The Cascades Cycling Classic, held in Bend, Oregon, from July 15 to July 20, is the longest running stage race in North America. The pro men and women race six stages over six days, the courses ranging in venue from neighborhood streets to thickly forested highways that skirt clear mountain lakes and the snow-capped Mt. Bachelor.
I would have the opportunity to guest ride for FCS Cycling at the race. For my husband, Jack, and I, the experience would be an adventure, an almost-vacation. My mother (a saint) was able to keep our 13-month-old son for two weeks, so we were turning it into a road trip of sorts—three and a half days of driving from Austin to Bend, six days of racing, and another five days of seeing the sights via the California coast on the return.
I take cycling very seriously, maybe too seriously, but it’s not my career. At Cascades, I found myself playing the role of naïve tourist among-battle-hardened warriors for whom racing—at the highest level in the U.S.—is a lifestyle. These women are tough as nails, racing their hearts out from about mid-February to the beginning of September. They squeeze their bikes into impossibly small gaps and fly through corners. They get back in the saddle within seconds of bloody crashes. They change clothes in crowded parking lots and blow snot rockets as casually as they put up their hair. They both inspire and intimidate me.
Back home I was an experienced rider. In small Texas fields, bad positioning and timidness had been a nominal handicap, and my lopsided development, which leaned heavily toward speed rather than skill, had been easy to ignore. Here, in a field of 84 riders as fast or much faster than me, I was a novice trailing behind the pack like a lost dog. Of course, sometimes even the most unlikely of dogs can have its day. The proof: in the last stage, I would have mine.
Guest riding for FCS was an honor. The time I spent with the team revealed a unique kind of family, one that enjoyed spending time together and celebrated each rider’s contributions.
Amber Neben, former world time trial champion and U.S. national road race champion, was our GC leader. In spite of breaking her hip at the 2013 Tour of California time trial (video) and then fracturing it again in a crash at the Joe Martin Stage Race in April, Amber was racing strong. The other riders and guest riders on the team, which included Jess Cutler, Anna Sanders, Mia Loquai, Olivia Dillon, Anna Grace Christiansen, and Mandy Heintz, were accomplished and experienced. Mandy, a fellow Texan and my nemesis at all the early local races, I knew well; technically, she’d been involved in the sport about the same number of years as me, but she’d spent 2014 racing the pro circuit. I was light years behind them all in terms of knowledge and ability, and was grateful for their patience and kindness. My teammates’ gruff orders during the races—“Kat, move up. Kat, follow me. Kat, GO.”—are the only reason the week was a success for me.
My experience at Cascades was a reminder of the depth of talent and personality in the women’s pro field. No two riders are remotely the same. Ages and backgrounds vary widely. My teammates were at times serious, silly, raunchy, sarcastic, and hilarious. In the race, they were selfless. Race results often don’t reflect the events during the race, the breakaway attempts and leadouts and domestique duty, and thus the GC leaderboard is often no indication of the caliber of a team’s individual riders. In a stage race, most of the team is engaged in active, no-holds-barred sacrifice for a particular teammate. For us, the goals were the GC lead and the sprinter’s jersey.
Prologue, Short & Sweet
|Lasers and Levels|
Jack’s laser level and obsessive measuring paid off, as my old Cervelo P2 passed pre-race UCI inspection without a hitch. The officials weren't checking weight or saddle tilt, but they were cracking down on extension length and the horizontal distance of the saddle from the bottom bracket. Depending on the race, officials, current UCI rules, and even measuring equipment, a bike can pass one race inspection and not another. Some riders were making last-minute adjustments right before their start.
About a month before the race, Jack had swapped out my HED aero bars for take-off P5 bars. Friends dubbed the result “Frankenbike.” Other than a new Cobb JOF saddle and the Zipp 808 clincher ATC had loaned to us, the setup was the same as it was for the State TT, and I felt very comfortable.
