Wildflower Relay: Loving my bike
I have a long history of growing overly attached to various inanimate objects. It started when I was about eight, with our family’s fourteen year-old Toyota. When my parents proposed replacing the station wagon— which lacked modern features such as airbags and a CD player — with something less prone to unexpected breakdowns on family road trips, I staged a rebellion that would have looked better on a hormonal sixteen year-old. I cried. I sulked. At the dealership, I refused to ride along on the test drive. At home, I refused to ride in the new car to get ice cream. I was a fat little eight year-old, and there were very, very few circumstances under which I refused ice cream.
I eventually accepted that car, but I didn’t really bond with a newer vehicle until my parents bought me a silver Subaru Forrester on my sixteenth birthday. While my classmates celebrated the freedom of a driver’s license with late-night joy rides and perhaps an illicit trip to the liquor store, I celebrated by giving my new car a name (Ridley) and a personality. Ridley was my stable, dependable companion through the remainder of high school. I filled his glove box with gum wrappers and fig newtons, and his back seat with water bottles, once-worn workout clothes, and stacks of old textbooks. His dashboard was covered in fingerprints from cold mornings when I’d cupped my hands over his heater vents. Sometimes, at the end of a hard day, I’d curl up in his passenger seat, close my eyes, and mutter my sorrows into his musty upholstery. Ridley was a great listener.
It’s probably no surprise that when I started cycling in college, my weird little anthropomorphizing habit transferred from my cars to my bikes. My first road bike was a sturdy (heavy) aluminum LeMond with a triple crankset — I named him Yeager, after Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier. My second bike was a red Specialized Tarmac with Rolf wheels and snappy red bar tape. I named him Apple, after my favorite post-ride snack.
And now I’m speeding down 101 South with my third bike, my baby, tucked under a blanket on the folded-down back seats. He’s a black-and-red Time NXS, and his name is Jens, after the famously charismatic German bike racer. I call him Little Jensie.
I warn my relay teammate Cat, who’s riding in the passenger seat, that I “kind of anthropomorphize” my bike. The point really hits home, though, when Cat asks about our sleeping arrangements. “Oh, I brought a tent,” I reply. “You’re welcome to use it. I’m going to sleep in the car with my bike.” To my own credit, I don’t actually say that I’m going to sleep in the car so that I can sleep with my bike, but it’s kind of implied.
We pull into Lake San Antonio around 7pm, drive in a few circles looking for a place to camp, and head over to catch the last hour of registration. The Wildflower expo is almost eerily quiet, a kind of calm-before-the-storm feeling. I look out over transition, a vast parking lot at the edge of the dry lakebed. Hundreds of beautiful bikes glint under the sunset, tucked up on their racks for the evening. I almost wish I’d brought Jensie to hang out with them — and with the overnight security, I know he’d be fine — but we don’t really like to be separated before a big day.
Back at the campsite, Cat and I find the least-lumpy bit of ground and wrestle the tent up. I spend about half an hour “getting ready for tomorrow” by neurotically moving food, clothes, and various bike-related items between four different bags. When I’m feeling maybe 25% organized, Kate, our runner, pulls up. We sit chatting for a few minutes before agreeing on an early bedtime. Jensie’s frame slips into the wheel wells, and I curl up next to him under a pile of blankets on the folded-down back seats, my glasses hanging from his brake cable and my keys, phone, and headlamp perched atop his saddle. I slowly doze off with my nose in his rear spokes.
I wake up cold. It’s 6am and thirty degrees outside. Jensie is a good snuggle buddy, but he’s not very warm. Kneeling awkwardly in the back of the car, I reach over his top tube to shove the key in the ignition and turn on the heat. Cat and Kate stir from their tents outside. When Cat cracks open the passenger door, looking for her breakfast, I announce that “I’m getting it warm in here, and the hell with Mother Earth!”
I last raced the Wildflower long course relay four years ago, riding Apple. Much as I loved Apple, I was a nervous wreck of a rider. I’ve always hated descending fast, cornering hard — really any set of circumstances that could possibly lead to a hard crash. I love climbing, and I love my brakes. But Jensie is a beautiful descender, and riding him I am, if still quite slow, at least much less scared. This has never been more obvious than on the steep descent from our campsite to the expo, on which I barely skim my brakes, admiring the view as I carefully navigate around potholes and pedestrians. Four years ago I looked at that hill, felt sick, and decided to walk. At the bottom I glow with pride and kiss Jensie’s top tube, ignoring the weird looks from meandering spectators. We’re going to have a good day.
After a friendly, awkward college kid scribbles our race number on my calves (triathlon is really amazing — in what other context is it socially acceptable for a total stranger to write all over you with a Sharpie?), I rack Jensie in transition and wander around taking pictures while I wait for Cat and Kate to finish the swim and the first leg of the run. I consider going back up to the expo for coffee, but there’s a long, long line. I settle for a Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bar and a few caffeinated Shot Bloks.
By the time Kate shows up, I’m thoroughly pumped from watching the pros (including five-time winner and general badass Jesse Thomas) come through T1. Kate slaps our timing chip around my left ankle, and I grab Jensie and run — very, very awkwardly in my cleats — onto the bike course.
The relays start last, which means that Jensie and I have a ton of rabbits to chase. And almost immediately, we’re passing people. We pass someone in the narrow chute through the run finish. We pass someone else in the twisty section through the campgrounds. I want to yell, “Jensie we are passing people in turns!!!” but I can’t really breathe properly. I get a little cocky and try to pass a third person in a turn on a downhill, and then think better of it and back off.
