Competitive athlete, industry insider, and gravel race promoter Laura King always knew that she wanted to have a child and had watched her fellow athlete friends with curiosity through their pregnancies. She wondered what it might look like to manage the two identities of becoming a mother while still being an athlete. Over the years, she witnessed female triathletes maintaining a high training volume while pregnant but didn’t see as much visibility from cyclists. For someone for whom cycling is “my routine, my community, my mental clarity, my endorphin high,” King had real concerns whether she’d be able to set these things aside for nine months. Or would she?
VeloNews: How much did you involve other people in your decision to ride throughout your pregnancy?
Laura King: My former boss, friend and mentor Blair Clark (now president at Canyon NA) gave a toast at our wedding and offered his advice to Ted, “although I was Laura’s boss, I quickly learned that no one is Laura’s boss”. Of course we all had a laugh at this and still do, but if I’m known for anything it’s my stubborn, strong willed and independent nature. I operate well with suggestions and considerations, rather than being told what I should do.
VN: What have your healthcare providers had to say?
LK: Every time I visit the doctor they ask me if I’m still riding outside. They remind me each time of the risk and that [riding outdoors] not advised, for risk of falling. Of course they encourage exercise, but any sport with a fall-risk sets off an alarm for them. I’ve really pushed back on this because the decision is much too nuanced to give a blanket recommendation. I understand the most conservative approach is to abstain. I also have a high degree of technical skill and confidence in my riding. I’ve been riding a bike for 19 years. I ride smart, I choose routes based on limiting risk and maximizing safety, and I know that at any time I can stop or walk my bike. I have nothing to prove and I have not set out to be some kind of pregnancy hero. After explaining this to each doctor, many of them give me the qualifier of knowing a woman who skied, or kept up their sport for their entire pregnancy, but I understand as a provider they feel compelled to give the most conservative advice.
VN: Pregnancy seems to invite unsolicited advice. Have you gotten a lot of attention while out riding?
LK: Overall, the cycling community has seen me out riding and responded in such encouraging ways. I’m constantly getting messages of “Keep it up!”, “You’re inspiring!” and at one particular ride in Marin County, at 31 weeks, multiple men said “you’re my hero!” Lots of proud husbands out there seem excited to share what their wives were able to do in their pregnancies which I found endearing.
VN: Did you give yourself a stop-date for riding? Like, ‘I’ll ride through 24 or 30 weeks, and then switch to a different activity’?
LK: Here’s where it gets kind of crazy. I wondered if there would come a day where cycling was no longer comfortable, or where I felt off balance or in danger. But that day never came and somehow cycling has remained the most comfortable activity of them all—even hiking and walking cause me pelvic pain due to over-laxity.
Exercising through Pregnancy by Dr. James Clapp is the most researched and well-founded book out there for athletes. Armed with confidence and research from that book, I knew that there were no issues with a fall risk, and keeping up my regimen of riding outside. That was a risk I assessed with a serious gut check, daily.
VN: It’s one thing to ride alone or indoors during pregnancy, and another to be out there with other people and all of the variables of group ride. Talk about your decision to ride—and even race—in group events.
LK: I’ve mentioned that cycling, and the community it brings, have been an important reason behind why I love the sport and how much fulfillment it brings to my life. On top of that, it’s been an activity I share with my husband. I’ve missed being able to ride on his wheel for many of these months. I may still have decent fitness but with added weight, [there’s] no prayer of hanging on anymore. Attending events together is a significant part of what we do and how we enjoy spending our time together. When I was faced with partaking in an event or going out for a solo ride by myself there was no question what I’d prefer: I choose community and enjoying an event alongside Ted any day over riding solo.
VN: So, tell us about your spring and summer of 2019.
