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PATAGONIA, Arizona (VN) — It took Ruth Winder less than two months to have her first meltdown.
In November, the former WorldTour pro was riding east of her home in Nederland, Colorado when she broke down on the side of the road in the middle of a three hour ride. She had to call her fiancé Zach to come pick her up. The situation was, she said, entirely her fault.
“In reality, I should have said I’m gonna go out and ride an hour, I’d like to get out a bit,” she said. “But something in my brain was like, ‘you should ride more. You didn’t do anything yesterday.’ Then I got mad, the point of not being pro anymore was to have more freedom.”
Winder, 28, announced her retirement last July, and the road worlds in September was her last race. Although she wasn’t even close to being one of the oldest riders in the bunch, Winder said that she reached a point where the unhappiness she felt being away from home simply outweighed what she did love about racing her bike.
“It wasn’t that I wasn’t fit or wasn’t on a great team, it’s that I wanted to be at home,” she said.
Nevertheless, when Winder did go home — to Colorado and Zach, and their dog Wallace and all of her baking utensils — it wasn’t like a light switched and she became ‘Happy Not Racing Ruth.’ The November meltdown may have been the most visible symptom of her unlearning how to be a pro, but it wasn’t the only one.
Not having her days dictated by the rhythms of ride and recover gave Winder more time and less to do. She tried not to, but sometimes she judged herself for her choices — like riding for an hour instead of three. It just wasn’t that easy to unspool from the knot of professional bike racing.
“I told my psychologist ‘I just wanna stop and be carefree!'” Winder said. “And she’s like, ‘that’s real cute. Guess what, it’s not gonna happen overnight. It takes time and change.'”
“A nice Belgian beer is actually quite nice”
When I meet Winder in Patagonia, Arizona where she has traveled for a photoshoot with Trek, it’s evident that the times are indeed a-changing.
Winder is sitting in the sun, under a giant Cottonwood tree, socks and shoes off, a crumpled can of Modelo laying beside her helmet. Not only did she have a beer with lunch, she also had chocolate and a cookie.
Regarding the mid-day dessert: “Even the change from October Ruth to February Ruth is pretty insane,” she told me.
Recalibrating her relationship with food has been one of Winder’s many daily exercises in untraining. At worlds last year, she was the leanest she’d ever been. Her weight, she said, “was not sustainable.” Her menstrual cycle was nonexistent.
Despite the imprint of so many years of telling herself what she could and couldn’t eat, Winder knew that she wanted to be healthy, have a period, and not villainize herself for eating the cookies she’d baked. “I wanted to be relaxed about it,” she said.
I asked Winder if her frequent food-based posts on Instagram were perhaps a way to nudge other athletes toward believing that guilt-free eating was OK. Or even simply to convince herself.
“I think sharing my love for food has maybe been that,” she said. “The number of people that say, ‘you can’t eat that you’re a pro athlete!’ People say that frequently. Like, a really nice pizza. To me, it’s no different than pasta. But they’re like, ‘you’re a pro athlete you can’t eat that.’
There’s a lot hidden in cycling culture that’s weight-based. You’re constantly being scanned. It’s shocking how many young female cyclists don’t get a cycle or restrict their eating.”
Recently, Winder took to Instagram to share something even more personal. In the post, she did address weight — and the fact that she is 10 pounds heavier now than she was at the end of last season.
Winder is quick to admit that some days it’s harder to get over the weight gain when for so long, “being lean was a sense of pride.” But she knows that weight does not actually equate to speed. She credits her work with exercise physiologists like Stacy Sims and Lindsey Golich for helping her understand the importance of a regular menstrual cycle, how calorie deprivation does not lead to muscle growth, that “being fueled is fast,” she said.
So, what does Winder do when she has to shimmy into a pair of pants that she used to slip on without even unzipping them?
“I try to think about it, what really matters, and I ask myself that — does this really matter? And if I can’t answer with a fact, I move on from it,” she said. “I don’t want to be someone who’s hungry or thinks I don’t like beer. I think I convinced myself I didn’t like beer because of the calories. A nice Belgian beer is actually quite nice.”
The slippery slope of returning to race
And then there’s the bike. Another thing you might pick up from Winder’s social media accounts is that she’s traded in her two wheels for two skis. While she is skiing more, that’s only partly true.
Winder is actually on the start list for the Life Time Grand Prix, a new race series consisting of three gravel races and three cross-country mountain bike races. It’s a hefty chunk of racing that begins in April and ends in October, and many off-road athletes I’ve spoken to are dedicating their entire 2022 season to the series.
So, if Winder’s whole objective was to “have fun on my bike and not worry about training in the winter,” why sign on for such an ambitious event?
“I already knew I wanted to do some mountain bike stuff this year,” she said. “Races like Leadville and the Breck Epic. BC Bike Race. All of that sounded amazing and were things I’d heard about. I told Trek fairly early in the season I’d stop racing and they were like, ‘oh would you be interested in doing gravel stuff?’ And I said, ‘to be honest, I was already thinking of mountain bike stuff.”
Winder and her former team’s bike sponsor worked out a deal. While there is no Trek gravel team, the brand is Winder’s bike sponsor (it’s also supporting Kiel Reijnen and Amity Rockwell). She’ll also receive some financial support from Trek, but, like other gravel ‘privateers,’ she has had to seek out additional support for things like bike kit and computer.
I ask Winder if signing on to race gravel and MTB this year isn’t a bit of a slippery slope. Like, a cyclist’s version of taking Methadone to tame an opioid addiction.
“A little bit,” she said. “It’s a little bit of ‘what am I doing? I should have just run away,’ But if I didn’t have it, I think I’d be having more meltdowns about ‘what am I doing?’ So it was like, figure out how to detrain rather than go cold turkey.'”
In that way, Winder recognizes that this season is a bit of a weaning process. As someone used to 50 races a year, 6-8 feels like a healthy reduction. Knowing that she needs to stay fit lends some structure to her life, and the financial support helps her contribute to her family. It allows her time to coach, something she’s done for the past five years, as well as space to consider what her next moves might be.
Yet, Winder also knows that she has to be careful.
She got a taste of what the voices in the back of her head might tell her earlier this month at the Old Man Winter Rally off-road race in Boulder. Winder won the event, but even that brought up a tangle of complicated feelings.
“Even though I won, gosh, this sounds terrible,” she said. “I know I won and I know I’m fit. But when I close my eyes and know how fit I could be. . . It’s like when you get on the bike and go to an event, there’s this pressure and expectation.”
This is where her mental exercise of asking herself what really matters shows up again. Does it really matter that she didn’t win Old Man Winter the way she could have? Furthermore, Winder does love riding — and racing — her bike. Quitting the WorldTour was her way of trying to salvage that love.
“I don’t want to start hating the bike again,” Winder said. “I want it to be a fun part of my life, and I want it to stay that way. So I’m trying to learn the balance of what others expect of me and my own expectations.”