Caught between two larger Olympic cyclists, Sammi Runnels battled for position, her shoulder pressed from the right, her hip squeezed from the left, and her head tilted hard to combat it all as the three riders hurtled forward. And she was cracking up.
It was day two at the Collegiate All Stars camp, where six of the best female collegiate riders in the country had assembled for a week under the tutelage of Skratch Labs co-founder Allen Lim, PhD and Olympic silver medalist and Mariposa Bicycles co-owner Dede Demet Barry.
The weeklong camp followed a daily formula of the riders assembling at Skratch Labs for breakfast, receiving a quick lecture from Lim and Demet Barry, then heading out for training. Afternoon highlights included bone-density scans at the University of Colorado and a lecture from Dr Teresa Foley on menses, performance, and a phenomenon known as RED-s or relative energy deficiency syndrome. Evenings meant family-style dinners and some good times like a dance party with Taylor Phinney.
Handpicked by USA Cycling, the riders at the camp were:
- National collegiate criterium champ Anna Christian – University of Colorado Boulder
- National collegiate road champ Cara O’Neill – University of Arizona
- Charlotte Backus – Fort Lewis
- Emma Edwards – MIT
- Madeline Bemis – Milligan
- Sammi Runnels – Savannah College of Art and Design
- At the end of the camp, defending Colorado Classic champ Katie Hall, of the University of California Berkeley, joined the team. Hall is also a pro on Boels–Dolmans
SKILLZ N DRILLZ
After day one of easy riding and media sessions in advance of the Colorado Classic, the nation’s only standalone women’s pro stage race, the riders found themselves at a softball complex. A course of colored cones weaved tightly through the parking, props like tennis balls and musette bags were piled under a tree, and no less than three former Olympic cyclists stood in front of them. It was skills and drills day.
“No matter how good you are, you can always improve,” said Mike Friedman, 2008 Beijing Olympian and founder of Pedaling Minds, a nonprofit bike education program.
Friedman had set up the course and menu of drills, with help from his old roommate from the Beijing Olympics, Taylor Phinney, and Denzel Stephenson, a cyclocross racer and coach with circus-like handling skills.
Phinney explained the first drill of riding through the tightly winding corners.
“The gist is setting up your line into corners. The more you do it, the more comfortable you become,” Phinney said. “Experiment with different lines, and see what happens. Have fun, find the flow, be respectful of each other. The point is to help each other, not compete.”
Some riders, like national collegiate criterium champion Anna Christian, quickly took to the drill, leaning hard into the corners. Others were a bit more cautious.
After a few laps, Demet Barry offered some tips on handling.
“For a turn, weight the outside pedal, with your leg extended, and weight the inside of your handlebar,” she said. “Keeping your hands in the drops lowers your center of gravity, and gives you centrifugal force through the turn.”
Following Charlotte Backus of Fort Lewis into turns, Phinney called out “Wide, wide, wide!”
“The wider you set up, the more space you give yourself,” Phinney said while pedaling behind in a t shirt, Chuck Taylors and his pink EF Education First POC helmet.
Like the coach that he is, Stephenson sketched out the mechanics of hard turns on a whiteboard, showing first how not to and then how to set up for a turn.
Next up, the riders did the course holding a tennis ball in one hand. Then it was time to practice grabbing musette bags at speed, followed by bumping drills in the grass to get comfortable with contact, and to practice protecting their handlebars from getting hooked.
BREAKFAST AND PHILOSOPHY
Although Lim can talk at length about the science and physiology of cycling, he is just as eager to talk philosophy. Most mornings would begin with a quote, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand or Kurt Vonnegut. He would dive into the concepts of rationalism vs hedonism on bike, as riders worked through his avocado toast.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Lim said, quoting Fitzgerald. “Cycling is filled with contradiction. So today, if you are hurting, live with that. If you see a beautiful view, live with that.”
