In 2008 I rode 70 miles with a group of very fast men. I did not consider myself much of a cyclist and I had never ridden that far before. We climbed a long hill called Timber Road. By the time we hit mile 60 the wheels had come off my proverbial wagon. A team of three was sent back to rescue me and I sat in that generous paceline watching my heartrate max out while we pedaled 14mph into a block headwind. I arrived at the finish red-faced and drooling, with a large glob of chocolate Gu smeared across my face.
It was the ugliest I had ever been. It was the best I had ever been.
I have written about the Timber Road ride before. The story isn’t remarkable on its own; we all will bonk, we all will find ourselves in need of a wheel, we all will come apart at the seams while trying to do something bigger than we had previously imagined. Timber Road was only important insofar as it marked a shift in my personal storytelling. That I changed my mind about who I was and what I could do. That day I decided to be a cyclist. To act like one.
Fast forward four years. It is the summer of 2012 and I am riding the entire Tour de France course with a team of 6 women. Every day I wake up and ride 130 miles or so. Flat stages contain 8,000-ish feet of climbing. The mountain stages clock in around 16 or 17,000. At the end of three weeks, we have accumulated more than 160,000 feet of elevation gain over roughly 2300 miles.
That’s a lot of going up and down. More to the point, it’s a lot of going up.
One of the stories I still like to tell myself is common among cyclists: I am not a climber. Unfortunately, this story is true and due to the law of physics and whiskey, there is nothing I can do to change it. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a climber in order to climb.
The hills in France are among the best: long or steep or both. An HC climb will go on and on for 17 miles and in my world that is a little more than 2 hours of work. We traversed 25 mountains passes while we were covering the route of the Tour. I had a lot of time to think about what it is to be a not-climber who enjoys climbing.
Here’s the thing. Every hill is exactly the same; it will have a beginning and an end and will be magically conquered simply by continuing to pedal. This works the same on a little rise in your neighborhood as it does on a mountain pass. You can complicate things by trying to go fast, but you certainly don’t have to.
A friend once told me (as we grudged our way up a double digit grade) that pain is just a sensation like any other – acknowledge it, experience it and then move onto the next sensation. This Zen dismissal of my suffering did not go over very well in that particular moment, but I have never forgotten her words and I think of them often when the road turns uphill. Coaxing yourself to engage the immediacy of the moment when you’re sucking air through a straw can be a little tricky, but the dismissal part is good when you get to it.
This year the Tour will turn 100 and on July 7th Rapha will send 100 women to Etape du Tour to conquer mountains and doubts. Among the fray are more than a handful of women new to the sport who propose to do something they might not have previously imagined for themselves. No doubt between now and then – and likely right there on the slopes in France – there will be more than a few Timber Road moments.
Of course, the real beauty of the Timber Road story is the fact that it did not happen in France. It was not a big event. It was not a big deal. It was a small road in the countryside of Oregon not very far from my house. These opportunities to rewrite the stories you tell (and believe) about yourself are everywhere. They’re just outside your door. They’re around the corner. They’re just past the next crest.
As the delegation of 100 tackles Etape du Tour, women around the world will be riding 100k together on less famous roads in less famous places. Maybe we have never ridden this far before in our lives, maybe we have. In the process of training, trying and finishing together we’ll begin to write a new story for women’s cycling. We will celebrate a movement that is strong and getting stronger. And we might even have a few oxygen-depleted moments of immediate Zen clarity along the way.
To pay tribute to the upcoming Women’s 100 ride Heidi also published 10 Mental Strategies for Staying Positive During a Hard Ride on her site Grit & Glimmer. Continue your Women’s 100 ride prep with one woman who has done it all. But her Number One strategy is one that everyone should remember: “Send negative thoughts packing”.