Attempting to summarize my experiences racing in Europe over the last couple of months is a pretty daunting task. In a way, it felt like a season’s worth of lessons and experience gained in just a month and a half of racing, and I can say that I’m a different, better, and more confident bike racer for it. I know that I’m lucky in being able to say that – racing in Europe for the first time is not easy, nor is it everyone’s favorite part of the year. My two trips there this year had quite a progression in the physical, technical, and emotional challenges that I took on. Nervousness to confidence, excitement to turmoil, and from feeling strong to just barely running on fumes. Getting both my legs and my mind to cooperate was extremely difficult, but proved not impossible.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that there are a few different ways to approach your “firsts” in bike racing. The biggest lesson: it’s risky to focus on them to begin with. Something being your first time can become an excuse for not giving your best effort. There have been times when I’ve caught myself thinking “well, this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, it’s okay if I just sit back here and let whatever happens, happen.” There is a time and place for that mentality, especially if you’re coming back from an injury or other setbacks. However, there’s a danger if that mindset becomes a habit – you may never see the pointy end of a bike race, and most importantly, it doesn’t help your team. There comes a point when firsts don’t really matter anymore. I’ve learned that no matter what, whether it’s your first bike race or 10,000th, there is always something to learn or improve on when you put yourself in the driver’s seat and get out of your comfort zone.
Racing outside of North America for the first time was a big step, and a really big test for me – definitely outside my comfort zone. Talking to anyone about the upcoming trip came with versions of the same response – “it’s rough and tough out there”, “be prepared to get your teeth kicked in”, “it’s ‘real bike racing”, “the roads are half the size”, “there are roundabouts and road medians for days”, “the cobbles are legit”, and “the Europeans will smack you.”
All of those things are true.
Mentally preparing for the trip was a big part of the challenge. After all, I was a bit of a gamble. The same people would say “you’ll be fine” or “you might feel out-gassed,” and I had to decide for myself how I would approach the challenge. So, I decided to treat it as if I were relearning how to bike race. I’d prepare myself in the best way, control what I could control up to the start line, but during the race, I’d need to be willing to adapt on the fly and throw out any expectations of how I thought the next few hours should go. It reminded me of another memorable first that I checked off just over a year ago.
The Redlands Bicycle Classic in 2017 was my first stage race and my first time racing in an American pro field. Wearing the colors of the Amy D Foundation, riders that I had only read about and looked up to from afar became my competitors. I was in awe of people like Kirsti Lay, Amber Neben, Ruth Winder, Katie Hall… women I never imagined being in the same race with, let alone on the same team a year later. To keep myself from getting overwhelmed by that, I had to leave my expectations of myself at the door and objectively focus on each day at a time. The racing was faster and harder than I’d ever experienced, and it took all my mental strength to stay focused every second. As a result, I learned how to be adaptable, to trust my instinct, and fight hard as hell. Europe was the best place to put those lessons to the test- in addition to withholding my total Euro bike racer fan-girling.
That didn’t last too long.
I could barely hold my shit together when Sanne Cant, the women’s Cyclocross World Champion, lined up behind me for the BeNe Ladies Tour prologue. And when I held Marianne Vos’ wheel through several cobble sectors on an epic Stage 1, I nearly peed in my chamois. But then “HEIDI MOVE UP” went through my head and that was the end of the fan-girling. If I wasn’t moving up, I was going backward, and I needed every second of focus I had to get through the day. One lapse could mean my wheel succumbing to the infamous Belgian “death crack”, or accidentally steering off course into a cornfield, or someone’s cow pasture.
Those were just a few important things to keep your ears open for.
At each finish, my mind was sore as if I’d just taken a five-hour SAT test. But I didn’t want to take a backseat to the racing. Personally, I knew that if I could engage in the racing here in Belgium, I could do it elsewhere. And as for the team, we needed to prove that we belonged in this field. No one was going to take a backseat if they could help it.
We had proven at the BeNe Ladies Tour in July that as a team, we were ready to show up and be competitive. Then in London, at the Women’s World Tour RideLondon Classique, we put that on display to another 20,000 people in front of Queen Elizabeth’s house. It was alright I guess, just a little bit loud. In the last kilometer of the race, a slap on my leg from winner Kirsten Wild confirmed that we’d made an impression as I brought Emma up to the tail of the Wiggle-High5 leadout train. I knew for myself that I wasn’t brought to Europe just to get shelled by the big girls at first sight. A test in the throws of Belgium and another with the world’s best in London, and I had relearned to race my bike. I had the tools to adapt, focus, and be present in the European field, and I really couldn’t wait to go back.
