This is a very different blog from the one I was going to write. It never ceases to amaze me that, although there have been great gains for women involved in sport, there are still lapses into what I can only describe as a lack common sense and basic human decency.
This weekend, I competed in the third stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race. I toed the line with my bike just like everyone else did. If you have ever watched a cycling event-- the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia or any of your local road races-- you know that riders use strategy as well as physical fitness to reach the finish line first. In cycling that means you kill yourself to climb the hills the fastest and then you do your best to push the downhills so you come just short of crashing out. And if you're smart, on level ground you tuck behind a tandem or a stronger rider for a while to give your legs a rest before returning the favor and taking a pull at the lead of the pack.
This is called cycling.
Yesterday, a male cyclist accused me of cheating because I drafted during the Triple Crown Stage Race in a comment on Strava.
To him, I pose this question: how do you think the lead male riders reached the finish line so quickly? And, why is it OK for a male rider to draft and to work in a group, but for us few women who populate endurance cycling, we "should" battle the distance alone?
It's mile 30 or 40. We started riding over an hour ago in the dark and the thick marine layer catches on the tops of cypress and eucalyptus trees on Mount Tampalais, redwood trees collecting dew and dripping hard like rain, turning the pavement black. The roads are wet, and I worry about the ride down and the ride ahead.
The faint sound of bagpipes still sound, faintly in the distance; when Rich and I had crossed the reservoir, a solitary man stared out across the calm waters, playing the one song you always hear on bagpipes. A dirge, as we rode by, into the thick forest-- the notes of memory, of how events circle back in on themselves, and the magic of chance.
I get quiet on the climb, wondering what to do now that my strategy-- to climb Tam strongly, but smartly-- hadn't positioned me as well as I had hoped. Just as I think this, a woman passes me as we push through the marine layer and into the sun. She's petite and there's no question about her being in the race: number 027 is a red number, just like mine. I keep her in view and, at the top, she shoots me a glance which tells me she knows who I am (the girl with the lead from the past two stage races; the girl who has a very important place to win or lose.)
I out-corner her on the early descent before you climb out of the summit (one of Mount Tam's oddities), but she sees me and, again, and rides ahead of me. I could go with her and I almost do-- but then my stomach grumbles and I feel a twinge deep in my gut. I'm not sure I'd call it wisdom (actually, it would turn out to be something else entirely) but as I watch number 027 ride away from me, I fall back into my rhythm that I have learned to set for 200 miles.
In my former life as a marathoner, a coach once told me that what you do at mile 3 will matter severely at mile 26. Rich, too, in training for this event, has told me the same thing. Maybe, finally, I understand. The first time I rode Mt. Tam, actually, was an example of how much I didn't know-- I was in my late twenties and too injured to run anymore. So, I spent my Saturdays riding with the Diablo Cyclists, a club out of Walnut Creek. Many times, we rode the course for the double (just not all in one day)-- and I would try to stay ahead of everyone until I just fell apart.
The first time I rode Mt. Tam, in fact, I blew myself up on the summit and back down, and one of the guys gave me the nickname "Rebecca-In-Motion". All that effort came at a cost, however: at about mile 80 of our 100 mile ride, my legs stopped working and it was a miracle I made it back to my car-- for a long time, I put cycling where I put the running: on the shelf, something I "wasn't very good at."
But, I guess something happens when you reach a certain point in life and if your failures were bricks, you could build a schoolhouse out of them. They hardly matter-- but, other things do. For me, I've been able to find a way to train, to improve and finally, after so many years, I've found a way to believe in myself.
If you don't know, here is a breakdown of the California Triple Crown Stage Race: it's 600 miles long and nearly 60,000 feet of climbing over the course of three 200 mile efforts spread out across spring and summer. Not a lot of women sign on for this, and those that do are elite and strong and incredible. It was a fluke, sort of, that I signed up for this this year.
Ironman was my big focus (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a marathon have been a long-time goal, and I decided to just do it) but after riding the Solvang Double early in the year, I asked Rich if he thought I could do the stage race next year.