The prologue was 2.5 miles through neighborhood streets in Tetherow. I played it over in my mind a thousand times: fast downhill through a sweeping turn, another curvy near-flat section, a sharp left turn that I was worried about, another straight section, a roundabout taken backward as a smooth-ish left turn, and a set of ominous rollers to the finish, the line on a slight downhill. I botched the left turn and probably paced the beginning a little too hard, but I was happy with the effort, finishing with a time of 5 minutes 10 seconds in 10th place. Texan Lauren Stephens (Tibco) set the fast time of the day, 4 minutes 53 seconds, which would have bested almost half the men’s pro field.
Stage 1 Road Race, In the Mountains
The original course, a new-for-2014 route through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, had to be changed because of wildfires that started during a storm Sunday night. For most of the week, the air would remain hazy with smoke. (Props to the race organizers for managing to change the course on such short notice.) Wednesday’s course was now the loop around Cascades Lakes that we would also race on Friday, except we’d run it the opposite direction and start from Wanoga Sno Park. The 54 miles consisted for the most part of easy descents and flats, with one brutal climb that started around 10 miles from the finish. The scenery—what little I managed to see of it in the midst of racing—was beautiful; the race passed through thick stands of national forest and alongside three mountain lakes. The finish, at Bachelor Ski Resort, sat at 6,400 feet.
My FCS teammates did amazing work. Jack rode in the team car and was writing it all down. Jess was away solo for 11 miles just after the first feed zone, taking sprint points to earn the green jersey. Sprinting from the field, Olivia scored a point too in third. Anna Grace and Mia went back to the team car for bottles. Anna Sanders, Mandy, and I were supposed to sit in and wait for the final climb, where we'd get more specific orders from Amber. My one real contribution to the team during this stage, however, was helping Amber rejoin the group after an early pee stop.
My nose started bleeding as we crested one of the small hills around 24 miles or so, and I was wondering what effect the final climb at altitude was going to have on my power. When the time came, Anna Grace spotted me and urged me forward, patting her hip to tell me to get on her wheel. She moved me up close enough to follow the action in the final climb, but when the selection went, I wasn't able to deliver. Whether the result of altitude, lack of fitness, or lack of willpower, I was soon off the back of the front group feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.
After a few moments of going at my own pace, I was able to recover and ramp it back up. I clawed my way back to a few stragglers who’d fallen off, finishing 19th in the stage. I was now 18th in GC. Amber had bridged up to a solo attack from the front group by Lauren Stephens; Lauren took the win, and Amber finished second in the stage, now 19 seconds down in GC.
Stage 2 TT, Frankenbike Rides Again
The out-and-back 20K TT was in Prineville, about an hour away from Bend. It looked flat compared to the other stages, but the course was rolling in places, with a tailwind on the way out and stiff headwind on the return. Again, I paced it a little too hard on the way out and faded significantly about three-quarters of the way in. Knowing who was behind me, I was happy that I didn't get passed, though Allison Tetrick (Team Twenty 16) seemed to come across the line just behind me; she placed second in the stage at 35 minutes flat. Lauren won the stage with a time of 34 minutes 51 seconds. My teammates Amber (35:38), Olivia (35:59), and Jess (36:06) placed in the top ten. My time was 36:21, 12th in the stage, and I moved up to 12th in GC.
Stage 3 Road Race, Blowing Up
My special purpose in this 73-mile stage was to get in an early break, starting it if necessary. The course profile had a big, long hump for 15 miles or so in the beginning, followed by a long section of flats and gentle descents, and another monster 10-mile climb at the end that, like Wednesday, ended at Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. The team needed to make sure everything before that final climb stayed hard in an effort to isolate Lauren and help Amber get time back in GC.
As we started the first climb and a few unsuccessful attacks were made by other teams, my teammates scolded me to move up. I attacked from somewhere around the front third of the pack, going as hard as I could from the middle of the hill to its crest. I’d been successful, with three riders tucked in behind me—Katie Donovan from Team Twenty 16, Alizee Brien from Tibco, and a rider from DNA Cycling (Mindy McCutcheon?). I’d been so intent on getting the break started, however, that I neglected to conserve enough to stay in it. The talent of the women in the break was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. When we started rotating, I took my pulls, breathing like a horse, until I started to feel myself slip. I didn’t make it for long.
