Michaux Maximus

The Michaux Maximus Women's podium (from left) Lindsey Carpenter 3rd, Selene Yeager 1st and Jennifer Tillman 2nd
The Michaux Maximus Women’s podium (from left) Lindsey Carpenter 3rd, Selene Yeager 1st and Jennifer Tillman 2nd
Photo by Joe’s Bike Shop Racing Team

It was an unseasonably hot one at Michaux Maximus, the first stop on the Volvo Michaux Endurance Series. I hadn’t raced Michaux for a couple of years, but wanted to get a hard rocky race on my new S-Works Epic 29 World Cup that I’d just gotten built up the Friday before. So, I packed plenty of GU Brew with me as I loaded up the car 5 a.m. Sunday morning for what promised to be a great adventure.

And a great adventure it was. Perennial Michaux favorite and RDCRacing teammate Cheryl Sornson who had been crushing it down in Marathon National Championships in Georgia the day before was missing in action, and I hadn’t checked the start list ahead of time, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I figured I would just line up behind some of the familiar faces who always toe the line at the front of the pack in Michaux and hope for the best.

We got the 10 second countdown and I gunned it behind Brandon Draugelis and Aaron Albright—two fast and steady wheels I’ve clung to (albeit for short stretches) at other events. We throttled behind the lead moto for just over a mile before hanging a right into the woods and starting our day in earnest. I decided to not look back for the first 5 to 10 miles and just race with eyes forward and see if I could establish a healthy gap.

It worked. I felt pretty strong all race and only put a foot down twice, which is unheard of at that place, so it was indeed a good day. I started to see spots about 24 miles in, when I ran dry on Brew and the aid station I’d been anticipating actually ended up being 3 miles further into the race. But a quick refill and dump of water over my head revived my spirits and I was able to pick it up again for the final home stretch. Ended up keeping my lead and getting the win for the day.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Winners never quit and quitters never win and you can't come home with a good story if you don't stay in the game

When the race leaves you dangling, keep on chasing.

(Photo by Beth Price Photography)

This past weekend, I packed my race bag one more time for a trip to Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, Michigan. Saturday was Founder’s Peak-to-Peak mountain bike race, the wrap of my mountain bike season. I’ve been excited about this race for months. For one, I’ve never been to Michigan and there’s no better way to see a place than by bike. It promised to give me an opportunity to race a type of terrain I don’t generally set wheels on: smooth, mostly flat and very fast. It also has a pretty generous purse: $1,000 for first place, $750 for second, $500 for third. I don’t race for money. But it does make it more exciting when there’s a healthy sum of cash on the line.

Of course all of this also left me a bit apprehensive. I knew nobody in the women’s field, though I’d heard of Mackenzie Woodring, a pilot for the US National Paralympic Cycling team and ‘cross racer, who’s won nearly every year. The pros were slated to do three laps on the 12-mile circuit that I’d heard described as a “drag race” through the trees. I wasn’t sure how much of a drag racer I was. But you don’t learn and grow if you don’t step into the unknown now and then. I just didn’t know how many unknowns I was in for…

It started with the bike. For a number of reasons, including cost, convenience, and logistics, I opted to set myself up with a bike through Einstein Cycles in Traverse City rather than pack and ship my own. I’d heard from a few sources, including the race promoter himself, that a full-suspension rig would be overkill, as many of the racers, including Mackenzie (who I was hoping to give a run for her money), go fully rigid. Well, in the six weeks between our initial communication and two days before start time, that bike was sold. You can’t blame a bike shop for selling a bike, of course. But now my options were, let’s say, limited. After a bit of handwringing by all parties involved, the owner set me up with one of his personal bikes, a sweet carbon Foundry with a 1 x10.

“Are you a good climber?” the mechanic on board asked as he recharged the Stan’s. “I am, why?” I said. “It’s got a 36 on the front,” he replied. I thought for a moment. Course mostly flat with one stoutish, but not long climb at the end? Better overgeared than undergeared. “No problem,” I replied, deciding it would be fine no matter what.

The next day I was scheduled for a “Ride with the Pros” at 4:00, where I’d take folks around for a lap of the course and chitchat about training and race prep and such. I was going to ride earlier, but the course wasn’t yet marked and by the time it was a cold rain had started to fall and it seemed foolish to go out and get wet twice in one afternoon.

So a bit before 4:00 I rolled over. A small group had gathered at registration, but decided they’d rather not get wet even once that day. That left just me and two hardy locals, a couple who were fairly new to the sport. She’d been riding less than a year after taking up mountain biking to quit smoking. I was happy to have company in the misery. We rolled out into the rain. The course was the most beginner friendly I’ve ever ridden—buttery smooth, twisty singletrack through brilliantly popping foliage. There was one little kicker somewhere in the middle and then a climb up and over the back of the ski mountain before you bombed down the front side and through the start/finish area. I spent most of the ride encouraging and coaching the woman who was angry with herself for smoking all those years, but was really making remarkable progress in a short amount of time.

My hope was to make this a shakedown ride to be sure everything was dialed in. But Michigan mud—at least this Michigan mud—is a unique blend of sand, silt, and other gritty earth substances that pretty much stop most moving parts from running smoothly. My gears seemed to be rubbing an awful lot, but barrel adjusting did nothing and I decided to leave well enough alone, till morning anyway.

I didn’t race until noon 30, so the next day at 10 a.m. after the first wave of racers were off, I headed over to the venue to have one of the mechanics tweak whatever needed tweaking. With some help of a few volunteers we lubed the chain and twisted the barrel adjuster until it ran a bit smoother and rubbed a bit less in the higher gears. After some last minute prep, I lined up and, realizing that I was in the wrong gear for the fast downhill start, lifted the back wheel to click and spin it into a harder gear. The timer started counting down. Thirty seconds. My plan was to stay with Mackenzie as long as possible or until I could maybe make a move.

The whistle blew and we were off…except I wasn’t really off. My chain started jumping madly on the cassette while the field sped off. It was sort of like a bad dream. But I was wide awake. I had tested the gears under pressure on the high end, but not the low end…and now the problem had shifted there. My heart sank as I muttered many bad words. I briefly considered pulling the plug, but then I remembered Iron Cross 2009 and Ironman 2008 and a few other races where I had mechanical problems early on, but still pulled out a good result. Problem-solve this. Find a gear, any gear and make it work.

So I did, sort of. But it was too late to catch Mackenzie who was now out of my sight. So I settled in with a small group that included two other women and hammered the working gear as hard as I could. After a few minutes I glanced back. No one in sight. But the troubles were not over. Going into a strand of trees I needed to shift if I wanted to stay in contact. Click. The chain skipped and dumped, I clipped a tree, and went down as they slipped away.

I got up, spun the chain into a working gear, and chased, chased, chased. I caught them again. I looked down and saw an empty space where my Garmin had been. The day just keeps getting better, I thought. Guess you’re racing 100% by feel today.

Staying in the game makes you stronger than throwing in the towel. (John Bullington Photography)

A few miles later we hit the only real technical stretch of the day, two mud bogs that, if you were careful, you could pick your way through, which is exactly what I did to get away while the others dismounted or got hung up in the mud. I charged hard to gain a gap and going into the final climb I had a small one. My legs burned a little up the steep pitches but I was glad for the big gearing because it forced me to climb faster than I might if I were to spin. Okay. You’ve got this. Just keep your head and crank, I thought as I sailed down the hill and into my second lap.

The chain started jumping again as I charged through the transition. I twisted the barrel, praying for a little relief. Then I looked up and saw that I’d hit a dead end at a putting green. Oh dear Lord you’ve gone off course. Somehow I’d missed a course marker and had taken the wrong path off the road. I turned around, realizing I must’ve now lost my second-place slot and saw riders on a path across the field where I should have been. I bushwhacked my way over and once again gave chase. I started passing people down a stuttery descent when—thunk. My chain came completely off the front ring and was dangling around the crank.

“Okay my race is over,” I say out loud to nobody, as I stopped, thinking the chain was broken. When I saw it wasn’t broken I honestly very briefly considered breaking it myself so I could stop the madness of this day. You’re so close to the start. Just call it, I thought. Then I imagined how disappointed Tad the race director, who was so excited I came, would be. I thought of Rebecca Rusch and that book I wrote with her, which talks about never, ever quitting. Reba wouldn’t quit. You’re not quitting. I put the chain back on and chased some more.

At that point, the bike mechanical gods must have decided that I’d passed my test because, though the shifting was still far from perfect, I could find at least five or six of the 10 gears where it ran pretty smoothly. The sun started to peek through the heavy clouds and I pedaled with everything I had. I passed two women and suspected that I was sitting in third. Be smooth. Be fast. I put a song in my head and wove through the trees, actually really enjoying the chase.

