Collegiate Racing

Racing in my White KitOver the course of the last year riding my bike managed to eclipse writing about riding my bike. I’ll try to correct some of that here soon. At this point, my collegiate racing career is probably over, though there remains the outside possibility of a final race or two as I finish up my PhD. It’s been eventful! I’ve raced for Texas A&M in mountain biking, cyclocross, road racing, and track. I’ve attended 24 race weekends and lined up for more than 50 races. I’ve won some, I’ve just missed some, and I didn’t even come close in others. I’ve crashed, I’ve flown, I’ve bled, but I’ve finished every race I started.

There have been some accolades along the way, but, for me, the greatest of these was earning my white kit. The distinctive white version of the Texas A&M kit was introduced in the mid-90s and earning the right to wear this kit requires substantial commitment to the team both in racing and volunteer work. Only about 30 people have earned a white kit since its introduction. I am, I believe, the third woman to do so.

It’s been an awesome journey, one that I am so happy to have shared with many great teammates and friends at other schools. Wearing the maroon and white and representing Texas A&M has truly been an honor. (Photo credit: Chris Caroccio)

Texas/Texas State Race Report

Leading the pain train

On the eve of the team’s departure for the Tulane race, I discovered a cyclist’s worst nightmare. My Cervelo’s carbon fiber frame was cracked around the seat tube, rendering my frame un-rideable. Instead of racing that weekend, I went back to the shop where I’d gotten the bike, and, thankfully, they took care of me. It took awhile to get the new frame in, though, so I rode the following race weekend at the University of Texas and Texas State on a borrowed Santa Cruz road bike, thanks to my teammate Andrew L.

Schedules had conspired to prevent me from riding my borrowed steed until the morning of the road race being held in Pace Bend park. The route consisted of laps of a 6 mile loop–the hilliest of the season, which made me nervous since I was riding with a standard crankset instead of the compact to which I am accustomed. As a result, I did not go into the weekend with high expectations for myself. Instead I was focused on doing what work I could for my teammate Jen, who had raced Tunis and wanted to upgrade to the Women’s A category with Kristen but had been denied. Kim and I were planning to work for Jen and help her to win so that she would be allowed to upgrade.

Jen at the front of the pack It was still cloudy when we lined up behind our lead car, though the forecast promised a hint of Texas summer. Along the roads, Texas wildflowers–especially the bluebonnets–were in full bloom. We rolled out of the staging area in neutral, and the race began after we climbed the hill to the finish line. I stuck near the front, pulling the pack when the occasion arose. When Jen threw attacks, I made others chase her; when other teams threw attacks, I made sure to cover them. Once, when an LSU rider decided to attack out of a corner and into a hill, I covered her attack and decided to launch a counter-attack when I shot straight past her. No one could get off the front, and, though we may have shed a few riders with our accelerations, the majority of the group remained intact. As the laps counted down, I started to push the pace when I was on the front, especially on hills.

Finally, in the last half of the last lap, we had worn the pack down sufficiently that when Jen attacked, only two riders were able to jump on her wheel. I was at the front at the time and was too strung out to jump on their wheels, but I caught Hannah from U of Houston as she went by, and a little chase group of Hannah, Kim, Elizabeth from UT, and myself went clear of the rest of the field. Since the lead group consisted of riders from A&M, UT, and MSU, Hannah sat on the front chasing while the rest of us held off. Once we were close enough to the line that we were sure the leaders were out of reach, the rest of us jumped into the fray. Jen finished in first; Kim and I took fifth and fourth, respectively.

Women's A team time trial at Pace Bend By the time start times for the team time trial had arrived, the temperature had climbed into the 80s and shade was at a premium. Kristen, Jen, Kim, and I lined up for our first Women’s A team time trial together. We had just one lap of Pace Bend left to do. I led out of the start and around the first corner, all went smoothly in the rotation until halfway through the loop when I pulled too hard up the feed zone hill on the back stretch and we dropped a couple riders. After we regrouped, we continued through the second corner and back toward the finish with a tailwind. During one rotation within the last mile or so, Jen suggested that Kristen and I stay at the front since we were riding stronger. When I reached the front, I prepared myself for a longer pull. When the 1 km mark went by, I decided to give it my all. We were flying through the curves. The 200 m sign appeared at the foot of the second steepest hill on the course and I shouted for them to hold on as I accelerated up the hill.

Between the road race and the time trial, the officials had moved the finish line 20 feet or so down the road, and I have never experienced a longer 20 feet in my life than when I’d just sprinted up that hill. The rest of the team finished just behind me, and, though I felt like I was going to lose my lunch, I was happy with our ride. We ended up 24 seconds behind UT and a couple minutes behind MSU, but that was to be expected since they had more Women’s As on their teams. We still earned more points with a 3rd place in the As than we would have with a 1st place in the Bs.