When I succumbed completely, we had a minute and a half on the field. I was gapped off in no man’s land, and I tried to make up the distance, but it was quickly growing. From the team car, team director Scott Warren told me to just rest and rejoin the field. The team car went back to the peloton, and soon after I saw a Vanderkitten rider, Liza Rachetto, bridging. I fell in behind her, unsure of what to do, but I decided why not? Maybe it would still help the team if I was up the road. Again, the most I could do was hang on. At one point, we were two minutes behind the break and two minutes in front of the field. I was falling to pieces.
Finally, the group was about to catch, and I had fresh instructions from Scott to back off. I came into the feed zone, able to grab a bottle from Jack just before the field caught me. I found out later that I did get a single point in the climbers’ competition for going through the QOM point fifth, which I found amusing.
I did some water bottle duty after that, a first for me and very stressful. A domestique's job takes a surprising amount of effort and finesse. First, you have to drift back to the team car to get the bottles. Then, you have to take the bottles from the moving car and somehow stuff them in your jersey. Then you have to surge hard to get back onto the field, and from there weave around the pack delivering the bottles to the team and take their empties. I was miserable at it, taking an inordinately long time to reach my teammates. I was terrified that the bottles would fall out of my jersey or I’d still have them for the final climb. When I went back to the team car to toss them in, most were half-empties I’d taken from my teammates, but I did return at least one completely full bottle...
At one point during the race a rider swerved off the road and then made it safely back onto the pavement, but someone in the middle of the pack crashed as a result. I managed to go around the downed rider without any mishaps, but two of my teammates got caught up in it, getting back on their bikes so quickly that I didn't know they’d stopped until much later.
The break that had dropped me stayed away most of the day, the remnants caught by the peloton going into the last climb. By that point in the race, I was mostly recovered. I was told to move up and see what Amber wanted me to do. I tried, but I never quite made it to her at the front of the pack. When the pace picked up, I was again in a position to follow, but as riders came off one by one, I was gapped behind them and didn't have the gas to regain. Anna Sanders and Amber had both made the selection.
As on Wednesday, after easing off a little I was able to push the pace again, but I was completely on my own time-trialing it, watching the front group of 24 riders in the distance. The bottom of my right foot began to feel simultaneously burning hot and numb, and my knees were killing me. The men’s team cars and vans were coming back from the mountain after their earlier finish, and many cheered me and the other stragglers on. I finished 25th in the stage, almost 2 minutes behind the front group, and moved to 25th in GC. Amber was 10th in the stage, now 11 seconds down in GC. Tibco rider Krista Doebel-Hickok won the stage. It was a long, long day.
Stage 4 Criterium, Survival
I woke up in the morning feeling awful, mentally and physically. I bailed about 10 minutes into the morning team ride. Later that day, after eating half of a very large pizza I felt better.
My teammates were superstars in the crit, which started at 5:45 p.m. in downtown Bend with a big crowd of spectators. We were working for the sprinter’s jersey for Olivia, with Anna Grace, Jess, Mandy, and Mia leading her out and attacking. Amber and Anna Sanders were sitting in to conserve for the climbs the next day. Jack’s Twitter updates from the sidelines give a play by play of the dominant role FCS played in the race:
Click For The Live Twitter Play by Play
- Race start. GT 40 pace car.
- We are racing! Clean start the women are away
- The race is 50 minutes in downtown Bend OR
- All strung out pic.twitter.com/camptvmLwp
- A little move by anna grace reeled in by tibco who are all over the front of the race now.
- Breakaway! 3 riders with a small gap tibco chasing.
- All back together. Riders starting to pop off the pack from the pace.
- Tibco with 5 riders up front setting a fast pace. More women off the back now.
- Anna grace storming to the front. Kat Hunter looking comfy at the back.
- Mia and mandy and olivia at the front to set olivia up @FCSCyclingTeam
- Olivia got the prime i think
- Kat hunter in danger of losing the field. Will have to bridge around riders creating gaps. pic.twitter.com/GKIVi6xzfw
- Riders too fast for my potato camera
- Jessica Cutler of @FCSCyclingTeam attacks around the hoarde of tibco riders. Kat safely back in the field.