Unbelievably (or not), I made the same course error going into the final lap, but caught it and bushwhacked my way back before I’d gone too far astray. Pedal, pedal, pedal, hammer, hammer, hammer. The miles ticked off. And as I passed the marker for three to go, I saw a rider with a ponytail up the trail. Holy s***, you caught her. There was second place. I clicked into a harder, working gear and said, “Hey there…coming by on the left,” pushing with all I had, hoping she wouldn’t be able to jump on my wheel.

It worked. Going into the final climb of the day, I had a gap. You did it. I was thrilled. It wasn’t the race I expected and certainly not the race I wanted, but it was one that I’ll never forget, and probably one I’ll be able to draw from again…I just hope it’s not too soon.

Epilogue: The shifting snafu was the result of some problems with the limit screws. After some postrace TLC, the bike worked flawlessly and I was able to pilot it for the win at Crystal Cross the next morning. And a trail angel found my Garmin and is shipping it back. All’s well that ends well, as they say.

You Will Be Rewarded

To get through the middle of a tough ride, sometimes you need to focus on the finish.

Racer nerves in the sunrise. Everyone searching for their own rewards – Photo by Jade Wexler

It was 4:15 a.m.—an hour I really don’t enjoy. And once again, I was staring at the clock with a bucketful of butterflies swarming in my belly. The race starts in about 2 hours, I thought, with growing feelings of doom and dread. Time to get up.

Dave was still dead to the world, though he too would be racing 100 miles at the somewhat legendary Shenandoah Mountain 100 today. I was jealous of his current state of oblivion as I padded about the room, firing up the cheap hotel room coffee pot and boiling water for my morning bowl of race day fuel, some too sugary instant oats, raisins, and nut butter, topped with a finish of Greek yogurt. I’m extra miserable this morning because I’d actually really like to win today. And I know what that means—keeping focused and racing smart for 8 to 9 hours. It’s a long day ahead, with many unknowns.

For one, I’d never been to Shenandoah. So though I’d ridden about 5 miles of the start the day before, the other 95 miles were a complete unknown. I’d heard it was a great course—the best of the series many said. I knew there were big climbs and equally big descents. But what any of that looked like, I had no idea. I’d also been thrown a curve ball earlier in the week in the form of a stomach virus that had flattened me Thursday and lingered into Friday. I took extra good care of myself and felt fully recovered by Saturday, but it hadn’t bolstered my confidence.

As I sat spooning down my peachy oats, I ruminated on a few conversations I’d had with friend and accomplished 100 mile racer Vicki Barclay. “The course suits you. Lots of big climbs and the most amazing descents that will just keep you going. Make sure you have plenty of fluids at Aid Station 2, feed yourself well up to Aid Station 5—the climb is not over there—and use your stamina. You’ve got this!”

You’ve got this. In my heart I believed I could do it. At that moment, however, I was still struggling to find my mojo. Why? Why am I doing this? My mind searched for answers as Dave, now up, began kitting up and packing the car. Because you’ll be rewarded, I thought with sudden, brightening clarity. I visualized the bunch start with so many friendly faces; pictured myself chasing and charging; saw myself climbing strong and sweeping the descents, and the finish, the incomparable feeling of finishing—maybe winning—a race of that size. I felt a little lighter and happier inside. You’ve got this. I kitted up and headed out to the car.

It was still dark as we pulled into the venue at 5:40. Racers were already warming up. I had no lights and no desire to ride around in the dark. So I just did one little charge up the camp road to fire up the engines and called it good. Then I mulled over a race strategy as I stuffed my pockets and checked my tires. Both Vicki and my teammate Cheryl had suggested I stick with the lead women early on, then maybe make a move after Aid Station 4 on the big “Death” climb, which all said and done is 20-some miles long. Sounded reasonable. I could see how I felt and not burn too many matches early on a day that gets harder as it goes along.

That strategy lasted about 12 minutes. After a neutral start down the sketchy camp road, the lead vehicle pulled off and the race was off in earnest up the first dirt road climb. One of the race favorites, Laura Hamm (Moonstompers), charged ahead pretty much immediately. I got on her wheel and started thinking. I’d heard she was fast on the descents. The conditions were dry and sketchy—not my favorite for descending. I was totally new to the place. If I stuck with her wheel I might end up chasing out of my element much of the day. I felt like I could probably climb a bit faster without going into the red. You will be rewarded, I thought, and made an early pass. After a few minutes, I glanced back. No women in my immediate view. I revised my game plan to climb my heart out on the big climbs and let it rip on the descents where I felt comfortable, but be conservative when I didn’t. I’d also push myself to try to catch a group on the roads, where I often find myself alone and lose time.

Two out of three ain’t bad, as they say. I had blissfully good climbing legs, which is essential when you’re staring down nearly 13,000 feet of elevation on the day. Many of the descents were the longest, swoopiest, and most fun I’ve ever set wheels on. So I just let it rip, feeling calm and confident on those. On others, where my bike slipped over layers of pea gravel and chunky loose rocks, I would lose some nerve and dial it down a notch to stay where I felt comfortably in control. On the roads? Though I found some really nice company and a wheel or two to follow for short stretches, for the most part I was where I often find myself, Nomansland. I could see groups ahead, but just couldn’t catch them. This is where you always lose time, I chastised myself, pushing on in the wind.

Fortunately the climbs outnumbered the flats and most of them were thoroughly enjoyable. I remembered Vicki’s words and fed myself well up the longest climb of the day, feeling pretty good when I hit Aid Station 5 at about mile 75. I chugged a small cup of Coke, grabbed a quarter of a PB&J and dug in to finish the climb. Just make it to the last aid station, then one hour to go. You will be rewarded.

Shortly thereafter the day threatened to go a little sideways. I had opted to not tape the course profile on my top tube because, well, for no good reason. I felt like being all Zen about the day or something that sounded smart at the time, but I would regret that decision about 90 miles into the day. So, anyway, in my mind I thought the race was going to be considerably easier once I summitted the “big climb.” I was wrong.

It started with a gnarly, loose, fairly steep and endlessly long descent. As the rocks kicked up and my wheels washed to and fro, I started to unravel. Just get to the bottom. Chin up. Stay loose. Let the bike roll. ACK!!! Brakes! NO BRAKES! For the love of God, make this be over. I was talking to myself out loud like a mad woman, occasionally pulling over to let some faster guys go through, trying to stay on their wheels. Stay calm. Stay with them…. Then I came into a particularly steep drop into a hard right hand turn and I saw a bike lying on the ground by a tree with no rider in sight.

Oh that’s bad. I slowed to a crawl around the bend. The rider was on the other side of the trail, standing up, but clearly shaken. I stopped. “Are you okay?” I asked, looking back at his bike to make a mental note of his race number. “Yeah, yeah. I’m okay,” his mouth said, but I wasn’t convinced. “Are you really okay? Or adrenaline-fueled okay?” I asked again. “Do you need me to tell the aid station you need help?” Now here is where I confess that the racer in me started wigging out a bit. Minutes were ticking off. I knew I had a lead, but I was getting nervous. I had to be 100% sure this man was okay before I left, but I was also realizing it could mean sacrificing my race. You gotta do what you gotta do. I paused a little more, as he kept assuring me, more convincingly now, that he was really okay as he got back on his bike. “I’m going to tell them to check on you at the next aid station,” I called back as we rode on. (I did see the fallen rider back at camp at the end of the day. He was indeed really okay.)

After what felt like another hour, but was probably 10 minutes, I was finally done with the descent and at the final aid station. I grabbed a couple of fresh bottles and a few fig cookies. One more little climb to go…Or so I thought. Why they call that middle climb the “Death Climb,” when they put a godforsaken endless ladder to the sky at about mile 90 is beyond me. Why I didn’t know this race ended with this godforsaken ladder to the sky is beyond me. But well, it was there and I was not mentally prepared for it.

I can’t remember the name of the climb, but I called it many, many names every time I rounded a bend thinking it was the top only to see riders bent over their bars or worse, pushing their bikes, on another steep pitch. You need food. I thought, as I started to get nauseous and vapory in the high mid-afternoon heat and humidity. I don’t want food. I want to be done. I bargained with myself to choke down just a little bite. You will be rewarded. I was. I felt ever so slightly better as I pushed on. I had no idea how close the other women were to me. But I desperately didn’t want to be caught this close to the line.