We drove to San Marcos the next morning for the criterium, held by Texas State at San Marcos High School on a short, fast course with many turns, including a roundabout. It only took fields about one minute to complete a circuit, which did not leave many straightaways in which riders could attack. I began the morning with nervous circuits around a nearby parking lot, trying to accustom myself to cornering on the unfamiliar Santa Cruz, having felt very sketchy in a number of turns the previous day. Despite a good half an hour or more practicing on the parking lot and in a couple of laps of the course, I lined up at the start feeling very nervous. In fact, I just desperately wanted the next 30 minutes to be over with, preferably without me crashing.

Texas State Bobcat Crit Women's B/C Start The crit was a combined field of Women’s B/C, so we must have had close to 30 women on the starting line. I was in the second row behind my teammate Kim, and, when the whistle blew, I quickly got stuck halfway or even further back in the pack before the first turn. I didn’t feel great about the race, but I wasn’t about to let it be over already, so I started hammering past clumps of riders as I tried to reach the leaders. Despite my nerves before the start, I dove hard into the corners as I chased solo, just as I would have on my Cervelo. As I came up on Gabriela from UT, I encouraged her to work with me to close the final gap. We took turns for a couple of laps, including a memorable trip through the roundabout where someone yelled, “Go Gabby! Go Aggie!” to encourage us. Finally, we caught onto the tail end of the leader’s group and I was able to sit up and rest for a little while.

Chasing the leaders in the crit Soon, however, I found myself itching to move forward. I had four LSU women directly in front of me and my teammate Jen and Elizabeth from ACU were further up, taking turns pulling. But every time I tried to move forward, the LSU girls would block me out, leaving me with the choice of being caught out in the wind or drifting back to the back again. After a few tries, I gave up on trying to reach Jen. What little straightaways there were on the course were simply too short to let me move up. So I sat in on the end as the laps counted down. Even at the back, there was plenty to worry about, especially as we kept lapping Women’s C riders.

At the back of the leaders group Heading into the final lap, the group accelerated and gaps started to form as the leaders tried to pass a clump of Women’s C riders in the roundabout while other riders hesitated. I jumped around several riders in order to latch onto the last LSU wheel coming out of the roundabout. Seconds later, we were through the second roundabout and headed for the final turn before the finishing straight. I knew from my previous chase that I could take this last corner extra wide and carry a lot of speed through it because the road was wide and the centerline rule was not in effect. As we came into the corner, the last LSU girl started to swing wide from where her teammates had been protecting her, clearly thinking the same thing I was. My first thought was “Leadout!” so I followed her. When we straightened, I found that I’d carried more speed through the turn, as my front wheel was about halfway up her rear wheel. I started clicking down my cassette, pushing the pedals hard in an attempt to get alongside her. Slowly we evened out, then I nudged my wheel ahead of hers and then, all of a sudden, I was in front and the finish line was passing beneath my tire!

Stunned, I realized I had unexpectedly just won my first race. I continued through the course once more to cool down, and, as I passed the roundabout, teammates yelled to me, asking for the results. “I just won,” I answered as I rolled past and into the parking lot. The other racers appeared moments later to congratulate me; I was still pretty much in shock. It turned out that Jen got boxed in at the last turn and hadn’t been able to sprint, so she finished sixth and Kim got ninth.

After the racing was done for the day, we hit up a local burrito joint that Texas State had assured us would give us a hefty discount for having raced. As luck would have it, my teammates ahead of me in line started a punchcard toward a free burrito, and I was the lucky recipient. The guys claimed that race winners are now entitled to a free burrito, and that’s just fine with me. (Photo credits: Kristen Kjellberg, Texas Cycling, Josh Robertson, TJ Nguyen)

Land Ronde (Oklahoma) Race Report

Start of the Women's B/C Road Race I headed to the Oklahoma race not quite knowing what to expect from myself. Although my hip and elbow were in reasonably good shape after my fall in the previous race, my left knee was still in rough shape. In fact, the doctor’s orders to me the previous day when she put me on antibiotics for the knee were to “limit motion”. I chose to interpret this as “don’t ride your bike until it’s time to race on Saturday,” but, needless to say, it did not inspire much self-confidence.

In fact, as I lined up with the field of about fifteen Women’s Bs by Lake Stanley Draper near Oklahoma City, I wanted nothing to do with racing. The antibiotics had put my stomach in a sour mood, and the rest of me was not far behind. We were promised a neutral rollout onto the course, led by our wheel car, which would pull over and let us by to signal the start of the race. At least, I thought, we’ll have a nice easy start. Instead the wheel car peeled out of the parking lot at 25+ mph with our field unwilling to sprint to follow. We started out more gingerly; having been warned of gravel and sand in the first turn of the course, none of us saw a need to attack from the gun.

The north edge of the lake, we discovered, was a series of short but steep rollers, and, although we lost a few ladies from our group there, about half of us stayed together and continued on down around the lake. At the south end, we rode a bridge across the dam, red water stretching out to either side of us as our little peloton was buffeted by crosswinds. It was an awesome feeling. Although the vista was not the same, it made me feel like I was in Holland, racing along a dyke and leaning low to escape the wind. I couldn’t keep myself from grinning. The wind came around behind us as we came around the western side of the lake and we flew along, taking turns at the front. One lap down and one to go.

