Below is a piece by Matthew Ankeny of Gear Patrol magazine published in their Issue Three and available for purchase here: http://gearpatrol.com/magazine/
It's cold. Like 35 feels like 28 cold. The park's empty. Six-thirty a.m. Women ride by on carbon-fiber bikes, jostling for position out front. Wind whistles through leafless trees. Along the course, there are no spectators; a man jogs by with his dog off-leash. On Harlem Hill, the pace picks up, two women drop off the back. No snow on the ground, no ice on the reservoir, the stoic deadness of winter locks the landscape. The riders roll past, motion blurs on the undulating west and south sides of Central Park. The peloton rejoins. Final lap. At the finish line, two officials sit alone, bundled in layers of down. Six miles pass; the group enters the last corner, where a rogue ambulance flanks the pavement to the right, bumping the peloton left, swallowing up the women in red and blue kits, slowing them down. They fight to reach the front and manage to land one in third. Helmeted heads hang. Sweat forms despite the cold. Riding back on Fifth Avenue, the mood is a mix of buoyancy and regret. Racing season is back, but no one likes to lose.
The women in red and blue ride for Velo Classic p/b Stan's NoTubes, one of the strongest elite women's cycling teams in the United States. These racers compete at the top level of domestic cycling, and the team is not accustomed to losing local circuit races. When they face the pros, sure, the podium’s a long shot. But at home, a ceremony with no one on the top step feels like a mark missed. BrittLee Bowman, team manager and owner, has pulled together 16 strong, developing riders from across the Northeast and eastern Midwest to compete from March until September in elite and pro races, and to win. These women are committed to waking up at 4:00 a.m. to train and race, to leaving work early to ride in the evenings and to skipping Friday cocktail gatherings to make sure they're well rested on the marrow-cold mornings in the park.
The team is a women's USA Cycling (USAC) Domestic Elite team — new talent striving to prove themselves (one step under a Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, pro team). In a third of the team's races this year, these elite racers face off against the UCI pros, and typically, the performance is comparable. Kristen Arnold, one of the most talented Velo Classic/Stan's riders, finished 10th at this year's Pro Road Tour Race at the Intelligentsia Cup. Another, Cecilia Davis-Hayes, finished in the top 25 at the USAC Pro Nationals Time Trial. These women aren't hopscotch racers competing in low-level circuits and crits in the boroughs. This is top tier.
Also notable: most Velo Classic/Stan's women work full time, doing everything to wring 28 hours out of every day in order to be bike racers. They buy their own bikes (with sponsor discounts), pay their own coaches and receive no salary for their cycling (just comp'd travel, hotels, race entries and gear). And, if a qualified rider does choose to make the jump to pro, the rewards aren't much more promising. Unlike men's UCI Pro Continental teams, UCI women's teams do not have a rider wage requirement (let alone a minimum), and many pros hold part-time jobs on the side. It's a lean carrot to dangle, with few conventional rewards (celebrity, money, power). Yet more than most other international sports, and definitely more than in men's road cycling — where nearly all pro racers are groomed from an early age — these mid-20s and early-30s women have a chance to become the top athletes in their sport.
That, though, is changing. More and more women are entering the sport at younger ages, rising to the elite and pro scene as groomed racers. Riders like Peta Mullens (28) and Coryn Rivera (24) and Skylar Schneider (18) are among a new breed that started young, won young, and continue to win. Which makes right now perhaps the last great, open moment in women's cycling — a perfect time before the talent pool has grown too deep, and while the rewards are still so slim that motivations can be nothing but pure. This is love of the sport, community, one's athletic self and that’s it. Because in elite, there are no robust paychecks. No international fame. No nationally televised events. No big-budget sponsorships. No racing in the Olympics. No perfect endings.
Over the course of the racing season, I followed four of the athletes on Velo Classic/Stan's. And along the way, I, as a self-respecting sideline critic, did the hard work of watching and wondering: how is it that this thankless, punishing sport is, in fact, totally and completely worth it?
In an open field in Washington, Connecticut, women circle in loops, navigating their bikes over the uneven dirt. Bottles are laid across the grass. The women swerve as they reach for the caps, grasping at them, one-handed, fingers outstretched. This is Team Camp, where Velo Classic/Stan's women follow drills to become better bicycle riders. The late-winter sun is high, the field warms, a dog fetches a tennis ball. "I like those beach chairs," a new member comments, glancing at the furniture. "Those are Adirondack chairs," a senior corrects. Jaime Soper, racing age 28, is in the mix, nervous and giddy, her five-foot-eight frame rigid as she sits on her bike, her eyes alert and eager, her smile dispensed at all times. She hopes for the best with first impressions.