I can’t even remember when it ended. But eventually it did. I felt the energy of the riders around me pick up. We must be close to the end. I thought. And indeed we were. A few more unremarkable miles ticked off and then I saw it—a tent! We were coming into camp! I could hear a loudspeaker. It’s the finish! The finish is right there.

Elation is an understatement for how I felt as I rolled into the open field where I could hear the people cheering my name. I had done it. I’d chalked up my first NUE win at the Shenandoah 100. It was surreal and wonderful and yes, beyond any shadow of a doubt, very, very rewarding.

Leadville

Selene finally races the 100-mile, high-altitude mountain bike race.

“Have you ever done Leadville?”

If I’ve been asked that once, I’ve been asked 100 times. Tell someone that you race mountain bikes and that’s one of the first questions that leaves their lips. I’ll be honest; I’ve often been a little annoyed by it. You can tell them you’ve raced on the moon, and they’re just not all that impressed, maybe even a little disappointed, that you’ve never done the big Race Across the Sky.

While I’m being honest, I’ll confess that I’ve never really had any interest in doing Leadville. I just didn’t really believe the hype. It also has a bit of a reputation as a “roadie course,” so I didn’t think it would be interesting. Plus it’s an out and back, which never really appeals to me. So yeah. Leadville. Whatever.

I was wrong. Really wrong. Leadville is actually all that it’s hyped to be and maybe then some—brutally hard, amazingly beautiful, very humbling, a bit of a road race, more of a mountain bike race than you think, and the kind of experience that seeps under your skin and becomes a little (or for some folks a big) part of you.

I found myself heading to Leadville this year because that’s where Rebecca Rusch (the Queen of Leadville as well as pain) and I were launching her new book I co-authored, Rusch to Glory. Specialized had offered me a media slot to race their brand new Era (a sweet full-suspension women’s-specific 29er). How could I not go?

So, I’ve been preparing physically since, oh, February. But mentally? Not so much. I’ve never been there and didn’t really know what to expect. At the last moment my housing fell through, I had zero support, and I wasn’t 100% sure what bike I was going to have at my disposal. Hell, just a few weeks out, Reba and I were starting to freak out that we might not have our books done in time.

Then in a blink of an eye it was here. I was actually going. The books were in. I had a bike and a place to stay and a race entry. And I was scared to death. There’s so much hype around Leadville that it’s hard to not get tangled up in it. Columbine climb at 12,424 feet of elevation. Powerline (Dear God. That one deserves the hype…especially on the way back). It could snow. It could sleet. It could freezing rain. It could be a 100 degrees. Maybe all in the same day. I packed like I was going off to battle and I had nearly as much trepidation.

Choo choo. Here comes the pain train.

(Photo by Linda Guerrette)

After much car and plane travel (and delays), I rolled into town very late Tuesday night thoroughly exhausted and feeling utterly alone. I awoke a bit more positive, but still overwhelmed. I needed to get my bike and hopefully see at least some of the course. I ventured downtown to the Specialized pop-up store to find that my bike would be ready in about an hour. So I moseyed up the block and into an old Westerny looking restaurant for some huevos rancheros. As I dug into my eggs, my ears were filled with anxious race talk from patrons at the other tables.

“Yeah, I didn’t make the cut off last year. Came undone on Powerline.” “I’m volunteering this year. Gonna try again next year.” “We’re from Atlanta, the elevation is crushing us.” I drained my coffee mug and slipped away from the nervous din. Back at the pop up store my Era was ready to roll. Now I just needed to figure out where to roll with it. My first stop was Reba’s place up on 9th street.

I rolled up to find her on the massage table, a couple of her friends hanging out on the sofa chitchatting while she got her knots worked out. She wouldn’t have time to ride today. My heart sunk a little. I’m a big girl and can and often do ride alone. But today I really wanted some company to get away from my own head. “Brian and Dan are riding some of the course at noon today,” Lauren said, looking up from her phone. “I’ll text them and let them know you’re coming.”

My heart should’ve lifted but it sank a little more into my belly. I was feeling insecure and overwhelmed. I knew Brian, who is Mr. GU and very nice, but not Dan. I’ve never ridden with either and I really didn’t want to slow them down on their shake out ride. I nearly said forget it but I was desperate for company, so I decided to suck up my insecurities and show up. It’s probably the best decision I made all week.

They say in Leadville that once you toe the line you’re part of the Leadville family. It would be easy to roll your eyes at that, since it’s an Ironman-level enterprise at this point. But honestly, I couldn’t have ended up better taken care of had my own mother been in town. You quickly realize while you’re out there that it’s not you against all these other people in town, but it’s all of you against the Leadville 100. The sense of mutual respect and camaraderie is palpable.

To that end, I not only had a really wonderful ride with Brian (who was gunning to break 9 hours) and Dan (who was nursing some cracked ribs and would be supporting) that gave me a glimpse of the start and the finish (four miles false flat and incline…sadistic really), but the guys at the GU house, Dan and Yuri in particular, took me under their wing for the duration. They served up amazing breakfasts and dinners and offered me a home away from home where I could be in the happy company of others and out of my own head. They also offered to support me on course.

Which was awesome…and mind-boggling. See Brian, being the CEO of GU and all, is let’s say a bit analytical. After the ride, he showed me the course profile he had printed out complete with predicted times he would hit key points on the course along with every single bit of fuel/hydration he would put in his maw along the way. I was dumbfounded. I’m screwed was all I could think. “What do you want me to have for you at those points?” Dan asked looking over my shoulder. I stared back at him blankly. I consciously lowered my voice to sound casual and confident. “I’m still sorting that out.”

I left with my head spinning. It was like Ironman all over again…walking around desperately trying to wrap my slippery monkey brain around what I would need on all these points along a course I had never even seen let alone ridden. After hours of mental gymnastics, I lost my mind and bought six Honey Stinger waffles (to complement eight PowerBar Blast packs and seven bars—seriously), a super light rain jacket, and four more water bottles. Finally, late into the afternoon I’d had enough of myself. Selene, it’s a big bike ride. Carry 1000 calories and two bottles. Have another 1000 calories and 8 bottles on course. Look at the weather and carry a rain jacket if it looks iffy and be done with it already. And with that it was like I was Sisyphus and had finally gotten that damn boulder up the hill. Relief.

The next morning I woke up at 6:30 am and kitted up just as I would for race day, filling my pockets with exactly what I would carry and went out to do my shake out ride. Summer mornings resemble early winter in these high mountain towns. I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be cripplingly cold off the start, yet still comfortable as the day warmed. I felt just right in a light base layer, jersey, arm warmers, vest, shorts and high socks. I went home and laid out everything just as I would put it on the next morning.

After waking up every hour on the hour, my eyes popped open for good 4:15 race day morning. I was nervous, but not insanely so. I had prepped all I could. I was confident in my clothing selection. I had support. And I felt good. I cooked up some waffles, slathered them in almond butter and Greek yogurt, nuked a side of veggie sausages and washed it down with some Maxwell House left for me by the landlord. Then I rolled down to the GU house, conveniently located right on the start, and stayed warm until it was close to go time. At just a few minutes before 6, I warmed up by going up and down a side street three times for luck and lined up among a sea of buzzing racers.

It’s the only race I’ve ever done that has a downhill start, which is as sketchy as it sounds, and always leads to a crash or two that can take you out before you even start. Survive that and before you know it, you’re onto the first climb and the day is on in earnest. 

I had made one single promise to myself: Don’t go into the red. You can’t recover at 10,000 feet. I learned that the hard way the opening stage at Breck Epic two years ago. I would ride my ride and not worry about anyone else. I very much wanted a sub-9 hour belt buckle and I knew the only way I would get one was if I didn’t blow myself up.

I’d love to give a blow by blow of the day. But it felt otherworldly…surreal. And honestly I’m still processing it as it buzzes around my head like a dream. The climbs were endless. The descents even longer. And since it’s an out and back, I was acutely aware that every long descent was going to come back in spades later that afternoon.

I was never alone, but very often a bit lonely, surrounded by fellow racers who were friendly, but not friends. I was riding hard, but my motivation to push myself wasn’t particularly high. So I was happy midway through the day when I heard a female cough that I recognized. It was Rebecca, who was pacing her friend Lisa for her first (hopefully) sub-9 finish. “Hey!” I called out as she rolled next to me. Just being around a friend was the emotional lift I needed.

We spent the rest of the race jockeying back and forth. One of us would go off or drop back only to find each other again a few miles down the road, each of us staying our course, riding our rides. We lost each other in the final aid station before the climb back over Powerline, which in retrospect, is the worst place to find yourself without a friend.

What goes down must go up…and up…and up.