This time as we traversed the hills at the north end of the lake, I suddenly heard one of my teammates announce, “Gap! We’ve got a gap! Go, go, go!” There were four of us–my teammates Kim and Kristen, Ashley from UT Austin, and me. I tried to accelerate and keep with the break, but the pace was too much and I slid off the back shortly after Kim did. For a little while I worked to bridge back on my own, but as soon as I looked back and saw the chase group about to catch me, I sat up. In the chase group, Kim and I stayed sheltered on the wheels of other riders and bided our time. With our teammate Kristen up the road in the breakaway, it was important that we not help these girls catch her. If they caught her without our help, then we would be rested and ready to make a move. If they didn’t catch her, then we’d be ready for the field sprint for third place. Fortunately, we were both thinking on that same page without having to say anything that might alert the rest of the group to our tactics.

All was well as we approached the southern end of the lake again, until I felt the muscles in my right calf starting to twitch. Oh no, I thought, don’t even think about cramping. I tried to bribe my body with some Gatorade. It’s just four more miles, I thought. Just hold on for four more miles. My right calf exploded in a spasm of pain. There was no holding on. I managed to cut to the left to let the others past and then I fell off the back, screaming, partially from pain but mostly from frustration. I couldn’t pedal at all with my right leg; just having it dragged in circles by my left leg was almost too much to bear. I wouldn’t let myself stop, though. It was probably only 30 seconds before my muscle stopped spasming so that I could pedal again, but there was no chance I could chase down five girls who were moving at 24+ mph with a tailwind. I finished solo for seventh place. (The chase group caught the breakaway at the line, but Kristen held out for first and Kim got fourth.)

I consumed all the electrolytes I could during the break between events and kept stretching my calf to encourage it not to cramp again. Around 3 o’clock I found myself back at the finish line, this time preparing for our team time trial of 9 miles. We were starting into a strong headwind, which would shift to a crosswind as we headed across the dam. On the far side, we would turn around and eventually have a strong tailwind behind us for the finish. On the line next to Kim, Kristen, and Cynthia, I eyed the gathering clouds, wondering if we would manage to beat the incoming rain. The race official counted us down to zero and I rolled out, clipping in and taking the lead into the wind.

1st place team time trial awards from Tunis and OU The team time trial is an interesting event to crack. On the one hand, you don’t have to cross the finish line with all of your team, so you can go harder than you’re all capable of individually, but, on the other hand, you do have to finish with two (or, in the A category, three) riders, so you can’t go too fast. Kim, Kristen, and I happen to be very well-suited to one another, and we have never been more in sync than we were in the OU TTT. Knowing that the only team we needed to beat was Oklahoma (since Texas had been pulled up to the As), we rode only as hard as we thought we needed. When we saw the Oklahoma girls coming the other way shortly after the turnaround, Kristen’s concerns urged me to up the pace a little, but otherwise we tried to keep the effort steady. As we approached the uphill finish, Kristen announced she was going to lead us out and then Kim and I sprinted uphill across the line. The next morning we would eventually learn that we’d won first place by over two minutes. Happily exhausted, our van headed back to Edmond, where we were staying with my aunt and uncle, who spoiled us with fresh laundry, hot showers, soft beds, and a gourmet dinner, complete with Italian dessert.

The prospect of racing looked far bleaker the next morning when we awoke around five o’clock to sound of rain. After a good warm breakfast and lots more layers of clothing, we piled into the van and drove south down I-35 to the University of Oklahoma research park where the criterium was to take place. As we huddled in the van in the dark and rain, no one felt eager to get out and unload the bikes, let alone to race. Eventually, however, start time came.

On the starting line at the OU crit The race officials gave us a couple of practice laps so that we would all know the course before we started, and, despite the continuing rain and flooded corners, I grew increasingly bold. I lined up already soaking wet but confident that I could handle the conditions as long as held my bike upright and pedaled through the corners to keep traction. When the whistle blew, I was the first one off through the first corner, but I held back a little on my pace. Soon Kristen and Sarah from Rice came up past me and I grabbed on their wheels, though not for long. When I slid off that front group, I once again chased briefly before I found myself near Ashley from UT. Although I fell back to follow her, I couldn’t actually draft without getting a facefull of street water, but I was willing to let her chase for awhile.

Looking over my shoulder, it became clear that the rest of the field was taking it easy and had no interest in fighting their way up to us. It was a race between the four in front, and I felt like I was lurking on the edge. When Ashley got frustrated and asked me to help, I hesitated, in part because I was in need of oxygen and in part because I wasn’t sure whether it would be better to help catch Kristen and have a numbers advantage at the front or whether I should hang back like I had in the road race. Ashley didn’t wait around for me to decide and instead accelerated and knocked me off her wheel. I spent the next few laps chasing her on my own. Just as I’d decided that she was flagging and I was closing in, Sarah, who had been up the road with my teammate Kristen, fell in a flooded corner. As I shot by her and into third position on Ashley’s wheel, I knew there was now no way I could help her chase my lone teammate.