Soper later told me that when she started on the team, she wound her emotions up in so tight a bundle that she literally couldn't sleep. Bowman told her that she just needed to wake up every day and continue to love riding her bike. Soper breathed. There are many levels to the team, and the rookie, still getting her racing legs under her, is one of them.
Mornings in Brooklyn's Prospect Park are a standby in Soper's routine. She rides intervals by time, she rides intervals by heart rate, she practices cornering drills, she meets other teammates and they spin together. There's an early-rising community that arrives everyday at 7:00 a.m. and does laps, and Soper knows everyone on two wheels. I met her on a midsummer morning to do her coach-prescribed workout: four-minute high-exertion intervals to "wake up the legs." As a mildly competitive roadie for the past decade, I rode alongside her for the first interval, ignoring her advice to hop on her wheel. Thirty seconds in, I dropped off. Second time, I moved to her draft right away, and was able to keep up for a stretch (drafting can save up to 30 percent of a cyclist’s energy). Then we hit a hill, and she powered up, leaving me dusted. Another weekday workout included 60-75 minutes of a "fun ride," keeping the heart rate over 150 bpm (halfway to maximum heart rate for a normal 20-to-30-year-old athlete), then 15-30 minutes of cool down. On a Thursday. Before work. Before a weekend race. Normal.
"Before cycling I did pretty much nothing," Soper told me, stretching after her morning laps. "I did normal-people things. I went to work, went to school, I was a little bit depressed, a little bit anxious and didn't really do anything else." Her boyfriend at the time rode bicycles, and he invited her to go ride. She readied herself by applying lipstick. After testing out the clipless pedals and riding on flat pavement, she was done. She asked the boyfriend to ride back to the car, solo, and to pick her up, during which time she also managed to try clipping-in again, and toppled over. "I crashed myself out doing nothing."
Her second ride, something mysterious happened. "I was genuinely terrible and I knew I was terrible and everyone else around me knew I was terrible," Soper said. "And I immediately knew I wanted to race my bike." This, she cannot explain. There is some bit about how she wanted to be more active ("I was generally trying to think about being healthier," she said). There is some bit about how she wanted to participate alongside her boyfriend. But as counterpoint to both those, there's an avalanche of evidence that she had no idea what the hell she was doing. "I had worked really hard at my career," Soper said. "But I hadn't worked that hard at anything else. And it was really intense. And I was so terrible at it." She subscribed to Bicycling magazine. She signed up for a race. "I got lapped out, obviously. I think I got second-to-last place, and it was so much fun. I was obsessed."
In 2014, Soper joined Team Rockstar, a local NYC elite team, and in 2015 she put in a full year of training and racing. She moved up from Cat 4, where all female bike racers begin in the USAC rankings, to Cat 3. She saw more success. Then, she applied to Velo Classic/Stan's, sending in her racing résumé and interviewing with Bowman. Her chops held up, and her personality fit. Bowman agreed to help further her growth. By mid-year this season, Soper qualified for a Cat 2 upgrade. When I ask her if going pro is a motivation, she conceded that "the 'what if' factor is cool." Then, she paused. "But for me, it's not."
"It's more, I don't know — it's a confidence factor," Soper added. "Cycling has made me a more capable person. Before cycling, basic tasks would sometimes be overwhelming. Or if I had a really packed day, I'd get stressed about that. There were basic life things that I would allow to stress me out or overwhelm me. With cycling, my chill factor is a lot higher. Because, what's the hardest day you can have? Probably racing twice and being really bonked and then having team duty to help with breakdown post-race. It pushes you to an entirely new level of what most people are experiencing."