(Photo by Linda Guerrette)

It’s endless. Actually it’s worse than endless. It seemingly ends about 10 times before it actually for real ends. And this is where the wheels started coming off. The odometer was pushing into the nineties and I could no longer do math. I was convinced I had blown my sub-9 goal and as everything started to hurt and shut down, I wasn’t sure I cared.

I’m firmly convinced this must be where people lose hours…and their will…and those precious buckles…in those final 10 to 15 miles when you’re drained beyond comprehension but there’s still an hour or more left to go and your belly wants no more food and your mind wants to get the hell out of the dust and wind and just be done but your legs won’t cooperate.

And this is where I found Rebecca again. She rolled up and I was transported back to Brazil where we’d pushed so far beyond our limits day after day that suddenly 7 or 8 more miles seemed easy. She smiled and pressed on, calling for Lisa to dig deep. I joined her. We hit the pavement and I could see it…the red carpet and the finish line. I wanted nothing more than to hit that red carpet and be done.

Somewhere, somehow, I found that magical race day gear and stood up on my pedals and went. The red carpet seemed to get further and further away. I pushed harder, everything aching and threatening to shut down for good. And then I hit it. The finish, eight hours and thirty nine minutes. I stopped dead and slumped over my bars as depleted as I’ve ever felt…and as satisfied too. I did it. I finished the race and got the big buckle. (For the record, Lisa did too…smashing her previous PR).

Leadville, you’re for real. And it was real. I can’t say I’ll ever be back but I also know you’ll be with me, deep inside, for the rest of my days wherever I go.

Simple and Simply Great

You never forget how to ride a bike, but you can always learn to ride.

Rocks help sharpen the skill set.
Rocks help sharpen the skill set.

Next month I’m flying to Anchorage, Alaska to race Single Speed Mountain Bike World Championships. I haven’t felt like a kid at Christmas in a long while, but this actually has me buzzing with anticipation like the time I knew the Shogun Warriors I desperately wanted were in my parent’s closet waiting for me (sorry mom, yes I snooped), but I had to give sleep a futile attempt on the 24th because that’s just how it is.

Problem is, now that I’m an adult, I’m more prone to pesky reality checks and a few weeks ago, I had one. As I was planning said adventure, I realized the last time I actually raced a singlespeed mountain bike was, um, 2005 Single Speed World Championships when they were in State College, PA. The last time I’d ridden one? Um…once in 2010? No problem, right? Well…

I’ve developed a pretty well-ingrained riding and racing style at this juncture, one that involves charging up power climbs, spinning up steep stuff, and generally staying seated most of the time, using all the benefits that cross-country full suspension delivers.

Enter a hardtail singlespeed bike with a 32 x 20 drivetrain. The bike is a Specialized Crave. It actually came fully rigid. But I like my retinas attached just where they are, so I opted to outfit her with a Fox Terralogic fork. I bought some tires, fixed her up with the fork, and in a moment of  “hey why not?” spontaneity, registered to race on it at the Curse of the Dark Hollow (pictured above) in Michaux State Forest last Sunday. It was a bit like taking a spoon to war, especially since I had yet to take a single pedal stroke on her, and having zero experience with the fork hadn’t dialed in my suspension.

I pinged my friend Mike who had lots of experience with the Terralogic fork to help me set it up and provide a bit of moral support on my maiden voyage. We hatched a plan to do a short lap at Bear Creek, which is as technical as anything I was likely to face (well, close anyway…oh Michaux…) in my upcoming races.

Just as we were strapping on our helmets to roll, it started raining. I briefly thought of pulling the plug, but immediately thought better of it. Perfect, I thought. If I can pilot this thing up steep rocky climbs in the rain here, I can pilot it anywhere. I could tell Mike was less than thrilled and would have bailed in a heartbeat, but I didn’t care or pause for any wavering. I was on a mission. We set the platform and rebound on the fork based on my riding style and off we went. I felt like a kid on Christmas day.

In all the years of honing whatever racing techniques I’d been honing, I’d forgotten how much fun it was to just ride your damn bike. Singlespeeding forces you to remember. I pedaled into the first rocky bit of singletrack, maniacally focused on what lines to take. The light nimble bike responded on cue. I smiled. I laughed. I pedaled some more. A few switchbacks later I stopped and grinning like an idiot when Mike pulled up, blurted out, “I love it!”

We finished a short loop that left me feeling extremely optimistic. Okay. I can do this. I actually really love doing this. I Facebooked, Instagramed, and Tweeted my love for my one-geared wonder. Then came Saturday.

My friend Matt rolled up to our house in the morning for a ride up South Mountain (my backyard trails, which might be even more unforgiving than Bear Creek). He and Dave rolled their bigger travel bikes up the mountain while I crouched like a spider monkey over my singlespeed, trying to keep my on-the-verge of ragged breathing smooth. Climbing the steep, technical grades I generally spin right up felt counterintuitive and inordinately difficult.  My spider monkey brain started to get the best of me.

You’re out of your mind. Forty miles of Michaux? Alaska? Who do you think you’re kidding? I kept my mental angst closed in tight. But I couldn’t shake the creeping self doubt. Was I biting off more than I could chew? I casually tossed out that notion when we got to the top of the mountain. Matt was full of reassurances. “You signed up for the 40, right?” he asked. “Yes, why?” I replied. ‘Because if you’re going to go over your head, you should go all the way.” Funny. Ha. Ha.

I was still in that nervous, unsure, vaguely rattled, yet oddly excited headspace when we pulled into the venue Sunday morning. “I hope I can do this,” I said to Dave for the 12,000 time as we parked. He stared at me blankly for the 12,001 time. Our friend Buck and former SSWC winner walked up and put it all in perspective. “You’ll either sit, stand, or push,” he said simply. “Yeah. I just don’t know how to race this.” More succinctness, “Singlespeeding takes the race out of you.”

Boy was he right. I lined up with the other singlespeeders and lost them within 30 seconds of the actual race start as I desperately willed my legs to spin 200 rpm to catch them. I caught some of them on the first technical climb. Then as the field strung out, ended up by myself to figure it out for the rest of the day. There were false flats where I really didn’t know what to do. There were flats and descents where I could do next to nothing. There were climbs I powered up faster than normal because I had no choice. There were endless rock gardens to ratchet through. I was sort of racing. Sort of not racing. But really definitely enjoying the ride.

In the end, I managed a second place finish among the women and pulled a respectable enough time. More importantly, going back to basics helped me appreciate the simplicity of my sport. You sit. You stand. Sometimes you get off and push. You have to choose your lines and apply some finesse, skills I’ve let slide as technology took over. I have no idea what will happen in Alaska but I’m confident it will be simple and simply great.

In the Name of Charity

“How much longer do we have to go?” I asked Dave, teetering on the edge of something…someplace…some sensation of slowly unraveling I’d never experienced while pedaling down the road.

“10 miles?” he replied, casually, hopefully, optimistically.

Unexpected charity along a charity ride. People helping people is what it's all about. Thanks to the artist James E. Dupree for the ingenious bike repair. (Stephanie Swan)

“10 miles???” With that, I promptly let go of whatever dangling shreds of tattered lifeline I was grasping and burst into tears. I really didn’t think I could make it. But there was zero choice. Somehow I pulled it together and made it to the finish some 75 miles from when we’d began. I drank a Guinness, inhaled three slices of pizza, and passed out in my bunk shortly thereafter.

That was many moons ago, when I still identified myself not as an endurance, but a solidly middle distance, athlete. I’d signed up to do my first ever charity ride—you guessed it, an MS 150. The lunch truck had broken down leaving us with peppermint patties and pretzel sticks at the midway point. I made the rookie mistake of not bringing my own food to get me through. I’d never bonked before, so I had no concept of how bad it could be. I’d never fixed a flat either…or knew how. I learned many lessons, many of them unpleasant.

These memories came bubbling back up this weekend as I got word from my teammate Janine. “They ran out of food and water at Aid Station 1…like immediately.”

My heart sank. “Well, that one’s on me.” This time, nearly 20 years later, I was on the other side of the registration line, helping, along with my teammates, to plan, execute, run, and ride sweep for the Million Dollar Ride, Rare Disease Cycling’s inaugural fundraising ride to raise money for orphan disease research and therapy.

I had stood there the day before with a few of my teammates agonizing over piles of food to be divvied out among the four aid stations, two of which would be passed through twice. Aid Station #1 was just 5 miles in. Everyone would pass by it, but we figured only riders on the 11 mile loop would stop, while the 34 and 74 mile riders would likely blow right by and 5 miles in nobody would need much, right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Nearly everybody stopped—after all it was a beautiful rest stop along the river on a pretty spring morning—and more than a few people needed plenty “just” 5 miles in. That would be just the beginning of what would be a day filled with the kinds of hiccups and hitches on both the riders’ and the promoter’s part that are part and parcel to charity rides, especially those in their first year. Many lessons were learned, a few of them unpleasant.

