Life as a Bike Jockey: An exceptional year

Judy Freeman /

When I got off the line, sitting second wheel into the hole shot last weekend at the National Championships, for a brief moment, things felt good… “normal.”

It was the high-paced, borderline-chaotic free-for-all that you’d expect of an XC start or a land stake race. I was a bit surprised given I had been off my bike for the better part of the three weeks just prior the event. But I got into the rhythm and focused on the lines as we snaked through the start lap.

And then two minutes later we hit the climb – where I went from second to about seventh in less than 60 seconds. By about mid-way up that climb, I think I had slipped out of the top ten. And by the top… I don’t know where I was – though I am confident it was at least still in Idaho.

In then out, then in again

The rest of the race was more of the same. I continually went backward. I had no legs. All I had was one speed: Turtle. Not Hare. And turtling through a five-lap race – each lap with a ten-minute plus climb that rivaled an Everest attempt – gave a lot of opportunity for my thoughts to drift.

I tried to keep the focus- ignoring the heat and embracing the 13-24% grade with all the enthusiasm usually reserved for a pair of Christmas gift socks– but my mind wandered. Why do I have absolutely nothing? How had I gone from a second place finish at the Texas National to pedaling squares at the national champs? And where IS my Sherpa anyway? I had answers to these questions, but that was of little use at the time.

Flashback June 15th, Colorado Springs Pro XCT

It took about three weeks but I had finally started to come back around after the last two world cups in Europe. The energy was coming back and things were looking up as I headed into the ProXCT race in the Springs. I had also reconnected with technical coach Lee McCormack to get some riding confidence back. A skills session with some Master Lee Bike Kung Fu, plus a course reconnaissance mission with the local Front Rangers and I was feeling prepared and ready to ride like I knew I could.

Working my way back

I had a great start to the race and was second wheel into the singletrack. The first two laps were solid. I had dropped into fourth, but I was still riding strong, focused and nailing all the lines I wanted. I was feeling good and, if it weren’t for the lightning, I wouldn’t have thought too much about the rain that started to fall on lap one. But I should have — especially as I started down this one fast, dirt descent on lap three.

For laps one and two, this was a packed-dirt straight-away. Slightly off-camber, but just pop your wheel up at the bottom to hop a water drainage, and your good to go for the following left-hander.

By lap three however, the bottom of this descent became a muddied Slip N’ Slide. When I popped my wheel up, I hit the ground as quick as the drunk uncle at the family BBQ who tries showing the kids how to surf in the backyard. I got back up; grabbed my bike, my sunglasses that had shot off and got back to racing. But that didn’t last much longer than the start of the next lap.

The mud continued to develop on the course; becoming as thick as peanut butter and balling up into softball-size globs on the bike. The mechanicals soon followed. By lap four, my fourth position slowed to a 21st place finish. While that was disappointing, the next two weeks were even more so.

Long story short?

My drunk uncle stunt had actually cracked my helmet and rung my bell. By all accounts I was in good shape after the race (I did get a professional opinion). So when I woke up Wednesday with headaches and some blurry vision, I was surprised. And with three hard hits to my head in as many months, I was scared. The symptoms were mild which gave me some comfort, but I was officially off the bike.

It’s kind of a long story from there, but the doctor decided it wasn’t signs of a lingering concussion but rather a bad reaction to a new asthma medication I had just started taking that week. Still, he gave me a list of neurologists to see before I was given an okay to race in Idaho. This was also after he suggested I consider taking up chess. Awesome. At least he said an easy spin or two would be ok, but no race prep till the next appointment.

Good to go

I didn’t get to see the neurologist till the day before I was to leave. Luckily, she confirmed what the first doctor said and gave me the OK. The next afternoon, it was in the car and off to the National Championships… and that Ivan Drago “I must break you” hill.

Back to Idaho

So there I was on that climb. Rocking the number five race plate in the back row. I don’t know if I should have expected much else, but I think my optimism warped any reasonable expectations. Anyhow there was nothing left to do but get in a good training ride.

An exceptional year

So far it’s been an exceptional year; only not necessarily the kind of exceptional with an exclamation point. I’ve definitely had some highlights, but after yet another crash, I’ve been hesitant to post fearing someone would stage an intervention to take away my bike.

But if there’s any point to writing, it’s to share the stories. I’ve talked with other riders who have had rough patches and it’s has been good to hear how others got through it.

Coming back around

It’s hard to take a step back in the ability for anyone. Whether it’s because of injury, stress, whatever. And some days it is just no fun. Sometimes it’s all you can do just to accept that that’s where you are, and you’ve got to work with what you got. Frustrating as it is, the fitness will come round. Cyclocross rider Amy Dombroski had to remind me, “It just doesn’t disappear.” Given time, a return to training and definitely some good laughs in between, it’ll come back. Just got to be patient. But going slow to get back to fast is easier said than done.

So maybe it has been an exceptional year for crashes and training through a little adversity. But as it isn’t over yet, I think there’s still time to put an exclamation point on it.
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Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. She was nominated to the Olympic long team as a potential rider at the 2012 London Olympics. Freeman races for the Crankbrothers Race Club. Team sponsors for 2012 include Ibis Bicycles, X-Fusion suspension, Formula braking, SRAM shifting, Crankbrother components, Pactimo clothing, Fi’zi:k saddles, Continental tires, Rocky Mounts racks, Pearl Izumi footwear and LeeLikesBikes. Join her for her monthly column on called “Life as a Bike Jockey.” Also, be sure to follow her adventures on her Facebook athlete page.