Sarah quickly caught up to us, and she and Ashley began taking turns chasing Kristen while I lurked behind them. The lap cards started to count down to the finish, and, beneath my breath, I urged Kristen onward. We could see her ahead and she kept looking back to see us. The bell rang for the last lap, and we were flying through those wet corners. Ashley led, Sarah followed, and I hung just a bit back and to the side. I knew that I had to make sure I didn’t fall if one of them did, but I couldn’t let a gap form, either.

Final sprint for 2-4 in the OU crit Ashley and Sarah screamed at a non-racer riding through the left hand turn that was the next-to-last turn on the course, and the four of us nearly went down when they failed to yield way. Then the last corner was upon us and we started to sprint for the line. I shot past Sarah, but could barely make ground on Ashley. With the wet road, I feared I’d lose traction if I threw my bike around too much. I crossed the line just behind her, in third place – my first podium finish in road racing! As my aunt and uncle rushed over to congratulate me, the rush of victory–I’d just helped Kristen sweep the podium–warmed me, even though I was completely soaked. (Photo credits: A. Stevens, Kim Aeschlimann, John Sharp)

Tunis Roubaix (Texas A&M) Race Report

AMCT Women's Team At Tunis

The South Central Collegiate Cycling Conference (SCCCC) schedule began this year with Texas A&M’s road race, the Tunis Roubaix at William Penn, semi-affectionately nicknamed, “The Hell of the South”. Some background for those who don’t know pro cycling: one of the most famous and difficult European one-day races is the Paris-Roubaix, which takes place in northern France early in the spring. It is famed for its difficult weather and rough cobblestone sections. Texas doesn’t do cobblestones, but A&M’s race always features unpaved sections, that, like its namesake, will rattle a rider to pieces and put her tires to the test.

This year the race was moved to William Penn and racers used one of two courses for the road race, both of which featured stretches of gravel roads. In the case of my field (Women’s B), we completed 3 laps of a 12.5 mile course that featured 3 miles worth of gravel. I had the advantage of having ridden a lap of the course the previous weekend, so I knew what to expect, and, as our peloton of forty women (!) rolled out onto the course, I quickly maneuvered myself toward the front because I knew I wanted as few people as possible in front of me when we transitioned onto the gravel about a mile after the starting line. This turned out to be excellent foresight on my part as crashes almost immediately decimated the field. One moment I was riding comfortably near the front and in the next, my teammate Kristen and others were crashing right at my elbow. I avoided the crash and kept pedaling at a steady pace, suddenly the sole leader of a pack of survivors. By the end of the gravel section, I had inadvertently created the leading breakaway of about half a dozen.

I knew I wouldn’t make it sitting on the front all day, so once we got off the gravel I encouraged others to do some work, and I was content to sit on someone’s wheel for awhile. And then, after a few miles, my gears started shifting without prompting. I couldn’t hold their pace and fight my bike, and I slid off the lead group, though a backwards glance showed no one in sight except an LSU girl far back. And then, as I was climbing a hill and cursing my gears, my pedals locked and I went crashing to the asphalt. When I got up, I was bleeding from a gouge in my knee and my hip and elbow hurt from my fall. On my bike, the only obvious damage was to my handlebar tape, which was shredded on the left side. But what had caused my crash? As I picked up the bike by the saddle, it became clear. My bike frame was in the air and my rear wheel was still sitting on the ground. It had come clear out of the dropouts when the rear quick release skewer came undone. I angrily tightened it back in place and jumped back on the bike just in time to catch the LSU rider’s wheel.

A special world of pain on the finishing stretch - Photo by Dana JohnsonWe stuck together and got melded into a new chasing group as one of my teammates and a rider from UT joined us near the end of the first lap. We all rode through the finish line together and began Lap 2. We lost girls one-by-one on the gravel until it was just me and the UT girl together on the final lap. There was no telling how far ahead the leaders were, but I didn’t have much hope of catching them. By the second lap my injuries had started to sting and by the third lap I was in a lot of pain and thinking only about finishing. Another LSU rider joined us about 2/3rds of the way through the lap and started pulling so hard on a hill that I slid off the back yet again. I rode the rest of the race alone, finishing uphill into the wind in my own special world of hurt. I rolled to the side of the road after I was done and simply leaned on my handlebars gasping until a teammate and the medic guided me to the first aid station and started cleaning the road rash on my leg, hip, and arm. I’d finished the race with blood dried down the front of my left leg; I received 7th place. Of the field of forty or so starters, only seventeen finished. The other categories had similar numbers. It was truly a race of attrition.