Here are a few I figured could help everybody. Whether you’re doing your first charity ride, your 51st charity ride, or helping put one on, these tips will help spread goodwill down the road.

Respect the distance. 11 miles is 11 miles. It can be a breeze if you’re in shape and ride regularly. It can be a monumental distance if you’re a casual rider, kind of unconditioned, or like me at that ill-fated MS 150, bonking your brains out. New riders and those who are just getting back into shape are also more likely to be bonking their brains out in relatively shorter distances because they’re still learning how to fuel themselves and they’re not yet great fat burners, so they’re relying on their limited glycogen supply. These riders also are less likely to carry their own food because they don’t know what to carry or it simply never occurs to them to carry anything. I know all this, yet I still blew it and let these folks down. Sorry.
Riders, remember, stuff happens. So no matter what distance you choose to ride, stuff a granola bar in your pocket, just in case. Promoters, don’t underestimate (or understock) those early aid stations. Those are the folks who need them most.

Train for the terrain. “Is there a flatter way back?” I fielded that question (and got chewed out) two or three times along the 34 mile route from riders who were shattered from the relentless rolling terrain that is Southeast Pennsylvania. Even if you’re going somewhere that sounds flat, like say Kansas, check the ride descriptions closely. The Earth is bumpy even in places you may not expect it to be, like Philly. Promoters, help your riders by being abundantly clear how hard any given ride might be.

Check those bikes. So this happened. My teammate Stephanie was riding with three women who’d signed up for the 11 mile ride, then decided to “keep going, because why not?” and more or less got over their heads immediately into the 34 mile ride. But with good cheer and, if very ill-maintained, machines soldiered on. Somewhere in West Philly as they were close enough to nearly see the finish 5 miles in the distance, one of them lost her entire front skewer (thank you ride Gods for keeping her from landing on her face). They found said skewer but not the end nut to fasten it on. A mural-painting angel working out of what used to be an old car garage took mercy on the brigade now pushing their bikes for the final pull and fixed it with a wingnut until we could retrieve a spare. There were broken spokes, rusted chains, and loose saddles. By all means pull that unused bike out of the garage and climb aboard, but your first stop should be your bike shop for a tune up. Promoters, consider making a pre-ride bike check mandatory. It could avert disaster.

Check your head. Please wear your helmet. Please. I know you hate it and you don’t have to by law and all the other arguments we heard as we politely as possible implored participants who had removed them to put them back on, but the liability of these rides is staggering. It’s just one day. Thanks.

Keep an open mind…and heart. Despite the random blips and blunders we all encountered throughout the day, the ride was a success. We raised 1.4 million dollars (by virtue of some astonishing generosity) to help kids with awful, unpronounceable, and currently incurable, diseases. We learned what we need to change to make the ride better next year. And importantly, we learned about each other by getting to ride a mile—or 30—in someone else’s shoes for the day, an experience that makes us all just a little bit more, well, charitable.

Born to Ride

Sometimes I worry that I’m one—or at best two—dimensional. I ride and I write. I write and I ride. I know I exist outside of those two things but if I didn’t do either, I fear I would cease to exist.

A different kind of ride…made even better with a bike ride.

That reality came into stark relief this past weekend during a family trip to Vegas (which sounds like a huge oxymoron, but it can be done). It was going to be a quick turnaround—fly in Friday morning; home in time for Easter dinner Sunday. There would be no bikes. Just lots and lots of seeing of sites and soaking in of the shows…and walking.

And walking. Every time I walk I’m reminded that God invented cycling shoes for a reason, so we could get off our godforsaken feet and plant them on a set of pedals. I hate walking. I’d rather run than walk (your feet are in the air more than they’re on the ground—truth, I Googled it and the internet is always right). By Friday night, I already felt the cruel pull of gravity sucking all of my plasma into my quads, feet, and fingers, making all of the above feel like Ballpark Franks—cooked and plump.

Saturday morning I woke itching to ride, because well, that’s what I do on Saturday mornings before launching into other weekend activities. I pulled open the curtains in my dimly lit Luxor room. The dusty distant hills tormented me and my bikeless self. It was early, 7 a.m. and I had nothing to do till 10. I checked the hotel guidebook. The “Spa & Fitness Center” opened at 6. I knew better than to get my hopes up, but I sort of did anyway. I pulled my cycling shoes out of my bag (I brought them, because, just because), slipped into some shorts and a tank and took the elevator to the lobby in hopes of finding a Spin bike for a quick fix.

After what felt like miles of hoofing it through rows and rows of binging, dinging slot machines being mindlessly worked by chain smoking zombies (when the apocalypse comes I’m convinced that’s where they’ll really be) who clearly had no idea that a new day had just dawned, I turned the corner into the Fitness Center and scanned the room.

Treadmills. Elliptical machines. Medicine balls. And Lifecycles. Ugh. Lifecycles. The person who invented the Lifecycle clearly never rode a bike and didn’t want anyone else to ever want to ride one either. They don’t even remotely resemble the sport. I climbed on and rode 16 miles on the thing, vowing to pay more respect to every business traveler who, like a bum picking up discarded butts on the street, must get his or her fix in this sad and desperate fashion.

By the end of the hour, despite the wonky position and kind of numb rear from being cemented to the doublewide saddle, I was happy. Like singing happy. The act of pedaling had tripped the feel good synapses that give me a sense of peace with the world and fill the day ahead with promise.

An hour later, after showering and changing clothes, I stepped on the elevator to hit up Starbucks for an egg wrap and a double. A man with a newspaper under his arm looked at me and smiled. “Are you a cyclist?” he asked apropos of nothing. Startled, I simply replied, “Yes I am.” Then curious, I asked, “How do you know?” “You’ve got that cyclist walk,” he said with a shrug and a smile as he got off at his floor.

What that meant, I haven’t a clue, but I decided to take it as a compliment…and to take my cyclist walk out on the Strip and embrace the day, which included an hour-long hike across town (objects in the distance are further than they appear…much further) to Madame Tussauds in the Venetian; a bone-jangling ride on the coaster atop New York, New York, and a stunning trip skyward in the new 550 foot “observation (read: Ferris) wheel,” the High Roller.

As I pulled my shoes off my bloated, slightly blistered feet some 13 hours later, I was content that I’d enjoyed a fully three-dimensional day, complete with oodles of real person activities.

Home sweet home. Cycling makes me happy. (Happy Cycling Selfie)

Sunday brought an early alarm and an easy flight home, where chicken and corn were on the grill and the rest of my family was casually milling about, eating cheese and carrots and hummus, sipping beers and chatting. The sun was warm and the air was crisp. It was early…4 p.m. Dinner wouldn’t be till 6:30. My mom was napping quietly in the living room. I felt jet lagged and a little edgy to be inside on such a beautiful evening. I was happy to be home, but less than happy to be in the house.

“Mind if I slip out for a ride?” I asked Dave sheepishly, feeling a little guilty to be leaving as soon as I’d arrived. “I fully expected you would,” he said with a smile. I quickly kitted up and took my mountain bike out for a peaceful Easter spin through the trees and over the rocks and along the stream that runs through the Parkway at the edge of town. My insides unwound and head lightened as I pedaled.

An hour later, I pulled into the driveway, singing. I walked into the kitchen and Dave smiled. “There she is. Welcome home.” I pulled out some salad fixings and veggies to roast. As I sipped some wine and engaged in idle chitchat, I decided that riding every day doesn’t make me one dimensional, but rather inflates me like a Mylar balloon, giving me depth and lifting me higher so I have a better view of all the other stuff that fills my life…until the next ride.

This Ride Called Life

Saturday evening I went to visit my aging grandmother who my mother had recently and reluctantly admitted into an assisted-living facility after many years of selflessly caring for her on her own. I left a little sad and rattled. My relationship with my Nana is conflicted. She was a loving grandmother and I spent some of nearly every weekend and nearly every Sunday dinner in her home. But she was also difficult, paranoid, and irrationally stubborn to the point of being hurtful.

In the end, we're all here to see what we can find. (Dave Pryor)

She is the woman who stopped speaking to my grandfather until he stopped riding his bike. He loved to see how far he could go on the thing. She was convinced he must be having an affair, because I mean who would spend all afternoon on a bike? (Thanks for the genes Pop. They’ve served me well down here.) After that, he took to quietly spending his Sunday afternoons off from the Zinc Company in his favorite chair watching the sports he would have loved to have been playing. Slowly, he shrunk away and left this world as quietly as he dwelled in it.