Sometimes, the pushing goes to extremes. After a handful of her friends crashed at a race mid-season, Soper reflected on the risk-reward ratio. "I was like, 'Should we all just go to SoulCycle every week? They seem pretty happy and they're all going to brunch.' Instead, I'm going to the hospital." Also, there's the catch with the career. Soper has a master's degree in media studies from The New School and aspirations to run her own company. "I came to a point where I was like, 'Okay, what does this all mean to me?'" she said, reflecting on her rise to competitive elite cyclist. "I've loved cycling for a couple years, and I want to be good at it and I want to keep getting better. But I want to work on the skill-set to run a company, and I've wanted to do that my entire life." So, dear cycling, the answer is yes, but it's not an exclusive yes. "You have goals," Soper said. "But then you have competing goals."
THE RISING STAR
Ounce for ounce, head to toe, Kristen Arnold is built like a sleek five-foot-eleven bullet. She is the daughter of an army general and Green Beret (Special Forces), and she is one of the most methodically precise human beings in the world.
Arnold speaks clearly and efficiently. Re: Velo Classic/Stan's: “We are all trying to have a collective, meaningful learning experience and also function as a team.” Re: women's initiative in cycling: "There are more women’s teams that are run by women, because no one else is doing it. And there are more bike racing organizations for women, run by women — again, because no one else is doing it." Re: winning: “I’m not specifically focused on results, other than those results helping me get on a bigger team.” Re: her story: "I feel like my story is both unique and not unique.”
Arnold is one of, if not the, most talented riders on Velo Classic/Stan's. She is definitely the most promising young rider (racing age: 26). And, like Soper, she came from no athletic background. She was an activist. She didn't do sports. “I was dumpster diving and living with five people and not using heat in the winter.” A friend loaned her a bike, and she started riding with said friend and others. Her community, in Columbus, Ohio (this summer she finished her master's in nutrition from OSU and moved to Cincinnati), was into all types of riding — road, mountain, cross, whatever. The summer after graduating from college, she did what any normal young adult fleeing the realities of the world would do: she signed up for a long, responsibility-avoiding trip.
Tour Divide is not for pleasure-seekers and binge drinkers. The ride begins in Canada and navigates over 2,700 miles down the Continental Divide to the US-Mexico border. The altitude, loneliness and landscape show no mercy. Arnold started the race with her partner, and finished with the fourth-fastest women’s time (23 days). “I was a whole different person after that," she said. "I went from getting dropped on climbs any time there was a grade, to passing everybody.” It also narrowed her focus. “It taught me I don’t want to do everything.”
She transitioned out of full-time activism, spent more time riding. For her, cycling offers both the community involvement — she coaches entry-level women cyclists and also runs road-racing clinics for new and seasoned racers — and the personal satisfaction. (“If I’m making myself happy and I’m able to accomplish things that I didn’t think were possible, that will help me in the future to understand how to use my skills and knowledge to better the world and other people.”) Also: teammates.
“I think my biggest motivation is just to be a part of a really powerful team,” Arnold said. Her spot on Velo Classic/Stan's qualifies for now, but next year her sights are on a UCI team. To reach this, she focused on building her racing résumé this season, especially at the Intelligentsia Cup and the Green Mountain Stage Race, where she finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the overall standings. Those placements should land her on the radar of UCI team scouts (often the team managers), and allow her to present a compelling case to interested teams. She proved she can ride with the best of the domestic pros. “Previously, I was just winning everything," Arnold said. "Technical courses, non-technical courses, crits, road races with hills, et cetera.” She won 11 races in 2015. “I was either winning or on the podium.” But the competition wasn't top level. She joined Velo Classic/Stan's to expose herself to top racers, and also to pair herself with women, like Bowman, who can coach her in those races and ride alongside her. Although she didn't podium in the pro races this year, she placed high enough to show pro-level proficiency.
Yet the decision to pursue a UCI team — to go pro — is less triumphant than one might expect. I talked with Nicola Cranmer, general manager of UCI Pro Team Twenty16, winner of the team standings classification at the Amgen Tour of California this year (America's most prestigious stage race) and team of Olympian Kristen Armstrong. Cranmer noted of her experience managing T16: "At first it was all about bike racing, and then at some point I just felt like a hypocrite luring these young women into a sport that's not very sustainable." She encourages many women to stay on local elite teams, and tells every prospective recruit that "life after cycling is inevitable." She emphasizes a need for balance and a long-term perspective. When I proposed that some women may dream of UCI pro-ness as a fantastic culmination of years of hard work, she started laughing — literally laughing — on the phone. For pro women's teams, sponsorship dollars are hard to come by. Travel is frequent. The itinerant life on the road isn't all it's cracked up to be. Cranmer remarked, “Going pro is definitely a benchmark, but it’s not glamorous — at all.”