The team time trial that afternoon was advertised as 10 miles (but was longer) of paved road with rolling hills. It also featured a strong headwind that shifted to a crosswind out on the course. For our category we could start with four riders and our time was determined by the crossing of the second rider’s wheel. I lined up with my teammates Jen, Kristen, and Kim, but I really only took one turn at the front before I couldn’t hold their pace anymore. Frustrated and angry, I again slipped off the back and continued to ride the time trial by myself in case my teammates had a mechanical problem that meant they required me. After a minute or two I warmed up more thoroughly–it took longer than I’d expected, thanks to my bandaged leg–and began to hold the distance between us. I began passing other riders on my solo TT. I reached the turnaround and headed back, dismayed to find that the wind and hills hadn’t gotten any easier. At a few points, it felt that I was crawling up the hills into the shifting wind. I caught up to Kim, who had gotten dropped when she dropped her chain after the turnaround and then passed her. Once the wind came round to my back and I recognized I was nearly done, I started flying, swallowing the road beneath me at 25 mph or more. By my computer, I finished the course–almost completely solo–in about 38 minutes. When they finally posted the results the next morning, we found that our team had won 1st place by 90 seconds, and that my unofficial solo time was faster than nearly half the teams in the field.

Tunis Team Time Trial - Photo by Dana JohnsonNevertheless, I spent that Saturday evening beneath a cloud of misery. I was frustrated and upset with myself for giving up too easily when it came to losing people’s wheels. I should have dug deeper and fought harder to stay in contention in the road race. As for the time trial, I was downright ashamed at my performance there, feeling that I’d completely let down my teammates by falling to pieces so early in the event. After I’d changed the bandages and settled down in bed with an ice pack on my swelling injuries, I told myself I had to do better.

Sunday’s event, the criterium (or crit), took place on A&M’s campus in Research Park. The crit is a race based on time rather than distance. The course is short–usually a mile or so long–and features lots of corners. Races last for as few as 20 and as many as 60 minutes–our field completed 30 minutes. After the first couple laps, the officials can estimate how long a lap takes and how many laps the race will be. Starting with 3-5 laps to go, they will hold up cards and signal to the riders how many laps remain.

Given my poor night and the aches and pains from the previous day’s crash, I did not harbor high hopes for the crit. Many of my competitors were much fresher than I was since so many of them did not complete the road race the previous day. Nevertheless, I told myself I was not allowed to give up and I could not lose a wheel without a fight. Just as I was getting ready to start my warm-up, I saw President Loftin by the starting line, so I went over to say hi and update him on the team’s standing since he had come by at my invitation. It’s probably the first time an A&M president has come out to a team cycling race, and my teammates and I really appreciated it!

Tunis Crit Race - Photo by Simon HeddermanThe criterium is known for being a race where risks must often be taken to do well, especially when it comes to cornering in a pack. If one rider takes too aggressive of a line or veers off-course, it can take down half the field. Frankly, I never expected myself to be the sort of rider willing to risk pushing it in the corners, but I surprised myself in the crit. I fought hard and I took risks. Some of my teammates and I traded places chasing the leaders but as the race wore on, I wore out. After one too many hard efforts into the wind to chase the wheel of my teammate in front of me, she got just too far out of reach in one corner and I couldn’t pull her back before the wind got me. I completed the final stretch alone–in front and behind–for 11th.

Despite finishing lower in the standings, however, I was happier with my performance in the crit than with the previous day. I knew I’d tried harder and I’d raced better, even if the results did not look that way. As I knew it would, the race weekend opened my eyes to some of my weaknesses as a rider and gave me an opportunity as well as motivation to improve myself. Overall, my performance had been okay for a first race, but I was hungry for more… (Photo credits: Dana Johnson and Simon Hedderman)

Winter Training

Winter Training with the AMCT women's team It’s been quiet around here since October, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been off the bike. After LIVESTRONG, I rode a fun and relaxed Tour de Gruene in November with my fellow aero grad students, Chris and Bobby. In January, I competed in my first cyclocross race, which is almost-mountain-biking with an almost-road-bike and lots of places where the course forces you to jump off the bike and carry it over obstacles or run up hills and then jump back on the bike. Since that was the only collegiate cyclocross race in our conference and I was the only woman who entered, I became the conference champion by laughable default. It was a fun experience, though. The next day I completed my first century–one hundred miles on the bike in one day–and had my first crash in a pack of cyclists. I made it out unscathed, fortunately, but it was unsettling nonetheless.

Completing the run-up during the cyclocross race Mostly, though, I spent my winter months putting in lonely hours indoors and cold miles outside. Over Christmas I taught myself to ride on rollers, a severe test of balance for one as uncoordinated as I, which rewarded me with a smoother pedal stroke and better stability. I lifted weights and did plyometrics off the bike to increase my strength and conditioning. And, when conditions allowed for it, I rode long base miles outside, sometimes just cruising with friends and sometimes turning myself inside out trying to keep up with faster riders. There are moments of pure magic on these quiet winter rides when the only sounds are the whirr of one’s drivetrain and the whisper of tires on smooth pavement. The world is peaceful then, the road infinitely long, the wind indefinitely at one’s back. The only sweeter feeling is stepping into a hot shower afterwards and feeling one’s muscles relax into a pleasant state of exhaustion. I cannot recommend it enough.