Anyway. My visit to the nursing home left me pondering the meaning of life even more than usual. I didn’t come up with any grand answers there (I’ll let you know when I do for sure…it might be a while) But I did leave oddly fortified. Life can be long. Life can be short. It is always uncertain. Mine is largely filled with good fortune, for which I am very grateful. As the automatic doors opened and I stepped out of the fluorescent lit, medicinally smelling beige walls echoing with the noisy strains of daytime television into the warm fragrant April air, I made a silent vow to go right ahead and live a little larger, to keep putting myself out there and testing myself, digging deep to see what I could find, because even if I failed or fell short, so what? Life is short. Life is long. Life is uncertain. This one is mine to see where it can take me.

Which brings me to the second annual Lu Lacka Wyco Hundo, the hardest century around with a name we all love to mangle. I’d done this ride last year and loved it because it felt like a giant metaphor for life. The thing was damn hard, challenging you with climb after climb, each more relentless and brutal than the next. Yet each hard-fought summit was so worthwhile as you lifted your hanging head up and let your jaw drop at the sheer beauty surrounding you. Everyone got lost somewhere along the way. And everyone found their way back, too, each one finding a different solution to their particular predicament. A few called for help. Some finished in dwindling daylight, stubbornly borderline hypothermic and shattered after 10 or 12 hours in the saddle. At the end there was food and drink and laughter. Yeah. Life.

I could think of no other better way to celebrate the deep appreciation of my own than with this joyous 103 mile beatdown. I was not alone. Word had spread and the parking lot of Susquehanna Brewing Company was packed Sunday morning as we pulled into a sea of familiar and not so familiar faces.

As I milled around, signing in and kitting up, I caught snippets of random conversations. Some were there to “win;” though it’s not officially a race, there’s an award for the first male and female back to the brewery…and you know what they say about any ride with more than one rider. Others were gunning for survival. Some were hoping the day would springboard them from where they were to the next level, wherever that may be. One exchange in particular caught my ear as I clicked in and rolled to the start.

“Ready for some suffering?” one guy was asking his buddy as they fiddled with their Garmins.

“Ready as I’m going to be. I’m just hoping to finish before dark. Or just finish!” the other replied, as they both nodded and laughed.

I decided that maybe I was there for all of the above—to dig deep, to finish, to suffer, to engage the day on every level and to maybe celebrate with a good result in the end. The day did not disappoint.

It started with a neutral police escort through town, before the squad car pulled off and a group of us went off course roughly 35 seconds later. Thanks to some sharp memories and skilled Garmin navigation, our detour was short lived and we were back on track, one long mass of riders pedaling through this quiet patch of largely abandoned coal country, until the road tipped up in earnest and the factions began to form.

I found myself upfront in the good company of a group of local racers with whom I’ve shared many miles in many events, as well as a few out-of-towners who made easy wheels to follow, pleasant company, and much appreciated shelter from the stiff spring winds. We rolled along easily ticking off miles, mostly in comfortable silence save for some idle chitchat.

About 20 miles in, on the first of what would be many long, sketchy dirt road descents, Sean, a free-spirited bikesmith took a sharp gravelly corner just a little too hot and skid out, tumbled, and backflipped off the road into a patch of dirt and leaves. Dazed and shaken, he got up, remounted his bike and rode on, if a bit dialed down. Ten miles later, as our little group, now whittled down to seven or eight pressed up the steepest climb of the day, deeply bent over our bars, we heard a crackling and popping in the woods…then the unmistakable creaking of a tree limb about to give way. Oh my God. That’s a tree. I hope it doesn’t…CRACK. “Aaaahhh!”

Doug after being freed from the tree, pondering the random acts of life. (Ryan Dudek)

I stopped in my tracks and looked back. Doug was lying on the ground, pinned beneath a limb the size of a small tree. “I’m okay! I can feel my feet and move my legs! You can take a picture!” Doug. Ever the positive, upbeat soul. We dialed 911. Ryan removed his helmet, sat by his side, and waved us all on. “I’ll wait here for the ambulance. No need for all of us to clog the road.”

And on we went, the rest of the ride spent mostly working together, with one or two riders occasionally making some subtle move to split from the group only to end up back in the fold shortly down the road. Then somewhere between mile 65 and 75 when the course enters its hardest stretch, a set of endless rollers into a relentless headwind, we got divided. A group had surged off the front. One or two had fallen back. And I was in the middle, alone in no man’s land.

Then it got grim. I was pushing as hard as I could trying to bridge the ever-growing gap between me and what would be some much needed shelter from the buffeting winds. My legs burned. My insides squeezed and ached. I could see them. But I simply couldn’t reach them. Who are you kidding, Selene? Those guys are what? Ten, 15…20 years younger than you? You can’t hang. What does it matter? Why are you even bothering? How long do you think you can do this? Why suffer like this? For what?

Nowhere to bury it; simply going to cherish it…along with all these special moments. (Dave Pryor)

Because I can. I thought about my grandmother. I thought about my grandfather. I thought about life and all that it brings. We cyclists come to these events with the express intent to suffer so we can see what we can find inside—to see who we are on the other side. Perhaps it’s practice, training for life, or maybe just to feel really, truly alive.

I decided to keep pressing forward despite the aching and squeezing. I decided to enjoy the aching and squeezing. I decided I didn’t care if I blew sky high and had to paperboy my way up every climb and limp in 15 hours later. I started to feel better. And I caught up with the group, who I had never lost sight of, as we all pulled into the final checkpoint around mile 75.

We finished the day together, blissfully ushered in by a stiff tailwind for the final 10 miles. Hot food, cold beer, and a few hours later, I received my award: A sweet stainless steel axe, handle to be engraved with my name. A pretty, sharp tool that can chop fallen limbs, help build a fire, and hack through obstacles on the trail. I’ll cherish it as long as I live and ride.

The Payout

“I generally race pretty strong. But I don’t always race smart. Today I’m really happy I did both.” That was me telling pretty much anyone who would listen how damn happy I was that I’d just won Monster Cross in Chesterfield, Virginia this past Sunday.

I love when hard work pays off.

I’ve made no secret about how hard I’ve been working this early season. I’ve been building base and doing lots and lots (and lots) of threshold tolerance work with my coach, Neil Kent, who I adore. During our initial conversations, I told him that I like to climb but really hate trying to hang on in the flats. He responded by giving me intervals that force me into that same uncomfortable place with the goal of getting better at staying there longer. So, I’ve been doing a lot of that, which is hard to begin with, but has been particularly hard in a winter that has buried us in feet of snow and introduced us to the concept of “Polar Vortex.” I’ve also made no secret of my mental mechanicals going into this season. Another birthday. Another season. More than a bit of navel gazing. My usual pre-race misery-steeped nerves.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I felt good physically and like a train wreck mentally, which generally foreshadows a good day ahead. But I knew that Monster Cross brings a pretty strong women’s field out to play, and though the race isn’t particularly hard on paper, it is very challenging in that it is full gas with zero coasting and there are a few spots that seem to leave everyone on the trailside changing flats. It’s impossible to say who might take the day any given year. But this year, I really wanted it. I’d come close last year, but blew a lead by going off course. I wanted the validation that what I was doing was working.

So going into Sunday, I wanted to win, but I knew I needed a plan. Sean McCann, a very smart sports psychologist, once told me that I need to have smaller, actionable goals besides “Win,” because that singular mission doesn’t really give me anything to try to accomplish during the race. So I hatched a few. I would start strong, because I’m good at starting strong. I would race smart and try to work and play better with others, because I often don’t race very intelligently and just gun it off the line and try to stay away as long as possible…until I don’t, which is really kind of dumb. I would attend to my fueling every 15 to 20 minutes. And I would stay present, not give up on myself, and just race my race without worrying about anyone else.

Tall orders, I know. But somehow I managed….mostly. We pulled into Pocahontas State Park on Sunday morning with about an hour and a half to spare. My nerves had been jangling like a pocketful of change. So I occupied my mind with starting on my goals. That meant getting my number, organizing myself and warming up. I decided that I wasn’t going to overthink anything. My tubeless tires were set at 38 psi…I would not run around squeezing other people’s tires, fretting over my decision or second guessing myself. I put two bottles of OSMO Hydration on my bike and one on the tailgate of the truck if I needed it for the final lap. I filled my pockets with three packs of PowerBar Energy Blasts, which I would pop into my mouth in a steady stream during the 50-mile race. Then I headed to the start/finish to do some warm up runs up the first pavement climb.