Arnold's aware of the situation. The motivation to continue, though, comes from the seduction of finding her own athletic limit, and she knows she can consistently reach it by competing at the next level. Characteristically, she is levelheaded about her potential. “I definitely have some natural talent," she said. "I don’t think anyone at the national level just worked really hard. Some people work really, really hard to finish races. And some people work really, really hard and they win.”
BrittLee Bowman, in an orthopedic boot and with a bandage across her neck, recounted to me, on the side porch of a home in Brewers Hill, Milwaukee, her recent woes. Weeks before, Bowman swung too wide on a corner in a criterium race, lost rubber, and met a steel guardrail with her neck, slicing open a wound the shape of an inverted Nike swoosh that put her in the hospital for a night, required a multitude of stitches in her neck, and gave her a too-close-of-a-call with death. "Blood wasn't squirting out," she told me post-crash. "But there were drops coming from my neck before I put the sweatshirt there. After that, I didn't really look down." Two weeks later, bandage squarely placed over the scar on her neck, she fell again while riding to grab coffee. Hit her ankle. Fractured her fibula. Boot on. Crutches in pits. No bicycling.
Now her neck is in the shade, her boot propped up. This is not Bowman's normal world. Bowman is five feet, three inches tall, racing age 32, with bangs and red glasses. She always maintains rapt attention; she nearly always gets what she wants. She once told me, matter-of-factly and with no hint of arrogance, that anything she puts effort into "becomes a thing." She is an industrial designer with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has experience working on both children's toys and projects for bicycle powerhouse Cannondale. She's always on her game; she doesn't miss a beat. Bowman is the anchor of Velo Classic/Stan's team. She's the fundraiser, organizer, team guru, sounding board, pusher, condoler and one of the most competitive racers. She has raced road and cyclocross for eight years, and she has grown the team alongside her own career. Yet, as we sit on the porch, sunlight flickering through the wooden trellis above, birdsong coming through the trees and a neighboring gardner's rock-and-roll soundtrack in the background, she is at a crossroads. She sits at the prime of her cycling career, yet, with current injuries, she is reconsidering it all. "Everything in the last month has been, 'Slow down, what matters?'" she said. Should she go pro and sideline the team? Should she focus exclusively on her cyclocross career? Should she continue onward and see what the future brings?
"For me, what's most important in my life isn't bike racing," she said, tears forming under her glasses. "For me, what's most important is love." She paused, settled herself, stopped the drip of liquid saline, then finished her thought. "It's relationships to people."
Bowman has historically committed herself to this ideal, as one not simply in love with competition, but one that loves competition and community. And this is a definitive characteristic of the elite cyclist. Bowman has the ability to go pro. She has the racing résumé. She has the know-how. But, she has instead committed herself to fostering the racing careers of other women, alongside (and often before) her own achievements. "I'm not someone who has gone to a full extreme," she said. "There's so much more that I could do." There's better sleep habits. Better diet habits. Better training methods. Less work. Less socializing. Less emailing. "Part of not giving the full commitment to bike racing is that I run the team," she added. "That's probably the biggest factor. Because I've never thought of myself as a project. In the last month, I just had the realization that you can be your own project. And I didn't even add it up in my head like that before."
Not to discount Bowman's personal project. After eight years of racing, she now dominates much of the New York circuit and is competitive in national events, among both pros and elites. She still holds great promise, in road and in her career as a pro racer for The Richard Sachs Cyclocross Team. For now, she is choosing to approach the cycling game holistically, making it one part among many. But that doesn’t mean reaching her athletic peak isn't possible in the long term.
"I might become National Champion at thirty-nine," Bowman noted over coffee and pancakes at Milwaukee's Comet Cafe, during the Dairyland Crits. "Age isn't stopping me." For now, the boot and the scar across the neck aren't helping. First things first, she needs the leg healed and to regain confidence on the bike. She'll prepare for cyclocross season in the fall, then train through the winter for the start of the road season in the spring. And, for right now, she'll start with the little things. Walking out of a Milwaukee Pick ‘n Save, hobbling on her crutches with a bag of healing vitamins under her arm, Bowman looked down at her boot. "I need a pedicure."