Sufferfest Trainer Party with AMCT teammates The start of March promised the first of the SCCCC’s collegiate road races, so January and February, in addition to cross-training and base miles, included some skills clinics–learning to corner while pedaling, to ride in very close proximity to others, and how to keep the bike upright even if you touch wheels with someone. We also got some coaching on team tactics in racing, like how to ride if your teammate is in a breakaway up the road. Spoiler: that one was useful! But that’s a story for another day. (Photo credits: Kim Aeschlimann, Philip Lawrence, and Josh Robertson)

Livestrong Austin Ride Report

Livestrong Austin Challenge 2011The day started early, in no small part because I’d slept poorly. I was out of bed and kitted up by 6 a.m., just in time to wake Chris, Simon, and Mike. A slow start coupled with unexpected detours meant arriving in Dripping Springs later than intended. Once parked, we threw our things together and booked it for Robert Hanks Park where thousands were already waiting in a sea of yellow for the ride to start.

As a faceless announcer encouraged and congratulated all the riders, we dodged through crowds to collect our registration packets, drop off bags and generally prepare to go. As Lance Armstrong addressed the crowd, I was running across a field to get a “In Memory Of” sign to wear on the ride. I had my priorities.

After everybody got our numbers pinned, we rolled out in the Nth wave of 90-milers, stretching all the way across the closed chipseal road. As I exited the chute that marked the start/finish line, a row of girls with yellow pompoms stuck their hands out and I rode by, giving everyone a high five while the spectators cheered. It’s probably the closest feeling I’ll ever have to being a rock star.

Mike and Simon at our first stopBy the time we reached the end of the traffic closures, we were a mess of cyclists stretching as far as one could see. Shouts of “Car up!” and “Cattle guard!” and “Slowing!” punctured good-hearted conversations between strangers. At an event like this, everyone has a story to tell, and every rider is just a friend you haven’t met yet. Locals lined the roads outside their ranches, waving and shouting encouragement. Even in Austin, my Aggie jersey earned me Whoops and Gig’ems.

When we hit the first short, steep climb, the already slow pace dropped further as some riders dismounted. I hit a lower gear and stood to power up it, my only difficulty in keeping a reasonable pace due to the riders around me. Our group of three 90-milers–Chris, Simon, and myself–had some trouble sticking together in the crowds, but we managed not to get completely separated. At the second rest stop (“Power Station” in LS lingo), the crowd had thinned some and we paused to fill water bottles (which I’d failed to do before the start).

Our pace remained casual and conversational as we continued, though I would occasionally pick things up some if I looked at the clock and felt we might be short on time to make the 36-mile cut-off before 11 am. After Mile 23 or so, I noticed a nagging pain in my left knee. For awhile it came and went, but, in the end, it became my constant companion.

Although the entire ride was hilly, it was between Miles 24 and 50 that we climbed from our lowest point to the highest elevation on the route. I knew I was to keep my pace easy on the climbs (I’m something of a speed demon on hills apparently), so every time I came to one, I’d drop into a gear that felt easy enough to manage for the entire climb and then I dropped a cog or two below that for good measure. I’m afraid I still aggravated everyone else by passing rider after rider. No doubt it did not help that my knee hurt less when climbing than when riding on the flats. (Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either.)

We made the cut-off at Mile 36 with half an hour to spare and I wolfed down the best tasting peanut butter and banana sandwich I’ve ever had, which is saying something considering how many I had during mountain bike season! According to the map we’d been given, our ride consisted of about 2,800 feet of climbing total, and Simon’s GPS was claiming by the cut-off that we’d done about 2,000 feet of climbing already. By that point, I was convinced that the actual amount of climbing would be far closer to the 5,900 feet originally claimed on the website months before. I was enjoying the climbing, though, so I wasn’t worried.

Posing with a photo of Grandma and Granddaddy I carried on the rideWe carried on and on and on, the day growing warmer and the roads growing emptier (of bikes, at least). Each rest stop we paused at grew quieter. I was struggling now–not with exhaustion but with the pain in my knee, with frustration at our pace, and with grief. This ride was the culmination of months of training, something I’d poured myself into to try and deal with my grief over Granddaddy’s loss. I knew I’d achieved something in all that work. I knew that Granddaddy would be proud of me. I had a piece of him with me in my jersey pocket in the form of a momento and three photographs. But none of it was helping.

