Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

So You Want to Be a Pro?

By Kat Hunter

Visit Dallas Cycling p/b Noise4Good at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race criterium. Many thanks to Keenan Photography.

Why am I doing this? I ask myself every time it’s bitterly cold, or I’m on the trainer for hours, or I’m having a bad day, or I have to try another new saddle. When I signed the contract with Visit Dallas Cycling p/b Noise4Good—my first with a pro cycling team—I knew there would be times I’d regret it, but I also knew that if I didn’t, I would always wonder what I might have missed.

Kat at the Valley of the Sun time trial
My husband calls the period from roughly August to mid-November my “retirement.” In July 2014, I’d won the final stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic as a guest rider for FCS Cycling, and the team (which added new title sponsors Visit Dallas and Noise4Good this year) had invited me to be on the 2015 roster. I’d decided I was finished with bike racing, however. I started jogging again. I tackled half a dozen home improvement projects and spent time with my son. I worked on expanding my writing career. I settled into a different kind of life, one that didn’t center on competition.

But I soon began to feel I was missing something. I realized that being a bike racer and an athlete had been a kind of self-definition for me. After all, what better hat to wear to show that you’re adventurous, interesting, even special? Some people become bike racers because it fits their personalities. Me? I think it’s who I want to be.

I was born in 1984, so I grew up in an era when the strong woman—smart, savvy, tough—was edging out the damsel in distress as the desirable protagonist. As much as I admired and wanted to be that type of person, I often felt powerless. Even now, it’s easy for me to revert back to a 5’10 mouse. Bike racing doesn’t change who I am, but it does change how I see myself, and that in turn makes me feel more capable in every area of my life. I may never be Ripley busting up a ship full of aliens in my underwear, but I know I can hold my own. I wish I’d found the sport a decade earlier.

The women I’ve met in the cycling community, both in Texas and nationally, are assertive and unafraid, clever and funny. For me, they’re living proof that the strong-woman archetype isn’t a fiction, and I love being a part of that, even if I don’t exactly fit the mold.

ATC Racing at the Walburg Classic Road Race, Feb 21. Photo by Jamie Tracy.
I love riding my bike, too, just the pure daily grind of it. Cycling gives me a sense of purpose and forward momentum. The path is so refreshingly simple: You have a goal? Train more until you achieve it or your genetic gifts play out. Then there’s the wonderful and terrible intensity of it, of pushing yourself until your entire being is completely and utterly spent, and the heady vindication of crossing the line before your competitors. The sprint has the profoundly personal feeling of head-to-head combat, always like a hard slap to the face if you’re not the victor. Bike racing is a thrill and an endlessly changing puzzle all rolled into one, like flying through a war zone in a high-powered fighter jet (or on a bad day, an antique biplane with half a propeller).

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I’d already sent an email turning down the spot with FCS, so it was supposed to be said and done. But I’d been inching my way back into the sport by degrees. I went from quitting cold turkey to planning to ride again for ATC Racing, the women’s team I’d helped to organize and to run since its inception in 2011. I could feel myself slipping back into full-gas training mode. Like me and a pint of ice cream, bike racing would have to be all or nothing. I kept asking myself: if I was going to spend most of my time training anyway, why shouldn’t I aim for the highest level of competition open to me? What if this was my one chance to do it?

In the end, I couldn’t let it go. I finally heard back from the team director, just a one-line response to my magnum opus about why I wasn’t going to ride for FCS, and the effect of his words was like pulling the bottommost brick out of a leaning tower: “I think you are more convinced than I am of your racing decision,” he wrote.

I spent a sleepless night thinking about what life would be like without bike racing, if I’d ever feel that sense of intensity and fulfillment again. I imagined myself forty years down the road, reminiscing about my bike racing days and wishing there’d been more of them.

And so began the adventure.

The Team

The classification of women’s pro cycling teams in the U.S. is a lot simpler than the men’s. A team is either officially UCI, which requires a sizable budget in addition to the costs of running the team ($30,000 is paid to the UCI), or it’s “domestic elite.” Typically the two race in the same national events regardless, though UCI races, such as the Tour of California, are obligated to invite UCI teams first; all other teams are invited at the discretion of the race organizers. Visit Dallas Cycling is not UCI, but everyone on the team holds a UCI license, and we have three former national champions on the roster. The team currently hails from Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Austin (that’s me).

The team has an ardent and longstanding network of individual supporters in Dallas and beyond, many of whom I met for the first time at the team presentation and launch party in February. The triumvirate behind most day-to-day operations includes Lee Whaley, who is one of the co-chairmen of the nonprofit organization FCS Team Inc; Scott Warren, a product manager at Orbea; and Rachel Byus, long-time team manager and miracle worker. Our sponsors are pure gold—people and companies who believe in women’s cycling and the riders. The Dallas Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has signed on as one of the title sponsors for three years.