At five feet, zero inches small, every inch of Jen Nordhem's frame is charged. During Team Camp, where she was recovering from a back injury, she spent most of the day near the only other spectator, me. She talked the whole time. She gave driving tips. She offered article advice. She Instagrammed. She is racing age 32, and she's the spark-plug veteran on the team. "I'm just here for weight loss for my wedding," she joked at the Dairyland Crits. Funny, yes, but not entirely untrue. At this point in her career, Nordhem is as invested in mentoring the young talent as she is focused on her own racing. "I'm really happy to support others who are craving more, and make them stronger through our cumulative strength," she said.
Nordhem grew up in Chicago, where she attended college and bike messengered (with one season, at age 20, as a snowboard bum in Colorado). She met Bowman at the 2007 North American Cycle Courier Championships in Chicago. When she moved to NYC to pursue a career in marketing, she joined the Velo Classic/Stan's team. She's now the Marketing Manager for Rapha, a British cycling apparel brand, and late this past summer, she married her longtime boyfriend, Will George, who works at Cannondale. "I'm at an age where I really need to start taking my career more seriously," she said. "Like my real career, that pays my bills."
Every athlete deals with the balance between "personal life" and "becoming your best personal athlete." In a perfect world, the two align; your personal life complements your athletic life and vice versa. But, the higher one goes in competition, the more the balance shifts toward personal athlete; and the older one gets, the more the balance shifts toward the personal life. When one side makes a demand — for athletics: workouts, diet, recovery, sleep, reduction of stress; for personal: love life, work, time with family, attending major events — the athlete has to choose where to compromise. Answering emails or going to sleep? An extra drink or the early morning ride? A friend's wedding or a day of training? Each of these racers calculates this equation every day. For Nordhem, the pendulum now frequently swings away from "personal athlete," but cycling's far from letting her go completely.
"Cycling keeps finding me. It's seriously a sport that I've tried to get away from more than once, but it keeps sucking me back in," she said. And that has been for the good. It's kept her out of trouble, it's kept her focused, it's kept her on her game. For her, conventional, canonical athletics never fit the bill. "I didn't find team sports like soccer and basketball. I participated in them, but I was terrible and it decreased my confidence and made me feel like shit." It was in the less-than-mainstream scene — snowboarding, skating, cycling — where she found athletic focus and community. Part of this stems from the solo rewards of those sports. "So many of the triumphs and challenges are inside yourself. So it's a very good empowerment tool, because you're able to define your own goals and achieve them on your own timeline."
She’s carried this insight with her for the past decade, and she's trying to impart that knowledge to the next round of talent. This fall, Nordhem started her own cyclocross team along with a few friends, and she continues as a veteran rider and chatty muse for Velo Classic/Stan's. She takes this role seriously, as the stakes — helping find identity, building confidence, fostering community, pursuing athletic excellence — are high. Behind the smile, the jokes, the bright eyes, Nordhem's aiming her constructive criticism to elevate the women around her. And though she may have reached her own cycling ceiling, for the rest of the women she has one focus: "to show them just how high that ceiling is."
In a perfect world, sports fans become ravenously interested in women's cycling, causing sponsors to spend more, leading to greater team budgets, allowing team riders to receive greater financial support and spend more time focused on riding. It'd help rationalize the time, stress, suffering, sacrifice and pain. It’d give more women the opportunity to race exclusively. It'd allow for new bikes, better travel accommodations, more extensive coaching and maybe even provide a hint of savings in the bank. It'd earn this sport, made up of women doing things for women, a greater degree of respect for the sweaty, protracted hours they pour into it. So, sure, they'd take it. But none of these women is holding her breath. And, even if this fantasy did come true, what would likely happen is they would pour that newfound financial gain into bringing more women into the sport, instilling in the next generation the same spirit that has so deeply satisfied them for years. “As long as I’m doing this and presenting opportunities for women, I’ll keep doing it," Cranmer told me. "If I stopped my team tomorrow, that’s thirty athletes that wouldn’t have the opportunity."
Bowman feels the same way. It's what has kept her vigilant all these years, trailblazing opportunities for both herself and her friends, creating one of the greatest incubators not for only sport, but for confidence, opportunity, challenge, purpose and community. "You definitely wonder, ‘Is it worth it?’" Bowman, broken leg perched on a chair, pondered. "But of course it's worth it. Otherwise, what else would I have done with the last eight years of my life?"