Sometimes when I take my bike out in the middle of the afternoon and ride up and down Cañada Road I feel a twinge of guilt. It reminds me of 9W — the road outside New York City that all the cyclists ride — and triggers memories of the way my teammates and I would blow through stop signs and past New York Cycle Club riders, plodding their way up 9W, like a flock of noisy geese, names stuck to their helmets. Speeding up to pass their long, careful pacelines, we’d jokingly mock them when they were out of earshot, shouting “rough road!” in mimicry through a stretch of obviously uneven pavement.
Now when I think about how much better than them we felt — more skilled, correctly dressed — I can’t help but cringe. Because it wasn’t long ago that I was a “Fred,” a term people love using to describe less “serious” cyclists or those who don’t conform to the unofficial and completely arbitrary style rules of the sport. In fact, the further I get from Fred-dom, the more I think that Freds just might be the ones who’ve got this cycling thing figured out.
I grew up playing soccer, volleyball, and track, sports that confined me to one set space. Borrowing an acquaintance’s road bike for my first triathlon was a game changer. I loved how the baby blue Bianchi felt like an elegant extension of my body and that while riding, there didn’t seem to be an upper limit — as if the harder I pedaled, the faster I’d go, until eventually I’d just take flight.
For a full year, I scoured Craigslist and eBay for a bike of my own but was unable to find something I could afford. It wasn’t until I registered for my first Half Ironman and another loaner bike fell through that I finally splurged (with the help of a generous friend) on a silver and teal Cannondale Synapse. When I picked up the bike, I couldn’t stop smiling. She was beautiful. And mine. This would be the only road bike I would ever own, I told a friend. I couldn’t imagine needing or being able to afford anything else.
But for all my excitement I still needed to learn how to ride it. I joined a triathlon club and at the urging of a fellow triathlete also signed up for the New York Cycle Club, the largest recreational cycling club in the New York area. A $30 membership fee granted me access to their spring Special Interest Group (SIG), a progressive training program. Every Saturday for 8 to 12 weeks, NYCC volunteers give up their Saturdays to teach fellow members the skills they need to ride safely in and around New York City.
The groups are divided up into A, B, and C levels and I was in the lowest — the C-SIG. I showed up on the first, chilly, day with running clothes layered over the one matching kit I owned, which was gifted to me at an unrelated press event. We pulled out of our meeting spot and onto a busy New York City side street — stickers bearing our last names affixed to the front of our helmets. At the first stop sign, I promptly toppled over onto a parked motorcycle, unable to dislodge my shoes from the pedals. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment but I was quickly comforted. Mistakes weren’t just OK in the C-SIG, they were expected.
Over the next two months our teachers, some of whom wore little rearview mirrors on their sunglasses, taught us how to navigate New York City traffic and get over the George Washington Bridge and into the suburbs. The paceline was sacred and, eventually, we learned to rotate through it. No one was to surge or slam on their brakes. If obstacles presented themselves, the lead rider would yell “hole right!” or “rough road!” and the warning would pass back through the paceline like a game of telephone. We were not to take our hands off our handlebars or our eyes off the road. We stopped at every stop sign.
C-SIG sessions were zero-intimidation zones. No skill or question was too small to tackle. One afternoon we learned how to carry our bikes up and down stairs and escalators. On another day, we rode figure-eights around a parking lot in New Jersey to practice taking our water bottles in and out of our cages. Despite our newbie status, we named our group the C-You Laterz, because obviously (at least in our own minds) we were very fast and leaving the non-existent competition in our dust.
But the program worked. On our last session, we completed a 40-mile “graduation” ride to Piermont, NY. While eating a picnic lunch overlooking the Hudson River, we reminisced about the program and shared our future riding plans. One guy had signed up for a multi-day charity ride; a triathlon buddy (and future teammate of mine) was going to lead her first group ride to a rock climbing gym in Westchester County.
After lunch, as I proudly posed with my fellow graduates for a group picture, I would have no idea that in six months I wouldn’t just be learning how to ride my bike but learning how to race it as part of the Asphalt Green Cycling Team (AGCT), a brand-new developmental bike racing program.
AGCT was nearly 30-riders strong its first year, with my C-SIG friend and I comprising one-third of the women. Our team bonded immediately, talking bikes throughout the day in our private Facebook group and dragging our indoor trainers over to each other’s apartments so we could train together at night. As soon as our team kit arrived, I tore into the plastic Champion System bags and tried on every item. Now instead of having my last name stuck to my helmet, I had our team name emblazoned across my chest and sponsor logos dotting my back. I felt official — pro even — like I had gained entry into an elite club. I snapped a picture of myself wearing the jersey and uploaded it to Facebook as my new profile picture. This was my identity now.
