It's just past midnight, and the women of Colavita/espnW Pro Cycling are loading into the team van at the airport. I'm pretty sure we're in Minneapolis. It's hard to tell.
May and June have been so packed with races that we haven't had a moment to catch our breath. From Silver City, N.M., to Gatineau, Quebec, to Boise, Idaho, to Philadelphia to Minneapolis, we've been on the road racing our bikes and living the dream of being professional cyclists. It's a dream filled with red-eye flights, sleeping in the homes of strangers, road rash and portable toilets, but a worthy dream nonetheless.
Hidden between the obstacles of travel and life on the road, there's a greatness to our sport that keeps us focused on the upside of our dream: living life in the moment, meeting incredible athletes, seeing the world and pushing our bodies beyond what we ever imagined our thigh muscles were capable of achieving.
Cycling at the professional level is a fascinating existence, one that not a lot of sports fans have had the opportunity to witness. It's one thing to watch a local race, but quite another to go behind the scenes of what it's really like to be on a women's cycling team.
A few insights to questions most cyclists are asked about the dynamics of our sport:
Do teams/teammates live and train in the same place?
Usually, no. Cycling is very different from team sports like soccer and basketball, where an entire team is based around a central practice facility. While amateur and club cycling teams usually comprise local athletes, pro teams often have athletes from around the world. Colavita, for example, has four Canadians, two Americans and one strange lady (me) from St. Kitts & Nevis. None of us live in the same city, so we train separately and often only see each other at the races or on Facebook.
If you don't live or train together, how do you function together as a team on race day?
Team chemistry is very important -- the teams who have it are successful, the teams who don't often struggle. Cycling, like any sport, is comprised of a variety of personalities. We've got alphas, Type-A personalities, servant-oriented domestiques, quiet powerhouses, as well as rookies and veterans, each with something to prove. Despite the individual personas and private goals, the ultimate goal for any team is to get at least one rider onto the podium.
A cyclist understands when they sign a pro contract that they'll have a specific job. So when we get to the start line of a race, even if we don't train together, we know which rider we need to protect and serve, and that's what we try to do.
At the Tour of the Gila (N.M.) in May, our teammate, Jasmin Glaesser, had taken the best young rider's jersey and it was our job to help keep her protected from the many women who coveted the special white T. When Jasmin missed a key break, the rest of the Colavita riders went up to the front of the peloton and drilled the pace as hard as we could to bring back the woman who challenged Jasmin's jersey. After that effort, most of us blew up -- cycling speak for exhaustion so deep we were not able to hang into the peloton, and our day is pretty much done. But man, that's fun!
Helping a teammate go for the win is exhilarating, whether they achieve the final victory or not. When you like a teammate personally, it's all the more rewarding. And we all like Jazzy, who is, at this very moment, awaiting the news of her potential selection to the Canadian Olympic team.
Do egos get in the way of team dynamics?
Sometimes they do. It isn't easy when, for example, you have a personal goal of being the best rider in your country but then you have multiple teammates for whom you must work and sacrifice your own goals -- especially in an Olympic year! No team is without moments of tension and disparity. The best squads will address and work through such issues, while the weaker ones will implode from unreleased frustrations and clashing personalities.
I've been fortunate to be surrounded by strong, considerate women on Colavita. We have many selfless riders who put their personal goals second to the team's needs. At the same time, we're tough and assertive. It is our job to be professional. But there also is a fair bit of giggling. I have a really awesome pair of yoga pants no one on the team thinks is very attractive, so they laugh at me regularly. But, as laughing at me promotes team bonding, I consider it my job to wear these pants often. Quite frankly, I excel at my career.
What is the dynamic like between teams? Are women mean, supportive, indifferent, friendly?
Ah, the dynamic of 200 alpha women riding within three inches of one another for weeklong stage races. On race day, everyone brings their game face. Friendly takes a back seat to focus, though it is typical that riders who know each other will say hello and chat during less intense moments of the race.
Rarely are people outright mean, though it is always fascinating to hear the adrenaline-induced comments that arise in conjunction with bad bike-handling skills and unnecessary sudden movements. Some of these athletes definitely have the vocabulary of sailors, or perhaps hidden talents as creative writers. Yet there are encouraging words found within the peloton as well, and it is not uncommon to hear riders from opposing teams offer kind words to one another.
With our team being a new squad with some young riders, many competitors have expressed nice sentiments about how it's good to see the Colavita name back in cycling and how having more women's pro teams is good for everyone in the sport. Sure, they want to kick our butts while racing, but in the big picture of the progression of women's cycling, teams know we need to support one another. It's good sportsmanship. Plus, no one wants enemies when traveling at 30-plus mph.
Is it scary to ride in a peloton, with all those people so close together? How do teams do it?
Riding in a peloton is not scary. Crashing in a peloton is downright terrifying. Pileups and airborne riders are not the highlight of our sport, and no rider likes to talk about crashing. While pelotons seem very congested and too close for comfort, experienced cyclists have minimal personal space boundaries and feel very comfortable in close quarters. Teams do their best to avert disaster by positioning their riders either close to the front or behind riders with good reputations as safe bike handlers. Sometimes, teammates will give their own bike to a teammate who has had a mishap or mechanical problem -- the ultimate race sacrifice.
At the Gatineau road race three weeks ago, Colavita rider Joanie Caron went down pretty hard in a tangle-up toward the finish and left a fair bit of skin on the roads of Canada. True to her hard-core personality, Joanie continued on for the next three weeks of continuous racing with the team despite the pain and fatigue caused by her injury. The women in cycling are pretty darn tough, and there is a lot of respect in our peloton, even if there isn't a whole lot of elbow room.
What's the best part about being on a team?
Every rider will answer this one differently, but for many of us, there's something special about the bonding experience that comes with cycling. This sport is so physically demanding and mentally challenging that there are times (when it's sleeting, picking gravel out of skin, etc.) when we're pushed to the brink of quitting and question why we do it. Then we look around and see six to eight women dressed in the same outfit, and we remember we're not alone in our insanity.
To lean on our teammates in tough times and celebrate with them during victories goes to the heart of being on any team in any sport. Personally, after all the years I put into cycling alone or on nonsupported teams, I take great pleasure in the small things. Not having to think about whether I'll run out of water is a huge bonus. As is the "simple" task of driving to or from a race -- the directors do that for us. I'm constantly amazed at my good fortune to be on a team with six competitive women who I truly enjoy being around. These are the small things that make all the difference in cycling. So far, the only bad thing I can find is that our season is half over. This whole "living the dream" thing goes by way too fast.
Up next: The team will race Tour of Elk Grove on Aug 2-5. Come out and cheer!