He believed I could do it this year. And, somehow that translated into riding the first stage of the race to see what I thought of it-- to get a taste for riding double centuries with ridiculous elevation gains knowing that the clock is ticking. And, honestly, I'm not sure what to say about myself that after what was probably the most uncomfortable and painful day of my life (not only was the Devil Mountain Double just a really, really difficult ride, it was cold and wet and my poor under-carriage really had a rough time) that I said "Let's do the Triple Crown Stage Race," but I did.
Our first real stop is at mile 50 after we descend Mt. Tam and pass Muir Woods. I use the Porta-Potty and my cycling shorts are filled with blood. Wednesday before the race, I'd woken up to a swollen abscess. It was so bad, I could hardly walk straight so I had it lanced by a riding friend who is also a nurse, but she warned me:it will be a wound so she gave me a few antibiotics and a dressing which fell off before I got my cycling shorts on the morning of the race.
As I'm in the plastic-blue powder room (the Porta-Potty), I feel another twinge, and I realize that it's my period (such great timing) and I do the only thing I know: I make a joke to myself.
"So, how many tampons does it take to get to the finish line of a 200-mile stage race?"
I picture the owl from those tootsie pop commercials "One, two... [crunch]... three. It takes three tampons to get to the finish line of a 200 mile stage race." (And I wish it only took three.)
It's utterly ridiculous and I make myself laugh.
I start to feel better and event though I tell Rich "I think I just lost the race," I get on the bike and and decide to ride the best I can because, in the end, it really is just another 200 mile ride (meaning: more than anything, it is important that I finish.)
In college, I rode my fire-engine red Cannondale with shifters on the down-tube when I needed to work through writing ideas in my head. When I had earned enough at my campus job at the Tutoring Center where I helped students through first year French, I decided that more than anything, I wanted clipless pedals/shoes. I went down to a shop I'd seen just off South Virginia called Great Basin Bicycles.
I find it funny-- or, wonderful in an uncanny way-- that I am sporting their jersey for this prestigious race and that Rich, the owner (now) , is riding with me.
Point Reyes Station.
By mile 80, we reach some of my most favorite places in the world. I ride by them faster than I ever have before. Rich pulls most of the flats, but falls behind me on the climbs past old growth eucalyptus trees so wide it would take ten of us to circle them.
We reach the next aid station and I renew my love affair with the potato (mmm salt and potassium. mmm.) Rich says he isn't feeling super great and I soften how I speak to him- over the next thirty miles, I make sure to pull up next to him, to touch his back or side to tell him how much I appreciate him there. I make sure to pull in front of him, too, even though I know that all 5'2 of me isn't much to draft.
Still, we gain ground. When we reach Petaluma, (and Rich bunny-hops an obstruction in the road while still in his aerobars and I think, my God, he's amazing.)
We see number 027 ahead.
At mile 93, at about a quarter mile to lunch, we pass her. I never see her again for the rest of the ride.
After lunch, we join the 100k and Century riders. We witness a high-speed chase where a driver passes us all doing at least 75 mph on a 45 mph zone. He turns onto a dirt side road a cop car catches him. It's like an old Duke of Hazzard's Show. A few of the men who are riding the century join Rich and I and we take turns pulling each other across the undulating landscape.
At Valley Forge, the 200K and 200 milers are directed to do an extra loop up past the sand dunes of Bodega Bay and up a poorly maintained single-lane paved road. Someone has spray painted "shut up legs" in red across the pavement on one particularly steep pitch of the climb. Rich jokes that I'm a skinny bitch on these sections (meaning: he can't keep up with me) but honestly, I just try to make it up the steep pitches and not to do too much damage to the bike on the downhills. I can't see half the potholes I hit.
I am not a climber, even though Rich says I am.
We descend into trees and for a while, it's shaded and beautiful with ferns and oaks and vines. Back on the main road, we pass the Valley Ford aid station again and I keep telling myself there's less than fifty miles to go.
I haven't seen another woman with a red number for miles.
