Words: Julie Krasniak | Photography: Jeremy Dunn | Date:
Following The Calling, the meeting of Rapha’s Women Ambassadors in California, a team of six Ambassadors set out to ride the route of this year’s Tour of California. Julie Krasniak recounts the highs and lows, and realisations that came from a week in the saddle.
Sometimes we need more than just cycling to work or taking the bike out on the weekend. And it’s at these moments, when we decide to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, that the magic happens.
The Tour of California is a professional stage race for men, taking place between the 11th and 18th May, with a route running from Sacramento to the north of Los Angeles.
A group of seven girls, we set out to explore each and every stage of the TOC. Seven days long, around 700 miles (1,125km) in distance, and more hours in the saddle than you can imagine. None of us could claim to be like Cancellara before the Tour of Flanders, so it soon became difficult to clock 200km per day. But we did it. Well, nearly.
The schedule was tight. We had to get up at the crack of dawn, eat, and then prepare for a 10-hour day on the bike. There were six of us from The Calling, Rapha’s women’s ambassador programme, and a journalist called Addie. The hour before each departure was chaotic but finally, one by one, we got on our bikes, ready to face the day.
On a trip like this pedalling starts off stiff and painful, the previous evening’s stretching having only just reduced the damage. The first few hours always go by quickly, until hunger forces us to take a break. It usually heats up during the day, and our go-to layering was knee warmers, arm warmers and a gilet. In California you might experience three different climates in one day – Pacific coastal winds, the heat of the plains, or the threat of mountain rain. On some days you constantly switch between being swelteringly hot and shivering from the cold, but you notice it less the more time you spend on the bike. By 3pm we go into autopilot. While the first days were joyful, we can’t wait for the crazy Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach day to be over. It was five hours of strong headwinds and endless byways, finally reaching the finish line at sunset. No one uttered a word in the last two hours. Abby renamed the finish town ‘Piss-me-off Beach’. Funny, the day had started off so well on the magnificent coastline that climbs straight up into the mountains from Santa Barbara.
Meredith: “I can’t climb slow, really, I can’t.”
Beth: “I just want to get to the top.”
This was when I realised we had to be cycling together – not just for logistical reasons, but because that was what the trip was all about, the challenge of keeping together through every mountain pass.
The group had to stick together. The difference in level between us was significant. Too significant. From the first day I realised that it was going to be complicated to ride together, but we had to find a solution – it wasn’t yet a problem but it would definitely soon be one. We were at High Mountain, near the end of a day of snow, wind, and temperatures that barely topped 2°C. I faced a moral dilemma: climb at my own speed, and leave my slower members to climb at theirs – knowing this will affect morale– or accompany them. I decided to stay back, even physically pushing another rider’s bike, its handlebars swinging dangerously from left to right as the slope steepened.
I’d seriously doubted we could finish this stage before nightfall when we started out that morning, and sitting in the van to the stage start I had some dark thoughts, particularly, ‘Why are we doing this?’ As we approached the summit of High Mountain my senses zoned out and despite the snow I didn’t feel cold or discomfort. I’ve competed at the highest levels of the sport for ten years yet I’m still amazed at our ability to draw on inner strength to endure the most extreme conditions. That’s where the magic is, after we have stepped out of our comfort zone and grasp hold of the belief that we can overcome anything. I was obsessed with the idea of reaching the stage finish in the company of my fellow riders. One simple question remained – what am I trying to prove to myself? The lack of an answer haunts me all evening.
During the week, we each readjust our outlook on life, battling fatigue and examining our feelings. I can’t help but think of a conversation I had had with Allen Lim a few days before, during the ‘stress tests’ – a test he created to establish why an athlete decides to stop. It’s simple. An athlete will stop a few seconds after the brain starts to lack oxygen, even though they insist that they could have continued. It’s difficult to be honest with yourself, it’s perhaps the biggest challenge a human being has to face in life. I like the idea that the bike sets the record straight despite our tendency to play down or rewrite history.
The status on day four: we were in a miserable physical state, which is a challenge in itself, and knew that day five was likely to be worse. I worried about the group; all I could see were ravaged faces, blank stares and inflamed bodies.
Kim’s IT band was badly inflamed, something that had happened to me a few years back. I’ll never forget how toughly my doctor tried to impress on me that this injury is simple and brutal. There are, he said, three stages: inflammation, partial rupture, and rupture. I had been in phase two – the treatment was total rest. But there was no telling Kim, and after a few return trips to the support vehicle she soldiers on.
We cycled the Tour of California course in reverse, making for extra difficulty. The pros will travel north to south, with the wind on their backs. We did things the other way around, taking on a headwind each day. The race is designed for some days to be easier than others, and there’s a Queen stage after the first few days of racing. We didn’t get to have the easy days, all we got was dust in our faces. This feeling of battling against an element, of having to constantly push against a mass of air, is one of the most difficult challenges for a cyclist. ‘The wind is worse than a bump’ is heard over and over. In the evening, the wind continued to resonate in our ears, like a deafening roar, as though to remind us that we would have to do it all again in the morning.
Here is an SMS we received from the local authorities one day:
“Emergency alerts, dust storm warning in this area until 11:00pm PDT. Avoid travel. Check local media.”
Roll Baby Roll
Above all else, we dreaded Friday’s stage – taking Highway 1 from Cambria to Monterey where we were likely to battle headwinds for 200km. It was a terrifying prospect for any cyclist. But on a bike, as in life, things rarely go to plan and we ended up unanimously voting Friday the best day of the trip. A perfect coastal road hugging the ocean, a gentle breeze, an azure-blue sky – we were all energized. Miracles do happen. This was one of the nicest days of the week. Beautiful landscapes as far as the eye could see. Thank you, Fate, for giving us that day. We all needed it.