Six-time national champion Demet Barry weighed in with advice. “Race results are here today, gone tomorrow,” she told the riders. “What has struck with me is the relationships. You go through so many highs and lows with each other, that you form an incredible bond. I hope you foster new relationships. I encourage you to be in the moment. Don’t get caught up in the stressors.”
As Lim went over one of his standards — “you almost never win when you are having an exceptional day, you have to be able to win when you are having a normal day” — Demet Barry chimed in on how she found success.
“So much of cycling you can’t control,” she said. “And there were so many days I felt terrible when we started, then after an hour or two I came around. Ultimately in cycling at the top level, the physical differences are minute. It is the differences in your mentality that make the difference.
“I used simple mantras. I picked up ‘circles, circles, circles. Pain is my friend.’ from an older teammate Eve Stephenson. It sounds silly, but I said it to myself during the Olympics.”
TRADITIONAL TRAINING: CLIMBING, MOTORPACING, RECOVERY RIDES
After a day of drills, it was time for a few days of hard training. For a climbing route that tackled about 8,000 feet of elevation, Lim joined the riders and Demet Barry on an e-bike, with Skratch’s Josh Mazie following behind in a vehicle with nutrition. Timmy Duggan, former national champion and 2012 Olympian, came along for the ride.
After tackling a few Boulder standards of Olde Stages, Sunshine and Flagstaff, Lim checked in to see who wanted to do more. There were no takers.
“Do you guys know what Lim stands for?”
“It means, less is more,” he said, smiling. “If you guys are done, let’s go home.”
The next day was a 60-mile motorpacing session, with Lim on his trusty scooter that has paced dozens of top athletes like Evelyn Stevens or Taylor Phinney or Christian Vande Velde as they prepared for races like the Olympics or the Tour de France.
After going hard the previous day and out climbing the others, national collegiate road champion Cara O’Neill opted to drop off early for an easy day. Madeline Bemis took it the other direction, periodically swinging out from behind the scooter to attack, then jumping back in the line.
SIGN OFF: POPCORN, BAD SMELLS AND ALL-OUT ATTACKING
On one of the camp’s final days, Lim stood in front of the big whiteboard inside Skratch Labs’ warehouse. Riders finished their breakfast that he talked about his philosophy on training and life.
Among on things on the whiteboard, he had a list of things he suggest the riders do daily:
- Expressing gratitude
- Helping others
Lim, Phinney and Demet Barry gave personal examples of what worked for them on each of the subjects, such as simple things like having dinner with teammates for commensality.
“Meditation for me is everything,” Phinney said. “It’s like a home I’ve created in my own head. For people like us who are constantly pushing outside of a comfort zone, constantly traveling with different people all the time, to be able to create a home, and to touch back to a foundation within your own head, and to be able to close your eyes and be able to feel like you are truly in a peaceful place, no matter where you are geographically, physically, that’s what meditation has become for me.”
Lim brought it back to training, with his popcorn analogy. In order to get better, you need to apply heat – or training – to illicit results. Too much heat, though, and you’re going overtrain and burn your popcorn. “And then you get what I call the stench of failure,” he said. “Avoid that.”
Phinney countered this with a more philosophical take.
“Even though failure might smell bad, I would say, in my personal journey, fail hard. Fail as much as you can. That is how you learn,” Phinney said to the riders. “Don’t be afraid of it. It might smell bad, but the smell leaves, like a fart.”
Demet Barry laughed, and then agreed. “I learned the most from failure. If you have a growth mindset, you will come back stronger,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. And you won’t know your limits unless you fail.”
Looking towards the Colorado Classic, Lim encouraged them to go all out. “If you are going to attack this weekend, f—ing attack. Leave it all out there.”
“Wail!” Phinney said. “Wail and fail. With gratitude and grace.”
Lim turned and wrote that on the whiteboard.
Wail and fail – with gratitude & grace. -T. Phinney
“And with that,” he said, “let’s go ride bikes.”