- Cutler away solo tibco chasing. @FCSCyclingTeam poised to counterattack pic.twitter.com/RE3nZ1KJBh
- Cutler still away
- Cutler caught. A line of six tibco riders up front stringing the race out
- Anna grace attacking on Olivia's command. GO!
- A dna racing rider off the front solo
- Vander kitten now away solo
- Vander Kitten away tibco chasing.
- Mia leading out olivia!
- Dont think she got that one
- Kat bridging up to secure her last place among the pack position
- Anna grace and mandy heintz rolling to the front
- Mandy Heintz attacks @FCSCyclingTeam pic.twitter.com/trdmkJroGG
- It is a good thing fcs is so active because i know their names. :)
- Mandy back in the fold. Kat actually moving up a little. Anna grace near the front. Tibco still the pace setting force.
- Anna grace and mia moving up for olivia
- Strooong attack by an unattached rider.
- Cornered fast to get that gap
- Rider 415 still away tibco closing fast pic.twitter.com/bP2ThiHpsG
- Tibco 318 wins the stage. All the @FCSCyclingTeam girls finish safely in the field.
- We think Olivia Dillon took the green jersey
- Olivia Dillon in green @FCSCyclingTeam
- Olivia 2pts shy of green.
- Mia got third on the stage! @FCSCyclingTeam
|Lauren Stephens and Tibco control the front.|
Joanne Kiesanowski (Tibco) won the stage. Mia, after doing leadouts the whole race, was still able to take third place in the field sprint at the finish. In the end, we were only two points off the sprinter’s jersey for Olivia. My teammates had also won a large number of primes. After the race, the rest of the team was smiling and talking fast, electric with a post-race high. Though I was happy just to have survived the stage, I found myself wishing I’d been able to play more of a part in it.
Stage 5 Road Race, Moment in the Sun
Going in, I don’t think there were any real expectations for me in the final stage, the 51-mile Awbrey Butte Circuit Race. I was just supposed to get in some early moves if I was there (I was not). With the turns and fast descents, it felt like another crit, just longer and much harder. I was holding on for all that I was worth at the back for most of the race.
I felt very guilty. The team had taken a chance on me, giving a bumbling amateur the opportunity to ride with a pro team, and I was being utterly useless, was maybe even embarrassing them. From the gun, they were up there fighting to get Olivia in the green jersey, some of them holding a break off for something like 15 miles. At another crucial point, Olivia and Mandy got in a break with two other riders to collect the sprint points.
In almost every way, I was unprepared for this race. I’d seen the finish line from the parking lot above, but I hadn't ridden it and didn't know what the final turn looked like. In my warm-up, I remember the interior monologue in which I'd told myself there was no way I was coming to the line without lots of company; by that point in the week, my bravado had been firmly tamped down. I’d also thought the race was four laps and not three—I heard the bell and saw the lap card for one to go, and somewhere around 10K to the finish I finally rode up beside Mandy and asked whether it was a mistake. When I found out we really were approaching the end, I began to panic. This was my last chance to do something, anything. I didn't want to end the week with apologies and excuses. I tried moving up a few wheels. Olivia saw me and told me to get to the front. I made it halfway there, and riding next to Jess, I tried asking, breathless, what I could do. She said, “GO.” Her tone of immediacy and frustration, coupled with my anxiety, made me forget that seconds earlier I was wondering if I was going to get dropped on the next hill. I launched myself out and away from the pack.
I went hard for a few seconds and looked back; no one was with me, and the gap between me and the group of Tibco riders at the front of the peloton was growing. There were two riders up the road, at what seemed like a long distance—Allison Tetrick of Team Twenty 16 and Karol-Ann Canuel of Team Ice Sportswear. It was 4.8 miles to the finish.
|Sprint to the line|
I could tell that I was gaining on the two-woman break, which was further encouragement. I caught them just before the right turn onto the Archie Briggs hills, and at first I hung back. They hadn't been rotating since I’d been close enough to pay attention; Tetrick was on Canuel’s wheel. But Canuel also seemed to be slowing, and though I was thinking to myself I might be making a terrible mistake, I just kept the momentum going and went around, charging up the hill with Canuel glued to my wheel and Tetrick falling off.