On some level, his death still isn’t real to me, even though I saw him buried. Somehow I still find myself expecting to call and talk with him about everything I’ve done, tell him about my engagement to Joe, see him at my graduation and my wedding. On the road, on the ride I’d spent so many miles preparing for, I couldn’t ignore that, in achieving what I’d set out to do, I’d failed to achieve something I’d wanted. During a long stretch between rest stops, I left Chris and Simon to themselves and rode alone with my thoughts, now punctuated every pedal stroke with sharp pain in my left knee. I hardly saw anyone and probably wouldn’t have noticed them anyway. Mostly I was trying not to cry.

Despite my need for solitude, I felt–and feel–guilty for leaving the others behind. At the last rest stop, I pulled over in the shade to wait for them. We should finish together, at least. I must have ridden harder than I’d thought in that section because I waited nearly fifteen minutes before I saw them. In the meantime, the volunteers had started packing up the rest stop and the SAG wagons were circling, reporting there were fewer than a dozen riders left on the course. I wondered how everyone could have passed us. Did the rest take the shorter course or get swept away by the SAG crew? I was nervous that we’d be ushered off the course, even though it was more than an hour until the designated cut-off.

With the encouragement that we were only six miles from the finish and it was mostly downhill, we set off once more. Chris led, Simon followed, and I stuck behind Simon’s wheel–partly to make sure he was doing okay and mostly to prevent me from going faster than I ought to! The three of us once again reached the closed section of road leading into the park and we rode in a line past a course photographer, me flashing him a Gig’em as I went. As we approached the finish, we heard the announcer’s voice over the PA. We veered left as we approached the chute (the right side is reserved for cancer survivors, each of whom receives a yellow rose as they finish). And suddenly Simon took off! Surprised (and ever terrible in a sprint), I took off after him, noting as I did that the announcer was introducing us as the BCS Barnstormers team from College Station and calling me out by name as team captain. With a huge grin and one arm in the air, I finished, turning left to ride through a mister and take a cool towel.

Team BCS Barnstormers after the rideMike, having taken the 65-mile route, waited at the finish and greeted us when we finished. The BCS Barnstormers were a huge success, raising over $4,000 and well exceeding our fundraising goals even though we hadn’t managed half the things we’d planned to do. Just imagine what we could do next time!

As the group explored the post-ride party, I took a few minutes to call loved ones and let them know that I’d finished. My first call went to Martha, Granddaddy’s widow. “What are you going to do now that you’ve finished?” she asked after I’d told her about the ride and the fundraising. I’d need a break, of course, I told her, to let my knee heal (and, in fact, I limped for more than a day after finishing the ride), but then I’d be back to training. After all, the collegiate road racing season starts in January! Final stats: 86 miles at an average speed of 15.9 mph (138.4 km at 25.6 kph). More of my photos and the professionals’ photos.

Livestrong Austin Challenge Liveblog

6:15 – Everyone is up and getting ready for the day. Mike reports that our team as a whole has surpassed the $4000 mark in fundraising!

7:42 – Almost set at the parking lot. Still need our numbers before the start. Energy is palpable.

8:10 – In staging ready to go.

9:05 – Stopped for water about 13 miles in. Solid bikes since the start. Lots of cheering spectators along the roads.

11:58 – At a rest stop 52 miles in, waiting for the others. My knee has been hurting since 20-some miles, but it feels better when climbing.

13:50 – 22 miles or so left to go. Starting to struggle, not from the hills or heat or distance but because of the incessant knee pain. Time for goldfish.

14:46 – At the last rest stop. 6 miles to go. I’ve had a few bouts of fending off tears already.

15:30 – We rolled across the line together after 5 hours and 19 minutes of moving time.

18:00 – Eating Italian food before driving back to College Station. Feels appropriate given Granddaddy’s love of Italy. Can’t decide if I’m eating gelato or tiramisu after my pasta. Maybe both?

And Now For The Main Event

First of all, thank you to each and every one of you. We exceeded my fundraising goal by raising a total of $2625. (Donations are still being accepted, so that number may change.) It’s Saturday morning and my weekend of adventure is just about to begin. I wanted to post here with a few details of what I’ll be up to and when so you have some idea what to expect.

I’ll be departing in a few minutes to meet up with my fellow Texas A&M cycling team members and driving to Warda, TX, where we are hosting the SCCCC mountain biking conference championship this weekend. Because of LIVESTRONG, I won’t be competing this weekend. (Sad for many reasons, not least of which the fact that I will lose the overall 1st place in my division!) However, I can’t leave the team hanging, so I’ll be spending today volunteering and helping to make it the best race of the season. I also spent almost all of my freetime the past few days upcycling bike parts to make awesome prizes for the winners; hence the radio silence.

This afternoon/evening, I’ll head to Austin and settle down into a hotel with the rest of the Barnstormers. Then, bright and early tomorrow morning, we’ll head to Dripping Springs, TX for the start of the LIVESTRONG Challenge. The ride starts at 8 a.m. I’m not sure how long it will take Chris, Simon, and I to complete 90 miles, but I don’t expect to be done until mid- to late-afternoon. There’s an after-party as well, but we’ll have to see how we’re doing by the end. We’ll be driving back to College Station late in the evening, no doubt.