Well, to my surprise I got to go back, all of about three weeks later. If I hadn’t gotten out of my comfort zone enough with the first trip, this second trip would make sure of that and then some. When you get used to racing at a consistent level of difficulty, you can learn how to cope with small mistakes or moments of weakness without compromising a whole week’s worth of racing. In North America, you can be just “ok” at getting bottles from the car without too many consequences. The roads are wider, so weaving your way back up the 10-car-deep caravan to feed your teammates isn’t such a daunting task. But when you step up to that bigger stage, the cracks that are your insecurities or weaknesses become more visible and harder to fill in. Fetching those bottles might be the most important thing you do in the race that day, and if you can’t do it successfully, even the chance of a team result can disappear.
I knew that at the Boels Ladies Tour and Tour de l’Ardeche, I’d be pushed physically beyond my limit and cracks were going to show, gaps in fitness that I wasn’t going to be able to fill. If fetching bottles from the team car was the most important thing I could do all week, then so be it. Let’s just say that I got a lot of practice fetching bottles at those races. But getting to do that when I’m wearing the colors of the US National Team is a pretty cool thing, even when it’s stage five of a WorldTour stage race in Holland and I’ve chased my way back to the peloton four times already. I’d never suffered on a bike so much before (definitely jinxed myself there) and yet, I’d look down at the jersey I was wearing and keep going.
Over there, there were no crits to break up the chain of 80+ mile days we’d had in a row, and my mind always had to be turned on. Always alert, always focused- except for those couple hours on stage 3 when the peloton was happy to let one rider stay five minutes up the road. We were going so slow that even Annemiek Van Vleuten, leading the race, stopped behind the peloton for a pee break. That was a nice and welcomed exception, but it was short lived – the last 18 miles of the same stage wouldn’t come close to the speed of any crit I’d ever raced in my life. Annemiek even said to one of her teammates, “I’m scared, move me up.”
After spending a few great weeks with the U.S. national team, I was back in Rally Cycling orange to put together everything I’d learned over the season into one last race, the Tour de l’Ardèche. It really deserves its own separate race report but I’ll try to give it justice here. In short: to cope with my outstandingly high fatigue level, the brutality of climbing as high as Mt. Rainier over 2.5 times, I ate my body weight in cheese, baguettes, mint tabbouleh, salami slices, and French pastries for six days. A couple of whole pizzas, a very special praline brioche, and frites got lost in there too. In proper form, it was a race of incredible highs and absolute lowest of lows.
One of my proudest days on the bike was followed up with one of the most brutal. While wearing my first UCI classification leader’s jersey (QOM) in a bike race, I nearly stopped pedaling on the side of a hill to cry and think about what I was doing there. The previous two hours had felt like a whole week, and I still had two more hours to go. I had literally and figuratively run out of gears, and it was only day two. When I crossed the finish line next to my teammate, I was cracked open and terrified of the four days ahead. Meanwhile, my teammate Sara Poidevin (aka Robot T-1000) was having the most impressive race of her season, and she would need absolutely every bullet that the remaining four of us had left to help her.
To stay in the game I had to be really careful to use my energy in a moment when it was most needed, otherwise, I’d disappear fast. Sure enough, I made it through the next day and the next. I was never not on the brink of total self-destruction, but I had learned when to use my one or two bullets every day, and when to let the race go up the road. Then, I could take a second to look around at where I was, and remember how lucky I was to be there, eating glorious French goat cheese and staring at castle ruins with 170 other bike racers.
All year, with each race I started, I did something for the first time. Had I been without my mentors, coach, family, partner, team, and community, I wouldn’t have had the strength to welcome the discomfort of learning. This year was not about my results as an individual but about how I learned to handle pressure, find and push limits, and stand up for myself too. It’s not going to get easier (you just get faster, right?), but at least I can breathe knowing I don’t have to prove myself capable of a challenge.
Thanks for reading, it’s been an incredible year. Here’s to an even better one in 2019!