When the time came to line up, I felt calm and ready. The air horn blasted and we were off. I had a good start and led off the line and a couple miles later, into the woods. “Goal one, accomplished,” I thought as the field started to spread out into its respective groupings. I decided to not look back at all and just race forward. I could hear a couple of female voices behind me, but knew that the pack was thinning. A few more miles passed and when I finally glanced over my shoulder, there were just two other women in sight—Suzie a local Luna pro and Carla, who I didn’t remember from last year (turns out this was her first year in the pro/elite field), but who looked tenacious and strong.

Time for goal number two: work and play well with others. I knew Suzie is a strong, consistent rider and she’s also got a nice presence about her. Carla seemed strong and steady as well. So, instead of getting all aggro and attacking or trying to get away and burning a bunch of matches, I decided to actually be smart and settle in and work with them. There were times I was uncomfortable and times I felt, well, too comfortable. “Perfect,” I thought. “That’s how you should feel. It’s 50 miles today.”

We stayed together for most of the first 20 miles. Then on a sketchy downhill leading into the start/finish feed zone, I heard one of them let out a shriek. I glanced back and saw that Suzie had crashed. Carla was temporarily hung up. I didn’t gun it, because I wanted to be sure Suzie was okay. Carla caught back up and confirmed that she indeed was though she might have a bike issue. And we were off, now just two of us.

Somewhere in the next 8-mile midway loop we were motoring along on some flattish section and we caught up to my friend Stephan, who looked to be in a little trouble, and Carla launched an attack to catch a small group of guys a bit further up. I didn’t follow. Why? I don’t know. This is the stuff I’m not so great at. Mentally, I get all nihilistic out there sometimes. “Why am I doing this?” “I could just let them go and still probably have a decent result” “Blahblahblah” It’s just a weird mental mechanical problem I get, because, though I really do love racing, I’m not so much a racer at heart. Thankfully my friend and kindred spirit of sorts Stephan stuck a virtual Allen wrench in my ear and screwed my head on straight.

“So you guys are one and two in the women’s class?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Long pause.

“Selene, there’s nobody in sight behind us. You look like you’re pedaling great. You’ve got to get on that or you’re going to be left behind.”

He was right. I had been training very specifically for this—to be able to hang on and ride strong when I hate hanging on and riding strong. All those threshold tolerance intervals. All those hours on the rollers. All those freezing cold miles on the mountain bike on the road. If I let this go because I sort of wasn’t feeling it, I’d be very unhappy with myself for being so lame. And practically speaking, it would be a whole lot easier to work with a group than to sit out there by myself in the wind. I clicked it into a harder gear, stood up, and bridged the gap.

Race strong. Race smart. Going to try to make that my mantra. (Courtney Cotton)

I’m so glad I did. There were about a half dozen or so of us working together, swooshing through the woods. The miles ticked off and somewhere along the way going into the last 10 to 15 miles I started to feel chainless—and, even better mentally “anchorless.” I had been accomplishing my mini race goals and it was paying off. “You can win this Selene. You have to go for it.”

It was time to use all the energy I had saved by not burning myself out early on and to reap the rewards of fueling and hydrating and preparing properly. I turned up the pace and decided that I would just go for it and see what happened. Carla was really strong, but I could feel her dangling a bit here and there. I figured if she was still there when we hit the final few miles of pavement, which were mostly uphill into the wind, I would lay it all out there and just go for broke.

At some point, I’m not sure where, she fell off. I glanced back and saw a little gap and decided to go harder and see if I could just get away. A short while later, one of the guys we were riding with confirmed that she’d fallen further back. (She also eventually flatted in the sketchy stream where everybody flats, which bummed me out. She got passed and lost her hard-fought podium spot while fixing her flat—I’ve been there. It sucks.)

I finished off the final miles with the men who were left in our group. Before long I heard the beautiful siren song of the start/finish and my heart literally leapt with joy. I don’t often talk about how proud I am of myself for a win. But that is as proud of myself as I’ve been in a long while. I prepared properly. I set my goals. I raced strong. I raced smart. And it all paid off. I was the only woman to break three hours that day. Let the season begin.

When a Race Is More Than a Race

“More than a race… A stage in your life.”

SeleneBrazilRideFocus
And we’re off! An endo and cracked helmet on the prologue reminded me to keep my eyes forward and focus sharp. (Brazil Ride)

That’s the motto of Brasil Ride, a seven-day mountain bike stage race that takes you about up, over, around, and through the mountainous Chapada Diamantia region of Brazil.

I’ll confess, being a bit jaded from constant exposure to industry marketing and having a number of stage races in my pocket, I scanned the tag line on the race’s website and just as quickly brushed it off as a bit of promotional puffery. Please. I thought. It’s just a race.

I was wrong. I mean, yes, of course, it was a race with start lines and finish lines and aid stations and all the usual trappings. But now sitting here three days later, head still swirling with images of burnt orange dirt, sandstone singletrack, wild burros, and ox-drawn carts, I can say with certainty that the race—and the place—are inextricably part of me in a way that no race has ever been.

After 145K of leaving everything out there on Stage 6. (Brazil Ride)
After 145K of leaving everything out there on Stage 6. (Brazil Ride)

When Rebecca Rusch asked me to go nearly a year ago, I said yes without hesitation and without the slightest inkling of what we were in for. It wasn’t until I visited the website many months later and saw that a number of the stages had 9 to 12 hour cut off times that I realized we were in for quite the challenge. But honestly, I still really didn’t have a clue.

Having never been to Brazil, I couldn’t envision there would be 7-mile climbs with stretches so sketchy and steep, you bow down as if praying (and maybe you are praying) over your bars to keep the front wheel down and what little forward momentum you have. I didn’t imagine wild horses would pop out of the brush and join our snaking train of riders along slivers of rocky singletrack. Or that every day would be such a feast for the eyes as we passed through terrain that would switch from cactus farms to leafy forests in a blink of an eye.

Having never raced with Rebecca, I couldn’t envision the challenges that two strong personalities with two very different racing styles would face. Or that it would take three days for us to blend our strengths and limitations together into a well-oiled machine that could stand up to 100 degree heat, rivers of rain, nearly vertical descents, and in the end nearly 42,000 feet of climbing over 370 miles. Or how much we would laugh and grow to appreciate each other along the way.

Done. Elation. (Erika Morais)
Done. Elation. (Erika Morais)

I knew I was coming into this race as prepared as I’ve ever been for anything but yet I couldn’t envision that Rebecca and I would be victorious each stage. I certainly never envisioned how a 145K stage six days into the race would leave me so thoroughly turned inside out physically and emotionally that I would collapse by the finish line and nearly weep with emotion I can’t even name. And I had no idea how purely and wholly elated we would feel at every finish.

But that’s Brasil Ride. It takes you places outside yourself and inside yourself and leaves you better for having been there. Now onto the next stage.

Humble Pie

It’s been a long time since I got my ass soundly handed to me. But to be perfectly blunt, and I really feel like being perfectly blunt, so pardon the crass language, Saturday afternoon at Mountain Bike National Championships at Bear Creek (oh, Bear Creek, why are you so mean?…) I got my ass served up to me on a family-sized platter along with a heaping helping of humble pie.

To be abundantly clear, I never imagined I would be anywhere near the front of the race at this past weekend. Lining up with capitol-P PROS like Lea Davison, Georgia Gould, Pua Mata, and more than two dozen other blazingly fast women gunning for a stars and stripes jersey, the front of the field was out of the question. But I had three of my teammates, along with a few other familiar faces, out there with me. And I knew if I could stay with them, I could hang on tight and make it to the finish, which in truth was my only goal. As you might have gleaned from the opening paragraph, that was not to be.

I had a bad feeling going into this one. After Kanza I took a break for a few weeks to just ride around and sort of slipped into a lull. I had a book manuscript to finish. Then I had mountain biking vacation in Vermont and a trip to Colorado for a Specialized product launch. I came back and it was one week till go time and I wasn’t feeling so much go. I’d been riding plenty but I hadn’t been racing. So my form going into the weekend was not what I would normally want it to be for an all out XC race. So I adjusted my expectations and hoped for the best. Again, that wasn’t quite to be either.

We’ve been having a monster heat wave here in the Mid-Atlantic. Day after day of excessive heat warnings and “Real Feels” in the triple digits. I have a love/hate thing with the heat. Sometimes I sort of relish it. Sometimes it buries me. Maybe if I spent a week in a sports physiology lab someone in a white coat could tell me why, but I haven’t figured it out on my own. All I know is I did everything I knew how to do to beat it, including dunking in the pool to cool my core and pre-hydrating with a special electrolyte drink, before lining up on a dusty open fire road in the hazy, humid midday heat.

