Women’s USA Pro Challenge Journal: Lighting a spark
In the midst of suffering up the deliriously steep Moongate climb in last Friday’s USA Pro Challenge time trial, I looked over and there was a man in a chicken suit, eating a hot dog running next to me. Between chews, he started shouting at me to go faster and pedal harder. I started to think, with the few active brain cells in my oxygen-deprived brain, “Man, I love bike racing. And wow, these fans are crazy!”
But then the smell of hot dog hit my senses and it was all I could do to not lean over and spew all over this chicken man. Luckily, the top of the climb was just meters away and I was quickly descending into the fresh, but much too thin, mountain air.
The inaugural Women’s USA Pro Challenge kicked off in Breckenridge with the same eight-mile, ridiculously hard time trial course as the men’s race. It was a tough day, with blustery wind and a climb to over 10,000 feet in elevation. But with fans lining the climb, shouting words of encouragement from bottom to top, it was hard to complain about the conditions.
Throughout the weekend, I raced with Colorado Women’s Cycling Project-Spark Racing, a composite team made up of six elite-amateur, Colorado-based women from different local squads. While we aren’t pros, and we sometimes felt like we were in way over our heads, our team somehow got lucky enough to have multi-time national champion Alison Powers on board as team director. Her experience from years of professional racing was a huge asset in leading our rag-tag team of nervous and excited riders and team staff.
Friday morning started out like any typical race morning: groggy bike racers sitting around the breakfast table with copious amounts of coffee and plenty of nerves to share. We each had our own way of dealing with the jitters. Some sat quietly, thumbing through Instagram and Twitter on their phones. Others chatted about the race and competition or what they thought would happen in Saturday’s road race. My nerves sent me into the garage to check over my bike one more time before heading down to our team tent to start warming up.
Warm-up went by quickly, maybe too quickly. Alison graciously escorted me to the start house, where I sat nervously fidgeting with my helmet as she calmly held my bike. If only her calmness could rub off just a little, just until the “3, 2, 1” of the official’s voice. But it’s at this point where you have to stop thinking and just focus: Race your bike as hard as you can and don’t get caught by your minute-woman.
A blustery wind picked up just as I left the start ramp and made for an exciting first half of the race. Dealing with the altitude seemed hard enough, but it was a full-blown battle to not get blown off my bike. The only, and I mean only, good part about finishing up the flat section and heading into the climb was that the wind died down and let me suffer in stillness.
Climbing Moongate Road is something I’d recommend to any masochistic cyclist out there. It’s a beautiful climb through mountainous terrain and gorgeous scenery that you can enjoy while slowly turning yourself inside out to just move the pedals. Then, the tiny bit of oxygen available at the summit is just enough for you realize you’re heading downhill, and it’s time to pay attention. In what feels like an instant, the descent down Boreas Pass takes you into town and onto Main Street.
The final kilometers of the race were a blur, but riding down the finish chute was very special. Hearing people cheering and banging on the finishing boards got me to dig a little deeper and smile just a little bit as I crossed the finish line. Then it was straight into recovery mode and time to prepare for Saturday’s hilly road race.
Loveland to Fort Collins Road Race
NEVER complain about the wind when you still have two days of racing to go! Lesson learned. The winds from Friday’s TT seemed like a cool summer breeze compared the gale-force winds we suffered through on Saturday.
From our first pedal stroke, the blustery gusts were enemy No. 1 and sent the entire peloton into full panic mode. Echelon. Tuck. Sprint to find a sheltered spot. Echelon, I say! As we expected, the speed was incredibly high, with the big teams sitting on the front trying to split the group with the crosswinds. Hanging onto the wheel in front of me was the only thing I could focus on for the first 20 miles of the race. As long as I made it to the climb with the group, everything was going to be just fine.
And I did.
The group split a couple times on the flats, then it came back together, and finally we hit the climb that eventually shattered the peloton. From the outside, the race was probably quite boring and the results were fairly predictable. But inside the race, things were frantic, tactical, and very aggressive. It was one of those days you’re just happy to cross the finish line with a group, happy to move on to the next day of racing.
I love crits. There, I said it, and you can hold me to it. I am no sprinter and have never been mistaken for a crit racer in my life. Flat time trials or long, long, very long (think Dirty Kanza 200) races are where my abilities shine (Legan finished second at the 2015 Dirty Kanza –Ed.). But when I find myself in the lonely, desolate miles of a 14-hour gravel race, I secretly envy crit racers.
A crit is an action-packed hour of racing.
Crowds lined the fences for the final day of the Women’s USA Pro Challenge, a grueling, hilly crit in Golden, Colorado that had plenty of action inside and outside of the barriers.
Though the men’s race started nearly two hours after our finish, the Colorado fans faithfully lined the course and the crowd ballooned along the steep hill we’d soon have to convince our legs to climb each lap.
Standing on the start line, looking up at the hill, and yes, you have to look way up to see the top of that hill, we knew racing was going to be crazy hard from the gun. Warm-ups and call-ups were never so important as they were on Sunday. Sharp elbows and menacing glares were thrown on the start line. And then, the gun fired and the race was on, full gas, as expected.
“Well that escalated quickly!” In a moment of Ron Burgundy reflection, we quickly crested the hill in single file on the first lap, the peloton stretched out across nearly a quarter of the course. Quietly laughing to myself (or was it gasping for air?) about my “Anchorman” allusion, I held on for dear life. Luckily, there were no tridents involved, only blisteringly fast and leg-breaking accelerations to defend against.
The battle quickly decimated the field, leaving only the select GC riders and top pro racers gunning for the win. The rest of us raced our brains out, attacking the hill each lap and flying through the twisty descent. A perfectly placed gutter at the bottom made for a fun game of trying to get air each time through. Sometimes, when suffering so deeply, it’s these little things that make the race just a little more manageable.
A finish line has never felt so sweet as it did on Sunday. Wrapping up three aggressive days of racing at the first Women’s USA Pro Challenge left much for us to contemplate, reminisce on, and be thankful for. But I think the highlight of the whole the weekend came as I rolled back to our team tent, where I saw a group of kids waiting. Unlike the local races, the Pro Challenge brought out tons of kids who think every racer is a cycling god. It’s a pretty amazing experience to sign a poster, hat, or jersey, knowing that you’re just hoping to make it through the weekend, that you have no illusions of a podium finish. But the kids don’t care; they see bike racers as stars and this weekend, for a tiny moment, I got to be one of those stars.