incredible athlete and very strong. Never in the race did I have negative emotion towards her, it was more at her team and team owner at the side of the road - which she has no control over. I think that’s important to recognize and state since as an athlete who is racing you have no control over that. Nor do I want to discredit what she did out there, which was nothing short of an incredible performance.
However, I do think it is odd that I saw their team car and crew so many times out on the course. Was that verbal support? Maybe since he had a camera, he had a special media pass that allowed that kind of interaction out on the course? But even with all of this, Lauren has no control over that and I highly doubt she would request them out on course. She’s clearly strong enough and can ride her own race without any need for verbal support or time gaps that may or may not have been given.
I also want to point out a gray area of dropping hydration packs. I saw the winner start with a hydration pack, but when I see finisher photos online she doesn’t have a hydration pack on. I observed this both at SBT and Gravel Worlds. So did the hydration pack get dropped and littered out on the course? That’s lame. Or did the team take her hydration pack for her somewhere out on the course? Either way, I think this just highlights so many areas of interpretation where both the rider and team need to decide what gains are actually worth it. I didn’t want to carry my empty, hot, bulky hydration pack for the second half of the race. Was I tempted to drop it somewhere or leave it with someone? Heck yes. But I also make the personal decision to race in a way that I can be proud of and leaves no room for interpretation.
After getting home, my coach gave me a good lesson in race tactics. He explained that yelling is a verbal tactic. Intimidation is a tactic. He helped me recognize that I had made a mistake and let this tactic work against me. I’m not experienced and I am still learning, sometimes the hard way. I let my own fear take over and didn’t think clearly at that moment. I lost my competitive spirit in that moment to protect people’s opinions of me. I became fearful of my reputation and let that take priority. I’m not even sure I could have beat her, but I just wanted the chance and I let that slip away. If only I wasn’t yelled at from the side of the road. If only the male who flatted wasn’t wearing the same jersey and was just a different strong male who had a mechanical. You get the point….
I think a lot of this stems from the reactive and inflammatory social media world that we live in. People love drama and all you need is a good camera and some power and you can make just about anything happen. I just hope that my story sheds light on my situation and can help others process how to respond or act in the future. When you are working hard in a 150 mile race you can’t always count on yourself to process complex thoughts. Part of proper race planning is going through any of these scenarios, so hopefully you can better prepare if something like this happens to you. Additionally, I share my experience to also point out that there are two sides to every story. This is relative to life off the bike and on the bike. If CINCH had gone to VeloNews or some large scale media to claim I was cheating with the photos he was out on course taking that could have been framed in that way. That’s his side. And now you’ve just read my side - which is VERY different. At the end of the day, we are people first and racers second. Let’s not forget that.
Lastly, I want to thank the team over at Gravel Worlds. This team truly wants to keep this event grassroots and inclusive. Their passion, work ethic and genuine caring for each rider shines through all aspects of this race weekend. Despite the frustrations I had during the race, this weekend was one of my highlights of my year thus far. Getting a hug from Jason and Sophia at the finish line and seeing their joy for the event really is special. For me, I was thankful to get second but my experience during the race made that moment feel different. Thankfully when I finished, I talked with my sisters and parents and then spent some quality time with my teammates - this got my morale up and reminded me there’s a lot more to gravel racing than the actual race. That keeps me smiling.
Gravel Worlds Race Stats:
Distance: 153 miles with 11K vertical gain
Place: 2nd overall female
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska
Bike: Ventum GS1
Tire: Terra Speed 40’s, 30/32psi
Strava Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/7671539237