The pack was closing soon after. The moto official gave us time gaps—at one point it was only 10 or 15 seconds, and I looked back to find the peloton breathing down our necks. Mentally, I accepted the fact that we were going to get caught. If I’d been riding solo, I would have eased up and let it happen. As it was, I reminded myself that, in theory, I was finally able to do something for my team, so I needed to follow through with it and make the chase as long as possible; it wouldn't hurt anything, beyond my pride, if the pack blew past me and I had nothing left to follow them with. I dug deep on the next rise. Similarly, as the effort dragged on, I decided Canuel being on my wheel didn't change the fact that I needed to push the pace for as long as I could.
Eventually, I looked back and the distance to the peloton was growing again. I was in a new kind of agony by the time I realized we could actually carry it to the end. Until then, I’d never truly believed that the outcome could be anything other than us getting caught. A couple of things were working in my favor: Lauren had plenty of time on us in GC, and we weren’t a threat to the yellow jersey. Though Tibco would still want the stage win, they had been working to control the race all day and all week, and they were tired. Julie Emmerman, third in GC, did put in an effort to protect her position—Canuel was fourth in GC—but her objective was probably to limit the time gap, not to catch us. It also couldn't have hurt that most of the peloton didn't know me from Adam.
As we took the left turn into the finish, I slowed, and Canuel came around me to the inside. It was a steep, long sprint, about one minute. I stayed on Canuel's wheel up the hill until I felt her start to ease off, I think somewhere around 200 meters to go. At the time, I wasn't sure if she was on my wheel (she was), but I didn't look back. I sprinted as hard as I ever had, telling myself that it might be the only time in my life I’d come this close to winning a professional race. This was my one chance. I kept expecting Canuel to come around, or the whole field to come around. As I crossed the line at the outer limits of what my body could do, winning the stage, no effort had ever felt worse, or better.
I didn't throw up my hands or do a Sagan-style wheelie. It didn't even occur to me to celebrate—one, because I felt close to death, and two, because I still wasn't sure it had actually happened. I rolled to a stop at the edge of the road and put my head on my handlebars. Lauren finished in third 7 seconds later. Amber and my other teammates, as they crossed the line, rode up to me, and I’m not sure what they said, but I remember they were smiling.
|Stage 5 Podium|
I also had no warning about the complexity and intimacy of the USADA process. Once they told me I had to be tested, I figured peeing in a cup would be part of the deal; what I didn't know is that an official watches as you pee in the cup. The athlete being tested chooses and handles all the packaging, even pouring and sealing the urine into two separate vials before they’re boxed up. In the paperwork, under the question about vitamins and supplements, my one entry—“Flintstones vitamins”—looked a little ludicrous in print, and I wondered if the people reading it would laugh. As we neared the end of the interview, the official asked a question about my address, assuming I’d been tested before, and I had to explain that the process was as new and bewildering as the stage win. I’m not complaining, though. As much as I dislike sharing a porta potty with an audience, I’m grateful to USADA for their vigilance—keeping the sport clean is what keeps it a real sport.
FCS went home that day with the green jersey, second place in GC, third place in team GC, and the stage win. Jack and I spent one more night in Bend, completely unable to sleep, before we headed out on our post-race road trip through the redwoods and wine country.
Thanks to Scott Warren for his positive leadership, Erin for the massages, Neils for the mechanic-ing, and Jack for holding my hand through the six days of racing. Thanks, also, to my ATC Racing teammates back home for being so supportive and encouraging of the whole endeavor.
Most of the team stayed at the home of Tad Hodgert, a little outside of town. (Thanks, Tad, for having us for dinner too!) Since space was limited, Jack and I asked around for other host housing. Many, many thanks to Mike (owner of Larsen Performance Coaching), Joanna, Luke, and Drake for welcoming us into their home sight unseen. You guys made our stay extra fun.