Life is not like a fairy tale: there is no indistinct beginning (no "once upon a time") and no definite ending (like "and they lived happily ever after.") Instead, I have come to believe that life is more like a stage race in which we cannot know the number of stages nor the conditions of each. We may win some and lose others; and sometimes people say things about us which aren't true and other times those around us can illuminate the things we cannot see or fathom on our own. That is the beauty and the pain of it.
I remember that I felt so strong those last fifty miles. A tandem captained by George V. and powered by stoker Lori H. of REV Cycling -- an endurance-focused cycling team out of San Diego joined Rich and I and we pulled each other to the foot of the final "big" climb of the day: Marshall Wall.
At mile 165 or so, the last thing your legs want to do is climb for three miles.
The wind is at my back, however, and I feel like a sailing ship whose sails have just been filled with air. A homeowner left a large jug of water outside their house on a wooden stool and while Rich and George and Lori stop for water, I keep riding up the hill. Another male rider joins me and he tells me this is the hardest thing he's ever done (the Mt. Tam Double in its entirety.)
I try to compare it to all the other rides and because all my blood is in my legs, I can't really say if this is the case or not. Mt. Tam was not an easy ride-- none of the stage race was even remotely "easy." Ironman wasn't easy.
But, then again, life isn't "easy", either.
Down Marshall Wall, we roll into the final aid station.
Rich isn't feeling well (he'd been battling nausea all day) and we sit together and eat a cup of Ramen soup which tastes deliciously evil like the best thing on the face of the earth. Our tandem friends George and Lori leave before we do and I am just so amazed that I feel as well as I do, that it is light out and that Rich is a part of my life.
When we do push off, we trade the lead; I take the hills, he is in front in the flats.
My "glory moment" (which, I guess, is small in and of itself) was pulling Rich and an increasing number of people (we catch George and Lori as well as at least two other male riders) up the last gradual climb of the day. Out in front, after so many miles, I could feel each piece and part of me working on the bike to move myself forward as if my legs were composed of tiny ropes and pulleys, each on the verge of snapping. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pleasant, really, but I knew that I was riding strong and I was proud of myself for having the foresight to not ride Mt. Tam so hard early on in order to save something for the final miles.
Down the 18-hairpin turns and across a five-mile flat, we rode the way we came approximately 13 hours before. I'm doing it, I'm doing it, I'm doing it I think as we ride around San Raphael and we cross the line.
I ride to the table and tell the volunteer and event promoter my number. I don't even think there will be a problem as Rich and I head to the dinner which waits for us. He eats four Haagen-Dazs ice cream popsicles and I have a bit of salad and some chicken. The story should end there, but it doesn't.
In addition to owning a bicycle shop, Rich is an experienced cyclist and trainer himself. Some of the magic he works involves introducing people to the world of endurance cycling-- men and women. One man had signed up for Mt. Tam in order to earn his Triple Crown distinction-- and was still on the race course. His wife was worried about him since she hadn't heard any news, so, Rich and I gassed up the car and found him about twenty miles from the finish and still wanting to complete the course. We let him go and waited for him to complete the journey-- and he did, with a minute to spare!
However, while at the finish line, the event promoter mentioned that the first place woman never checked in at the finish (!?!?!?!) and he was going to call her. Someone, for whatever reason, hadn't transcribed my results. So, the woman who finished in second left the event thinking that she had won.
A friend of hers-- a man who had ridden the entire distance with her-- was the one who posted the comment about me not winning legitimately.
I understand part of what he's saying and I'm sorry for causing what must have been an emotional roller coaster for an incredible athlete. If I haven't expressed this clearly enough, I will say it again: every woman I have met who rides the stage race is strong, dedicated, amazing and I am so honored to ride with them. It was a stroke of luck that I had three good double centuries. If luck had shifted, I know that the results would be different. That is the nature of endurance events.
But, I do not apologize for drafting, for riding with a person like Rich or anyone who supports riders like he does. I hope, actually, that more women continue to enter events like this to deepen the field and that more women discover the utter beauty of what it means to spend so many hours on the bike. It's hard, yes-- but I wouldn't give up my miles for anything.
I did what any serious male athlete would have and it's about time the world recognized that women can be as badass as any man.