I learned many important things from the time I spent with the team during the launch and week-long training camp that followed it. Not least of which—you never want to be last in line for food in the company of women bike racers, as we’re not shy about portions. Several of my teammates requested mixing bowls for their cereal.

Anna Grace, Kat, Beth Ann, Mia at Feb 7 launch party in Dallas
I think there’s a misconception about women who race at this level, that we’re all deep-voiced, beefy she-dragons with facial hair. I won’t argue that cycling isn’t a brutal sport, or say that we’re always playing nice with legs crossed and lipstick on. My teammate Mia Manganello, one of the returning members of the team, is a woman who illustrates the point I’m getting at. She looks like a model, with long white-blonde hair and nails color-coordinated to match our race kit, and yet she’s one of the best and most aggressive crit racers on the team. She helped me flatiron my hair for the launch party and then a few days later showed me how to take apart and pack my bike.

Three people on the team are getting married this year, which makes for interesting conversation in the team van. Anna Sanders, with a personality the size of Alaska and a stature more like Delaware, could charm the pants off of anyone. Usually it takes her all of five minutes of knowing you to share an off-color anecdote. Her wedding ceremony will be in Phoenix, complete with a live band, whiskey hour, and chandelier. Beth Ann Orton, an infinitely kind person with a built-in diesel motor, is getting married to her mountain biker sweetheart in an outdoor park just outside of Bend, Oregon. Beth Ann is new to the NRC scene like me, and while she’s a crazy good time trialist, has only actually done a handful of them so far. She’s also a talented cyclocross racer. Olivia Dillon, five-time Irish national champion, is engaged to fellow cyclist Tayler Wiles, and all the discussion of wedding arrangements during training camp seemed to be making her nervous that she hadn’t done enough planning. Described as “candid,” Olivia and her straight talk are usually well worth listening to (and not just because she pronounces “idiot” as “eejit”).

AGC's house pants and wool/salmon-skin slipper ensemble
Flavia Oliviera, Brazilian national champion and custom-made climber, stands just over five feet tall—she’s like a bundle of fireworks wrapped up in a package the size of a stick of chewing gum. Everyone told me that Flavia would be my opposite in both stature and personality, but we get along well. Amber Neben, “the franchise” and typically our GC contender, is a former world and national time trial champion. She’s sincere and smart, always going out of her way to be encouraging to me in my struggles as a new recruit. All-around talent Anna Grace Christiansen, who works full-time for sponsor Danner Boots, is often the team’s comic relief. Her tribal-patterned, MC Hammer-esque “house pants” were a daily topic of conversation when we were together, Olivia always “candidly” telling AGC what she thought of her fashion sense and threatening to set them on fire.

The Life

The lifestyle of a female pro cyclist is somewhat Bohemian, in many ways mimicking the cutthroat, cut-whatever-corners-you-can mentality of bike racing itself. You sleep on couches and air mattresses. You mooch off whoever doesn’t mind hauling you around. You gamble for the big break that’ll come somewhere down the road.

And the prestige? Only other bike racers really understand or care about what you’re doing, so if you’re racing at the pro level for the glory, you have a very limited audience. Oddly, that’s what’s so lovely about women’s cycling, though. The people involved, from the team owners to the team directors to the riders, do what they do for two simple reasons: they’re good at it, and they love it.    

Being on a pro team usually means you get equipment and travel expenses paid, and then you figure out on your own how to support yourself. However, you still devote something around 20 hours or more per week to training if you want to be competitive, and you have an insane travel schedule from roughly March to August.

Rainy trip to the beach, training with the mosquitoes
 on my birthday, Feb 28 (or as close as a Leap Year baby gets)
I work as a freelance writer/editor, and I have a 21-month-old son. I’ve accepted the fact that I probably won’t have a life of my own again until next winter; guilt-free downtime is nonexistent. I have a spectacularly supportive family, though. My husband is endlessly helpful and patient, probably the only man who would have so enthusiastically been on board with this from Day One. From 2013 to now, he’s been my coach and diligent equipment manager, neither of which is an easy job.

I’m training more than I would have ever imagined possible. One week I’m on top of the world, and the next week I’m scraping at rock bottom with a pick ax to see if I can get any lower. I’m about 15 weeks in, averaging 1,000 TSS most weeks, and now big races like Redlands and Joe Martin are on the near horizon. I’ll fly to California for the San Dimas Stage Race on March 25.

This year is a big question mark for me. Trying my hand at this level of racing is kind of like walking out onto a stage in really tall stilettos three sizes too big: I’m either going to make it to the podium looking great, or I’ll fall flat on my face long before I get there. Either way, it’ll make for a good story.

Follow our blog to read race reports throughout the season—enter your email address in the field above that says “Follow the ATC blog by email.” Or “like” my somewhat neglected but soon-to-be improved Facebook business/athlete page

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1 comment:

  1. Barbara SandersMarch 11, 2015

    Great message! anxious to know you better and, above all, so glad you're part of the TEAM,,