LK: The surprises began early. I never set out to compete or test my limits while pregnant. I took each event or activity one day at a time and assessed how I felt: I won a mountain bike race at 5 weeks pregnant. I rode four fondos in four days with Ted. I decided to participate in Vermont Overland, at 11 weeks, and found myself feeling good, just riding my pace and riding onto the podium in 3rd place, in a ride with 6,000 feet of climbing, with a stacked field. It was fun to ride knowing a secret that I had my little girl along with me. I rode 140 miles at SBT GRVL, at altitude, but rode this one for fun alongside a good friend and made sure to eat and hydrate early and often. I had high energy all day long. Ted and I mountain biked above 10,000 feet, in Crested Butte. I rode Grinduro (60 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing) at 16 weeks. I rode UnPAved Pennsylvania. I was the first female at Forest Fondo in Vermont (43 muddy, mountain-bike miles with 5,000 feet of climbing), at 19 weeks . I headed to California, and Ted and I were set to take part in the Officially Serious Gravel Ride, at 31 weeks. I had expectations of just starting the ride and entering the shorter division but once out there, I felt so good and was in my happy place surrounded by my old friends and community and some of the most awe inspiring riding, that I decided to stay on the long route. We were riding 52 miles of Marin County’s dirt/gravel with 6,000 feet of climbing, and grades topping 28 percent. I remember clearing a steep and technical dirt section on Pine Mountain with some men around me who had to hop off and walk their bikes. Those guys said some of the most encouraging and positive comments to me and I couldn’t help but feel an immense joy to be out doing what I love and being a part of such a supportive community. When I got to the finish and exclaimed to Ted, “I can’t believe it but I finished the long route!” He just shook his head unfazed and laughed, “of course you did”. By 31 weeks, this was no longer a surprise to him.
VN: That’s a resume of events and finishes that would make someone who wasn’t pregnant tired! Tell us how you felt.
LK: I’ll be honest, I love pushing myself and I love the endorphin rush that comes from it. While of course pushing myself had to come down a notch while pregnant, I think most people assume that it has to come down more significantly or that there will be some risk to the baby. Your body is amazing at managing effort for you: you simply can’t go over threshold and sustain it anymore, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still feel hard and challenging. I’ve been very energized during pregnancy to feel as though I have maintained fitness. Pregnancy for the athlete can be a challenging time where accepting a changing body, a new and uncertain future and temporary limitations can be difficult to accept. With a focus on what I was able to do, and celebrating the small victories like getting a ride in, finishing an event, just showing up, these were integral in helping me process this new season of life.
VN: After spending so much time on the bike and having positive experiences, do you feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about what’s possible for female cyclists while they’re pregnant?
LK: I’ve found that the majority of people who are most concerned about riding a bike while pregnant are not cyclists themselves. And this makes sense: if you only have your own experience to draw from, I can understand the concern. That said, after 19 years of riding, the bike often feels like an extension of my body. Those who have also experienced this feeling or can relate to me seem to understand and were some of my biggest cheerleaders.
It’s also so individual as to what activity might be comfortable while pregnant. I was surprised that cycling remained so comfortable more than hiking or walking, even. That isn’t everyone’s experience and it’s crucial to follow your body’s lead. It’s important to not fall into the comparison trap but instead make the most of what does work for you and what is comfortable. I could’ve let myself feel down when running or hiking would almost cripple me and cause pelvic pain, but instead I made the most of what my body would allow me to do.
VN: What can other women take away from your experience?
LK: The other day, someone I don’t know reached out on Instagram after seeing my video of riding to send a photo of her riding while pregnant. I’ve found a little circle of community through being pregnant and riding and after being the one inspired, maybe inspiring others that they too are still capable of keeping their passion going. There’s a lot to give up during pregnancy and hopefully your passion of riding doesn’t have to be one of those things.
As a child I was never content with following a rule unless I knew “why”. I really identified with Economist Emily Oster’s book, Expecting Better, as she pushed back to understand the data behind so many longstanding blanket recommendations during pregnancy. I’d encourage women to do their own digging before concluding that something is right or wrong for you. There are a lot of opinions out there but not all is founded with research and data. Be confident in the decision you make that feels right to you.