But we were still very much novices ourselves, just in a different talent pool. The Tour de Ephrata, which only had one field for women, was a disaster. During the circuit race, I pulled off the course and into the parking lot a lap early. When I realized my mistake, I re-entered the race course and rode a mile and a half in the wrong direction. After the uphill time trial, my teammates and I regrouped and then got lost on our way back to our hotel, adding two hours of riding onto our day. And then on the final day, at the downtown criterium, we all got dropped, lapped, and pulled from the field.
But god, did we have a great time. Having achieved our only goals — challenge ourselves (check) and complete our first stage race (check) — we spent the rest of the time cracking ourselves up by parading around in the fake mustaches we got out of a local diner’s toy vending machine.
My first year of racing quickly turned into my second, which quickly turned into my third. My Cannondale Synapse became a Look 586; my Rudy Project helmet a Specialized Prevail; my sunglasses custom Oakley’s. And the Timex running watch secured around my handlebars? Long gone and replaced with a Garmin 510. More sponsor logos crowded our kit as we tried to outdo other teams in an unofficial swag race and rivalries were born, spilling off the race course and onto social media (#truechampion). Suddenly it wasn’t just about who was the fastest team; we were also fighting to recruit the best riders and accrue the most followers for our team’s Facebook page.
I had quickly transformed into a Serious Cyclist with a Serious Mentality and I had the race results to prove it. In 2013 I hired a coach and started training with a power meter. This, I surmised, was what was separating me from the top women in our area. But early in the year, I started to feel the familiar drag of overtraining. It started in my legs and went straight to my brain. After upgrading to a category 2 rider, I began having trouble motivating myself to work out. I started bailing on local races at the last minute, causing inter-squad squabbles and quit organizing my schedule around my team. The power meter and monthly coaching fees had drained my already limited resources, so it was best I take a step back, I reasoned.
Soon the only connection I had to local cycling culture was what I could gather online via pictures and race reports. The distance made me disillusioned with the entire scene. Popular local riders started working with major industry brands as “ambassadors” and “influencers” — creating a new level of “cool” and injecting even more corporate influence into the sport. During the off-season, the annual game of musical chairs took place, with teams swapping riders who had either quit or been kicked off their team. Looking at it from the outside, it felt less like a tight-knit community and more like a middle-school clique, complete with backstabbing and gossip. Even our team, which had always been relatively drama free, grappled with managing all the new and different personalities we had added to make our team physically stronger.
Maybe I had matured, maybe I was jealous, or maybe I had ascended so fast that I was now too close to the center of the sport and its inner-workings. Whatever the reason, the more time went on, the less the bike racing community felt like a club to which I wanted to belong. And the less motivated I was to ride. I missed the early days when every experience was new. When my team lined up at races without any expectations beyond the pure pleasure of challenging ourselves. When we passed work hours emailing back and forth about how we couldn’t wait to get out of the office — and what time did everyone want to meet up anyway? — knowing the best part of our day was ahead of us.
So I left. Not just the local racing scene, but New York City. My husband and I packed up our apartment and our two cats and drove across the country, hooting and hollering and high fiving our way to California’s Bay Area. Local racing isn’t what led us to move, but it also wasn’t something we were going to miss.
Being out here, technically still on my team but not expected to race or even take part in any race conversations, has given me the time and space I need to re-evaluate my relationship with riding. I’m taking it slow — riding when I want to and not riding when I don’t. Sometimes I’ll go an entire week without riding. Other times I’ll shadow my husband on his morning commute and then escape into the Redwoods for a solo spin the very next day.
And it’s helping. The more I ride on my own terms, the more I want to ride. Two of my teammates even came out to visit for an unofficial “training camp.” We naturally fell into a paceline heading out of town and into the country on a route I had never done before. But once we hit open roads, we slowed and let spaces form between our bikes, making room for conversation and camaraderie, the way we used to in our early days. A happiness swelled in my chest as we talked about babies and husbands and annoyances at work and marveled at how green the hills looked against the bright blue sky.
Thirty-five miles flew by. Before we knew it, we were back in town and riding single file, the setting sun hanging low in the sky. Hands in the drops, staring at my teammate’s back, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, I could find my way back to competitive cycling without losing the genuine joy I felt as a Fred. But, I decide, that’s something to think about another day. For now, I’m just enjoying the ride.
This essay was originally written in 2016 for Bicycling magazine. Thank you, @leahflickinger, for guiding it as far as you did. Working on this with you was such a joy. I hope we’re able to collaborate again in the future.
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