I won’t be taking a laptop with me, but I will have my smartphone. If I have sufficient signal, I hope to post updates as I go here on the blog. These updates will not propagate to Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, so you’ll want to check here. If that fails, I may post to my Twitter account via SMS. If all else fails, I promise a report with lots of pictures when I get back!

Riding For Granddaddy

My first bike ride without training wheels

When I was little, Granddaddy visited us shortly after my little sister was born. Not about to be outdone by a newborn, I had Dad remove the training wheels from my bike so I could show Granddaddy what a big girl I was. There were probably a few wobbles, but as you can see above, I managed to ride without those training wheels. Granddaddy was so proud he took me to the store that afternoon and bought me my first “big girl bike”. In a way, it’s quite fitting that I’m riding for him again now.

After five months and nearly 2500 miles of training on and off the road, I feel ready for this weekend’s LIVESTRONG Austin Challenge. Neither the 90 miles nor the climbing has me worried. Anything I lack in confidence, I think I can make up for with determination.

We’re coming down to the wire on fundraising. There’s only $395 to go, and the deadline is Wednesday morning. If you’ve thought about donating, now’s the time to act! Whether it’s $5 or $50, every donation matters! (As a bonus, donations are tax-deductible, and, if you ask, your employer may match your donation and make it go twice as far.) Tell a friend or a co-worker; spread the word on Facebook. Together I know we can make this happen!

Thank you to every single one of you for your generosity, support, and encouragement as I’ve prepared for this event. I know every one of you will be with me when I’m riding Sunday.

Why I Wear Yellow

With about a week of fundraising left, I have $800 to go to reach my goal. Please, if you can spare anything–even just $5–donate.

Photographic evidence indicates I started wearing my wristband in early 2005Today, I have a story to share. As many of you who know me have noticed, I’ve worn the same yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet day in and day out for more than six years. I started wearing it in college during the initial fad, not in memory or support of any particular person–my family had been remarkably untouched by cancer up to that point–but because, in general, cancer sucks. Nowadays that same yellow bracelet means much more to me, but, to understand why, you have to turn back the clock more than a decade.

When I was a kid, my family was very active in our local church and many of our friends were people we knew from there. One older couple, Ron and Pat, grew particularly close to us in the years before we left Arkansas. I remember attending lots of potlucks at their house, and, though most of my time was spent with other kids, I enjoyed Ron and Pat’s company a great deal, in no small part because they treated me as an equal despite my youth. Pat enjoyed painting and their home was full of landscapes she’d done; she’d tell me about them when she found me admiring them.

My parents joining Ron and Pat in a toast to their anniversaryWhen we moved to Germany, Ron and Pat came and spent a vacation with us, celebrating their wedding anniversary. We traveled around Germany together, showing them our favorite places near our home as well as some of our favorite castles and towns in wine country. Even as a jaded teenager who probably complained that she’d rather be left alone in her room, it was a very fun visit. Sadly, Pat was feeling out of sorts, and it was not long after they returned to the U.S. that she was diagnosed with cancer and began a long battle with it.

When the yellow bracelet came along while I was in college, I’d fallen out of touch with Ron and Pat, though I occasionally heard reports from my mother. For me putting on the wristband was more connected with joining the meme than supporting anyone in particular. During my senior year–six years ago this month–my reason for wearing yellow changed. Unexpectedly, my mother called and told me that Pat had lost her fight to cancer. At the time it had been years since I’d spoken to her, but I found myself overcome with grief. There were too many things I’d never told her; I’d never thanked her for her friendship, never told her what it meant to me. As I cried, I saw my yellow bracelet and promised myself I would wear it every day, not just in memory of Pat’s fight against cancer, but to remind me how important it is to tell the people you love what they mean to you while you have the chance.

This past April, at my father’s urging, I called up Granddaddy in the middle of the day, even though I was at work. We chatted about basketball, about my cycling, discussed when I would graduate (seemingly his favorite topic), what the latest news was medically. He was getting ready to start physical therapy on his ankle, having previously broken it, and happily told me that the fluid that had been removed from his lungs showed no signs of cancer. There were things I wanted to say, but, given their seriousness, I hesitated. When I looked down and saw my yellow wristband, I knew I had to speak up. I told Granddaddy how much he meant to me and how I wanted him to fight whatever was making him sick because he needed to be at my graduation. “I don’t think anyone on earth is as excited about me getting a PhD as you are,” I told him. Granddaddy never hesitated a moment in his life to say how proud he was of me and my sister and our cousins, so, in that conversation, I let him know just how much he meant to me, how I admired him, how much I loved him. And I’m so grateful I did–so glad that I had that yellow wristband to remind me–because that was the last time we ever spoke.

Most of us will never know when we’ll have the last opportunity to tell someone we love them. Consider it encouragement to tell people now. My LIVESTRONG bracelet reminds me every day, and that’s why I wear yellow.