Cycling reminds us of what we try not to admit too often – we are too obsessed with individual success. Working in a team allows us to achieve goals that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish alone. It’s in these moments that being the fastest or the slowest doesn’t change anything – it’s together or nothing. I believe that day reminded us of this. It’s complicated: the strongest were forced to look back and help and motivate everyone else, just as the slowest were enabled to surpass themselves with the help of others. The day asked six human beings to throw their egos away. I realise this why I love this sport. For the human challenge it presents, no matter what level you’re at. Everyone deals with her own strengths and weaknesses, without exception.
Sometimes, you need support from people who aren’t there, and after several days of worrying that this adventure was too difficult for some of us, I asked advice from my friend, CD. This was his answer:
“Goals are bad when they overcome the spirit. There’s no reward for finishing and hating it.”
I had cramp in my left calf, which was swollen and sore. I could ride, but my legs were burning. For those last two days I wanted to keep going, to keep the group together, and this knowledge made me mentally exhausted. The pain had started after spending a day pushing my teammate Kim up High Mountain – I thought it had been the right thing to do but I didn’t know I would pay so dearly.
When we attacked Hamilton on Saturday after 6 days on the road, I realised the day wouldn’t last very long for me. Kim and Rachel were already in the van. Hamilton is a dreadful mountain pass, 30km long. I got in the van after two hours and instantly fell asleep. When I woke, I realised that Abby, Meredith and Beth still hadn’t reached the summit. It was nearly midday and a further 160km remained. Rain sheeted down on the remaining riders. I reckoned they’d pack it in by 3pm, and they do.
These long hours in a state of mental and physical fatigue heightened our senses. Details stood out, silence became golden. Our attention shifted from focusing on our basic survival needs to the magnificent details in the landscapes and the sounds we heared – those that we can’t take in and appreciate in our daily lives. There is something magical in the air, something lost, a world that only exists for those ready to observe and understand it. It’s about waking up to beauty.
Every day we pedal. Our bodies hurt and our brains are exhausted, but as we travelled further from the city, as we approached those forgotten places – so near yet so far from civilisation – we reconnect with what matters, the silence becomes heavy and captivating, feeding our souls. Alone, the gentle sounds of the cranks and the chain passing over the sprockets are the only things that remind us we aren’t dreaming. Over time, the thoughts that reconnect us to the world become less frequent and we’re in a perfect emptiness – it’s a fresh and bright energy that makes us light and simplifies everything.
My impression of the Tour of California route was one of an never-ending road, between valleys and hills, mountains, oceans and rivers, man and nature. Why take up this challenge? I don’t yet have an answer. Most of us did it because it represents a discovery of the unknown. For me, it was an experience that allowed me to re-centre myself, to reconnect with what’s important to me, to understand the difference between what I need and what I think I need.
Throughout the days of cycling, we connected with each other, anticipating each other’s needs, learning to listen. Our common passion for cycling and its challenges created a precious bond. You’re not alone, wherever you are in the world, in cycling every day in order to find this sense of well-being and achievement. I like the idea that this ride had nothing to do with the Tour of California except for its itinerary. What we did was nothing like being a professional cyclist. But with each metre of road travelled, we adjusted our outlook on life and that has just as much value. The connection we created made me realise that every day there are thousands, perhaps millions, of women writing their life story on a bike, rising to their own challenges – and I rejoice at being a part of that community. The next time you ask yourself what you are capable of achieving, I hope that you’ll think of us and go for it. So near yet so far, just throw yourself into a challenge that seems bigger than yourself; remember that there is always the downhill after the pass and there’s always a finish line somewhere.
Since I got back, I’ve found an energy I didn’t know I had, a rhythm to my life and a sense of fulfilment. I’m riding the wave of the Tour of California and just 48 hours after my arrival at the Capitol in Sacramento, I needed to get right back in the saddle.
We should all do a Tour of California from time to time.
Routes and Photos
- Day One: Thousand Oaks – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4165111
- Day Two: Santa Clarita – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4165159
- Day Three: Mtn High – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4165223
- Day Four: Santa Barbara – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4192299
- Day Five: Cambria – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4192425
- Day Six: Mt Diablo – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4193190
- Day Seven: Sacramento – http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4193983
The Tour of California did not start or end here for the Rapha Women Ambassadors. Take a look through the #RaphaTOC tag on instagram to see some of their spectacular photos along the way. Also, if you are looking to connect with a group of Women to ride, check out the Womens 100 page. This July 20th, women from all over the world will ride 100k together. Find a ride in your area.
2014 Rapha North America Women Ambassadors
- Abby Watson – Portland, OR – @abbylwatson
- Alie Giaime – NYC (new ambassador) – @pink7grl
- Beth Strickland – Emmaus, PA – @bikebeth
- Cynthia Young – Vancouver, BC – @youngcynthia
- Elizabeth Reeder – Los Angeles, CA (new ambassador) – @ereederreadsanereader
- Erika Christensen – Los Angeles, CA – @erikachristensen
- Julie Krasniak – Portand, OR – @krasniakjulie
- Kelton Wright – Los Angeles, CA (new ambassador) – @ktonic
- Kim Cross – Birmingham, AL – @kimhcross
- Lindsay Knight – Chicago, IL (new ambassador) – @lindsay_h_knight
- Meredith Miller – Boulder, CO (new ambassador) – @mmcyclist
- Pia Scaroni – San Francisco, CA (new ambassador) – @Pscaroni
- Rachael Lambert – Durham, NC (new ambassador) – @raelambo
- Sarai Snyder – Boulder, CO – @cyclofemme