Jensie’s built for climbing, not time trialing , with a compact crankset and an 11–28 cassette. But on this course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We hit the first hill, I get in the little ring, and we shell a bunch of poor sorry guys with fast-looking tri rigs. And then we start descending the back side of the hill, and all the poor sorry guys pass us back. But we get the speed up to thirty miles per hour, and then almost forty, and I’m not scared a bit.
The backside of the course is all headwind and crosswind. I don’t envy anyone with a disc wheel — even with my skinny little climbing wheels, the wind is knocking me right and left across the road. I stay in the big ring for as much of it as I can, shifting down and spinning, spinning, spinning whenever I see my cadence drop too low. I’m trying to keep it above 80rpm — in addition to our ongoing work on descending, Jensie’s been trying to break me of my mashing habit.
It’s 11am now, and the icy early morning is a distant memory. I’m sucking down water. By mile twenty, my first bottle is empty. I break into the second one, chug half of it within ten minutes, and realize that I’m going to have to grab a feed at some point. This is an intimidating prospect because, in the year-plus-one-race that I actually raced my bike, I received a bottle handup on exactly one occasion; on that occasion I was going five miles per hour uphill and the person holding the bottle was my mother.
I ride through one aid station, and then another, fantasizing about Gatorade. Finally, I go for it. At the next aid station I swing right, stick out my hand, and yell “GATORADE!” in a hoarse, breathless voice. A little girl holds a bottle of Gatorade in front of me. One second she’s holding it, and I’m afraid I’m going to hit her — and the next second, a bottle of Gatorade appears in my right hand. Oh, my God, I did it.
I swig half the bottle and then, pretending I know what I’m doing, give it a practiced-looking flick toward the shoulder. It does not roll into the road. Total, unqualified success. I want to kiss my bike again, but it’s kind of awkward while we’re riding.
For most of the ride, I’m counting down the distance to two milestones. One is the finish at mile 56 (I’m counting down to that one until mile 55.9). The other is the hill, affectionately nicknamed Nasty Grade, around mile 41. I figure Nasty Grade is nasty, but it can’t possibly be nastier than the Death Ride. I also figure that once I’m over the top of it, I’m basically done, so I should ride as hard as I possibly can to get there and get it over with.
I grab another Gatorade feed at mile 40, and then I get ready to beast it up the climb. Turns out, though, that Nasty Grade is just about as nasty as the Death Ride, or maybe even nastier, after forty miles of really hard riding in the wind. I end up in my lowest gear, spinning desperately, trying not to look for the top. The highlight of the lung-busting ten minutes is when the guy next to me mutters “screw you and your compact” as I slowly, painfully grind past him.
On the other side, we have a whip-fast descent on which we almost hit forty again. Jensie bounces happily, carrying momentum into the last few rollers. And then we’re back into the park, and scooting back down the first hill — the hill that scared the daylights out of me four years ago. I take it a little slow, because it’s windy and I’m tired, but we roll into transition with a flourish nonetheless.
The guy at the transition entrance yells at me to dismount, which I do. And then I try to run Jensie back over to his rack, but between my cleats and the sudden dead feeling in every muscle in my legs, I end up doing a really funny sort of duck-waddle instead. I have no idea how real triathletes do this bike-run thing. Fortunately, Kate’s there to take the last run leg. I get the timing chip back on her ankle, sit down on the asphalt, and start tugging my shoes off of my hot, cramping feet.
After I recover and change out of my sweaty clothes in one of the clean, spacious porta-potties, Cat and I walk back up to the expo for our free ten-minute massages and a nap on the grass. I spend the remainder of the afternoon shamelessly abusing the generosity of the nice guys at the Nuun tent, who probably did not mean “fill your bottle as many time as you like, even if that’s approximately twelve times” when they told me I was welcome to fill my bottle.
After Kate finishes — bringing it home like a champion through a ridiculously hot, hilly eleven miles — I go and collect Jensie from transition. At the exit, one of the attending volunteers carefully checks the number written on my calves against the race number wrapped around Jensie’s top tube. “Your bike, right?” he asks.
“My bike,” I confirm, turning to show him my Sharpie marks. And if I could take any bike in the place — from the ridiculously fast disc-wheeled steeds of the top pros, right down to the sketchiest old steel commuters — I wouldn’t want any bike but mine.
Thanks and shoutouts
If I were a pro, this is the part where I’d thank my sponsors. But even though I’m not a pro, I’ve got people to thank! None of these folks have given me any free stuff (yet, I’m not giving up hope) or paid me to ride my bike. But they are nonetheless awesome, and for those of them that sell stuff, you should all buy their stuff.
Picky Bars, for being the tastiest, most digestible, most fun energy bars on the planet, and for fueling many, many long rides.
Looney Bean Coffee, for filling me full of muffins and caffeine during my Bishop training camps.
River City Bikes (Portland, OR) and Mike’s Bikes (Palo Alto, CA), for being my two favorite bike shops, always treating me like I know what I’m talking about (news flash, guys, usually I don’t know what I’m talking about), and helping Jensie look and feel his best.
Nuun, for keeping me hydrated and for cheerfully allowing me to drink A LOT of free Nuun last weekend.
Coursera, my fabulous employer, for furnishing not only the flexible schedule and steady income that allow me to ride my bike, but also for introducing me to my two super-cool badass relay teammates.
My Bishop riding buddies, Jef and Amy, for encouraging me, pushing me to ride hard, and inspiring me to quit mashing.
My husband Dan, for being my supportive, patient partner in crime, and for teaching me to turn the back of a Subaru into my own personal four-star hotel.
My mom and my bike dad Michael, for fully indulging my ridiculous bike obsession.
My dad, for teaching me to love the mountains, and for trying really hard to grok the whole bike thing.
Thanks for reading!