The official blew the whistle at 1:30 sharp and we were off. The pace was hot, but manageable, where I settled in somewhere mid-back of the pack as the leaders sailed off at impressive speed. We snaked our way up and up and up the rocky, root-strewn technical ascent. I grabbed a bottle from Dave who was working the feed zone for my teammate Cheryl and me on top of the mountain after a ludicrously steep open field climb.

Then it was time for the tricky descent through the rock garden, which was lined with a tunnel of people making a wall of sound I haven’t heard the likes of since Ironman. “They’re waiting for you in there,” my friend John joked as I entered the singletrack. I could hear the sirens and cowbells and vuvuzelas and got goose bumps. “All your friends are in there. Everyone you know,” I thought to myself, desperately wanting to ride clean and not let them down. As I turned the corner into the rock garden I was blown away. My insides vibrated from the sound of my name being screamed and shouted at every angle. I think I could have ridden straight up a wall on the sheer energy of all that support. I cleaned everything and couldn’t wait to get back in and do it again.

Selene Yeager picks her way through the singletrack at USAC Mountain Bike Nationals
Welcome to the jungle. Bear Creek gives very few breaks. (Derek Green)
Sailing out of what was to be my final lap. Only I didn't know that yet. (Jennifer Jackson Sears)
Sailing out of what was to be my final lap. Only I didn’t know that yet. (Jennifer Jackson Sears)

Tip of the Week – Carve Those Corners

Rare is the perfectly straight road. Instead, your cycling journey is filled with sweeping, swooping, sometimes hairpin curves and corners. The more confident you are in corners, the more you can safely enjoy any ride. Here are some key tips to make it through any turn:

Get low. The lower your center of gravity, the more stable you’ll feel. That means getting into your drops (the lowest part of your curvy bars on a traditional road bike) on a road bike or simply bending your elbows and dipping your torso a bit on a flat-barred bike.

Stay loose. You steer your bike with your body, so every part needs to be free to move. So keep loose! If you tense up, your arms will straighten, and you’ll end up fighting your bike through the turn. Consciously relax your hands and arms so you have a firm, but not tight, grip on the bars, and your upper body feels loose. Your elbows should be bent.

Scrub speed before the turn. Squeezing the brakes makes your bike sit up and straighten out—not a good posi­tion for turning! Try to get most, if not all, of your braking out of the way before you get to the turn so you can coast through it with minimal braking, if any. To do this, feather your brakes (i.e., squeeze the levers just enough to caress the rims) as you approach the turn. You should barely feel your weight going into your bars. If your weight shifts for­ward, you’re squeezing too hard. Then let go once you’re in the turn, feathering again only if necessary.

Press into your pedal. For sharp turns, you want to keep your wheels planted firmly on the ground (and avoid skid­ding) by weighting your wheels. Extend your outside leg and push very heavily into the pedal as you lightly press down on the handlebar with your inside hand. This will help you maintain traction as you sweep through the curve.

Look where you want to go. Your bike follows your eyes. Look through the corner to the exit where you want to go. Also shift your torso in the direction you want to go. Re­member, you’re steering with your full body. So point your eyes and chin and shoulders in the direction you want to go, and the rest will follow.

Four for your Core

Tip from the experts.

Cycling doesn’t strengthen your core muscles in your torso (especially abs and back) and hips, but you need strong core muscles to ride fast and strong without fatiguing. Your core acts as the platform that your legs push against and keeps you steady in the saddle. When it’s weak, your pedaling suffers and you may too…from back aches and even knee pain. Here are four moves that will build a rock solid core to keep you spinning fast, steady, and comfortably down the road. Aim to do the whole routine two to three times a week.

Perfect Plank

Targets the deep abdominal muscles that are tough to tone with other exercises.

Lie facedown on the floor with your upper body propped on your forearms with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Your torso should be up off the floor so your body is in a straight line, supported by your forearms and toes. Your back should not arch or droop. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds (or as long as possible without losing proper form). Repeat 3 times.

Side Lying Hip Hike

Targets obliques while also strengthening back and shoulders.

Sit on your right hip with legs extended to the side, knees slightly bent. Cross your left foot in front of the right. Place your right hand on the floor directly beneath your shoulder. Place your left hand on your left leg. Lift hips off the floor, extending left arm overhead, so your body forms a diagonal line. Without bending the right arm, lower hips and left arm back to start. Perform 4 reps. Switch sides.

Bridge Kick

Targets outer glutes and hips.

Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor, arms down at your sides. Squeeze glutes and lift hips so body forms a straight line. Lift the right leg, extending it as high as comfortably possible without allowing your hips to dip or rise on either side. Lower back to start, and repeat with the left leg. Do 16 to 20 total reps (8 to 10 per side).

Bird Dog Point ‘n’ Curl

Targets back, glutes, obliques and abdominals.

Kneel on all fours, with hands directly beneath shoulders and knees directly beneath hips. Keep back straight and head in line with spine. Simultaneously raise right arm and left leg, extending them in line with back so fingers are pointing straight ahead and toes are pointing back. Then contract abs and draw right elbow to left knee together beneath torso. Switch sides. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps.

Metric Century (62 mile) Training Plan

Hit your goal to ride a metric century (62 miles) in just three rides a week. This simple to follow plan will get you there in just 8 weeks. For 31 miles, there is a modification noted in the attachment.

Selene Yeager is health, fitness and cycling expert and the author of Ride Your Way Lean: The Ultimate Plan for Burning Fat and Getting Fit on a Bike

Here is the Metric training plan from Selene Yeager (includes 62 and 31 mile options).

James Wilson Welcomes Back Selene Yeager to the Team CF Elite Roster

Team CF president and founder Dr. James M. Wilson recently had a chance to catch up with Team CF elite team member Selene “Fit Chick” Yeager…

JW: First of all Selene congratulations on another great season of racing in 2012. You’ve had some incredible moments with Team CF including winning the inaugural Trans-Sylvania Epic Mountain Bike stage race, winning the Mid Atlantic Super Series endurance series and twice capturing the PACX cyclocross series title. You’re kind of an “allarounder” What are your specific goals in 2013 ? Will you do anything differently ?

SY: Thanks Jim. I’m one of those athletes who doesn’t care to do the same events and races over and over. So I’ve made it my goal to explore and find new challenges. Last year, I raced far more cross than usual and had some really great results as well as a very good time. I did a little less of the ultra-endurance racing, just to give my mind and body a bit of a break. Well, break’s over! I’m itching to test my mettle again, so I’ll be out tackling the Dirty Kanza 200–a 200 mile gravel grinder race this summer and hopefully pairing with Rebecca Rusch to race Ride Brasil, an arduous stage race in South America this fall.

JW: As a member of TeamCF, you are a competitive cyclist committed to the development of a cure for CF. How do you contribute toward this goal?

SY: I try to be the best ambassador for the team that I can possibly be. I wear my team colors proudly and talk to everyone who will listen about our mission. Fortunately, I have the privilege of working in the media, so I’m able to reach a lot of people! I also encourage riders to get involved in our team and club events. Every person counts.

JW: TeamCF now has eight women on the elite team roster, placing it among one of the largest pro-am elite level woman’s teams. How do you fit in? Does this change your approach to racing in 2013?

SY: I’m very humbled by the greatness that surrounds me, honestly. The women on this squad are awesome, powerful, top level racers. Sometimes I pinch myself wondering how I got here. But I’ve learned and grown so much just being in their presence. It’s also simply awesome when there are three or four of us all on form at an event and we’re able to lead the charge in our “blue train” as we affectionately call it. I can honestly say that while I like to win, I’m never too disappointed being bested by one of my teammates, because I’m so thrilled for them.

JW: Do you use disk brakes or cantilevers on your cross bike?

SY: Both. I have a disc brake bike and a canti bike. I swap back and forth depending on conditions. I like the finessing that the disc allows, but there is a bit of a weight penalty on the bike.

JW: Specialized Bicycles has again stepped up to sponsor TeamCF in 2013. What will be your “go to” race bike this year and why?

SY: My Epic! It’s a joy to ride. Always.

JW: Any parting words?

SY: Stay tuned for all the wonderful things Team CF is going to do this year. With each year we just keep getting better and better. And thank you Jim for the opportunity you’ve given us all. It’s been the ride of a lifetime! I hope we make you proud.

JW: Thank you Selene and best of luck to you racing in 2013!

SY: Thank you!!!