As someone who is reluctant to change when I fall into a happy pattern of consistent behavior, starting the process of racing again was a daunting one. Last summer was some of the most focused I had been in years, I was dedicated to self-coaching after seeing the very productive results in the athletes I work with. With mountain bike nationals taking place in my home state for one more year I was more motivated than ever to build and bring my best legs to Winter Park for a chance at besting my previous years silver medal.
I put in the work, fueled by the social distancing mandate to have less friend rides and more focused training and it paid off, my fitness skyrocketed to levels I’d rarely achieved. When it all came tumbling down in a wave of escalating Covid cases and event cancelations my motivations tumbled right down with it. Intervals in the pain cave took a back seat to long rides with idealistic locations as what trails could I tie together, how far could I go, and how much could I see became a much higher priority.
I didn’t know how I would reintroduce myself to a start line. I had much lower fitness coming out of winter with the mandatory ten weeks off the bike to allow my shoulder to recover from reconstruction. Intervals and training still weren’t appealing with the Covid factor impacting the race calendar and the potential for a season of consistent racing largely an unknown. But a last-minute invite to join a four-girl team for a 24-hour race in New Mexico…. I race I had never attended before was enough to light a spark.
The NM race was small… and predominantly local. Most folks knew each other and no one knew us. We made a few friends, chatting in the transition area, to the staff, our camp neighbors, to folks on the course, and anyone who had a dog. Most bike folks are relatable, drawn to the love of the outdoors, the freedom the bike brings, and the challenge of pushing one’s limits, making it quick to find community, even in an event where I know no one. But this race felt a bit isolating, there were few familiar faces and the energy that comes from being surrounded with good hearts and warm thoughts was lacking for me.
It was great to see how I felt out there, to deal with the nerves of the start, the nuances of racing, the details I’d overlooked with a year away from competition. It was especially nice to do this incognito with the relative privacy being unknown afforded. We performed largely uncontested but more importantly fell in sync with one another, building on each other’s strengths while overcoming individual weaknesses; encouraging, commiserating, and enjoying the comradery that comes with an endurance event.
Continuing with the team trend and knowing how much easier it is to pour my heart out into the pedals when someone else’s hopes are also hanging on the outcome, I joined a friend for the Colorado July 4th Firecracker race. Besides the joy of teaming with my coconspirator from a season of Covid adventure rides, I barely could go a few yards without running into more folks I had been missing. Hugs and greetings were nonstop from registration to the start line: this race is a local holiday tradition amongst the Colorado mountain bike community and now was serving as a reunion for a family of cyclists who hadn’t seen anyone for a year but their household and the masked patrons of their local grocery store.
From the families and kiddos I currently coach to families of kids I’d coached six years prior…. Folks I’d raced with, people who I’d helped during races, women who I’d worked with in clinics, my cyclocross friends, my mountain bike friends, my elite race friends, the love, the appreciation, the community was nearly overwhelming. This was the family I’d been missing, this was the energy I was seeking, this is what racing is to me.
While I had known that Nationals was just four short days following the Firecracker, it didn’t hit me until I stepped off of the seconds step of the duo women podium following the race and rolled down the mountain towards home that I would be back up in the thin air racing so soon. I few days later as I met my groms at the trailhead for our usual morning session I was welcomed with – yet again – an overwhelming surge of love and support from the kids and their families.
I don’t even know how they knew I was racing at nationals, as I barely had realized the race was that week. But from hand drawn pictures to their reluctance to leave after the session was over I felt so much love and positive energy there was no way I could even bring up the uncertainty I had over my fitness. Who cares if I’d been training or not, with that degree of encouragement my best would be satisfactory no matter where it landed me on the podium.
But still I wanted to win, I mean I race a lot and in many of those races I know I’m not the fastest rider out there. I know my strengths but I’m also aware and comfortable with my weaknesses. I know when I have a chance and I know when to be realistic. Racing in Europe is humbling, the best in the world have much more than natural talent on me, I’m privileged to just be out there playing in the mud and reveling in the experience. I want to bring my best every time but I’ll happily settle for lessons learned, self-growth, and finishing on the lead lap over podium spots when I’m in the deep end.
Which brings me to nationals. Driving back up the mountain I was filled with gratitude and support, how could I not race my heart out with those feelings still ruminating and wrapping me in a warm blanket of love? I just needed to hang on to that tingling, that feeling of invincibility it left me with for another day or so.
I arrived to be reunited yet again with folks I cherish and hadn’t realized how much I’d missed. More hugs, more appreciation, more gratitude. Then it became the night before. The nerves set in, the blank stares of pre-game imagery, planning, visualization. Eating and drinking just right, tuning the bike one last time, what would go into my pockets, how would that number plate fit on.
I had my game plan set but there were factors I hadn’t taken into consideration. We were joined on the start line by a much larger group, women not in my race but that could well play a role in the outcome. I only had so much fitness to work with, the rest would have to be skills and determination. I was vastly out-powered on the climbs. My number one strength is technical climbing, and there was all of zero of that in this race. Once on the descents it was traffic to the max. I couldn’t reel my race back in with the only openings were I was weakest: on the long, wide, and smooth uphill. I was dropped and then slid further back. In my mind I was playing out how another second place is fine, and then well third is a round number.
Despite my inner monologue and it’s unfortunate perchance for negativity, I settled into the final lap of the race with the conviction to find the front. I passed one girl after another, searching for the ones in my own race until I caught sight of the leader. Just one more rider separated us as we motored through the final meters of singletrack.
I got as close as I could, recognizing my cyclocross race buddy, and stage whispered “Kristen, KRISTEN, it’s Rebecca, I’m not in your race, that’s my girl in front of you….” She got it, later telling me that if I hadn’t said who I was there was no way she would have let me by. My handling was superb, I caught the wheel of first in the final cascade of rocks just in time to dump onto the long finish straight. I tucked in behind her, glued to her wheel. She dug deep pushing hard, harder, before noticing she had a rider glued to her. She looked back. Did a double take. Saw me. I wanted the fight instantly drain out of her. It was far too early for a sprint, we had a healthy section of flat dirt road to battle down still but it was now or never, one moment of reconsideration on her part and I’d have to fight a whole lot harder. I went for it, leaving everything I had at the finish line.
I’ve won my share of races including a few titles. Each of those titles I was off the front shortly after the start, riding a – for the most part – uncontested race. This was a new experience, earning not just a stars and stripes jersey but also the “most exciting race of the day” designation. It takes something else to fight until the end. An inner confidence that for me originates extrinsically; a culmination of the love from my people and the support of my community. I truly believe that I crossed the line first that day because of them.
The year off of racing was in a way a welcome change for me but also served as a reminder that this tribe of people: as nerdy as we all are chasing each other around in circles on human powered two wheeled machines - is a community I’m proud to be a part of, and a support system of immeasurable worth.