*INTERVIEW by Heidi Swift*
Two years ago on a cold day in January, I found myself on a team ride climbing a steep, quiet road called Old Germantown. Up ahead a very fast, impossibly light Cat 1 climber was pinning a pace that could only be described as obscene. When she reached the top, she would turn around and descend, passing me with a smile on her way to do another repeat so she wouldn’t get cold waiting. I hated her.
Next to me, Tina Brubaker rode without sound. She had fallen back to ensure that I did not die without a witness. Brubaker had a calm intuition about my suffering (perhaps because she shared a small part of it) and didn’t pester me with encouragement. The only words that came out of her mouth a few minutes later were, “Look, it’s snowing.”
I hadn’t noticed and I didn’t care but I smiled anyway. The tiny climber passed us on her second run to the top. Then Brubaker looked at me, observed the constant stream of drops coming off my nose onto the bars and said, “My god, Heidi. How can you be sweating in this cold?”
I smiled again and we were quiet until we reached the top where I worked hard to control my urge to kill the skinny mountain goat girl. After that day, Brubaker called me Waterfall – or sometimes Juicy Fruit when she was feeling frisky. Next to her nicknames – Earthquaker and Rump Shaker to name two – mine seemed a little pitiful, but I accepted them happily. Over the next two years, I had the pleasure of getting to know this little racing firecracker (she is listed in my iPhone as Man Breaker–First name: Man, Last name: Breaker).
Though she’ll deny it, Brubaker is a bit of a racing legend in Oregon – and with good reason. During her years in the saddle she’s been a State Cyclocross and Criterium Champion, Oregon’s Best All Around Rider (three times), State and National TTT Champion and has won a long list of regional races that is too extensive to mention.
Perhaps more impressive than her victories is the sheer volume and diversity of racing that she manages to do. From downhill and Super D to marathon cross-country mountain-biking and cyclocross, she’s got the offroad scene covered. On the pavement it’s road races, crits, omniums, stage races and time trials. Somewhere in between is the West Coast Rapha Gentlemen’s Race which her team, Veloforma, won in 2010. And then there’s track racing…
Raised by her grandparents on a goat farm in Scholls, Oregon, Brubaker has the kind of down-to-business work ethic that suits a serious cyclist, but it’s balanced by a personality that owns you from the start. It’s big. Somehow fittingly, at 5’3”, Brubaker is not. She is also outspoken, straightforward, hilarious, generous, infectiously upbeat and fairly fearless. Her daring may have something to do with a curious childhood hobby: Hungarian-style horse vaulting.
Whatever the case, she brings aggression, happiness and intensity to the bike in a way that I’ve not seen from many others. She races with an urgency that makes you think she needs it to survive, but finishes with a joyfulness that lets you know she loves it.
I caught up with her last week just before she left for Downieville to chat about preparation for the 2011 West Coast Gentleman’s Race, cyclocross, nicknames, lining up to race with Jeannie Longo and whether or not men of the world should be afraid of a tiny woman named Man Breaker.
[Two days after this interview Brubaker went to Downieville and hit the podium in the cross-country race with a fourth place finish. On Sunday in the downhill race she suffered a mechanical but held on for sixth. She finished fourth overall in the All-Mountain World Championships classification.]
About finding the bike
A neighbor of mine randomly invited me on a mountain bike ride one day. I’d never really ridden mountain bikes before but I must have had somewhat of a knack for it because he said, “You need to come with me to our next bike race.” They were doing downhill races at Skibowl. I went up there the following weekend having ridden a mountain bike about three or four times and did a downhill race in tennis shoes, shorts and a tank top. The crowds, the people that were there – I just felt immediately at home. I think I won the beginner’s race at that time and I was so excited. I just did downhill races that summer and I was really no good – I was just thrashing around out there. I could barely ride gravel.
On getting serious about having fun
One thing led to another and I eventually started racing ‘cross for Fat Tire Farm in Portland… in the 90’s there were very few women and they wanted to get more women into the sport so they asked me to ride for the shop. That was a huge honor at the time. Rich Slingsby was running Fat Tire farm and when he asked me to wear their jersey it changed my entire focus of riding. It immediately clicked from “this is for fun” to “wow, this is serious business” because I was representing someone and that meant a lot to me – I wanted to do well. Their whole approach was always “go have fun out there, Tina… don’t worry about results.” so I was kind of brought into cycling with that mentality and I really try to still live by that.
*2011 Franz Bakery Crit*
Downhill led to cyclocross which led to cross-country mountain biking… then I started road racing. One thing just kind of led to the next and it became one big spiral. Every facet of cycling I’ve ever tried I’ve loved incredibly for different reasons. Cyclocross always has a special place in my heart because I just love the energy. But when I go out riding mountain bikes on single track and it smells like pine needles I couldn’t think of loving anything more. Same goes for road racing and we’re all in a paceline and it’s so efficient and fun and fast… I love them all. It gets sweeter as the years progress.
I have a lot of miles in my legs – a lot of years of fitness – so base miles are something I only do for a short part of the season, early on typically. Once I get into race season, I just race into fitness. Frankly for me, no matter what kind of training rides I do, I always go harder in a race scenario so I use it as my intensity training. For me it’s very hard to go out alone on a bike and just watch a power meter or watch a heart rate monitor and do efforts. I just do better when I have the race carrot.
I don’t have a strict training regimen like a lot of people do. If I’m feeling like I need to get a hard effort in, I’ll go ride with people that are faster than me. That’s always what I recommend to people. If you want to get faster then you have to ride with people who are faster – you have to be pushing yourself all the time.
I’ve never had a coach but I’ve solicited the advice of a lot of people whom I consider some of the best in the sport. Certainly I ask a lot of questions, I read a lot, I process a lot of data and I’m always looking at things like that. I’ve only ridden with a power meter once and I think it was interesting to see the numbers… those tools are critical to people who are getting paid to ride, but I’m just doing it for fun and those things aren’t that crucial to me. I just like to ride my bike.
On winning the 2010 Rapha Gentlemen’s Race
The most trying part of that day was discovering at mile 10 that we had one person who was significantly less fit than the rest of the group and immediately realizing that we had a problem.
The unique thing that the Rapha race presents is trying to mesh six different personalities and have everybody maintain a level of stability when you’re being pushed beyond what your known physical capacities are. We had people cramping – as did everybody that day because of the heat – and here we were on a lot of the climbs pushing bikes for girls who couldn’t ride and walking up things – fixing flats and just mentally losing our marbles – thinking we were last. There was no one around us, no one in sight – we really had no clue what was happening. We were like, “Did they stop the race? Where is everybody? Why hasn’t anyone passed us?”
Little did we know that everyone else was having the same amount of catastrophic failures as we were. So it was completely shocking when we got to the first checkpoint and they told us we were the first team through. We just looked at each other like “this is not possible”. Once we heard that, immediately we got an injection of adrenaline. We got this new rush of excitement – everyone started screaming. I have this tendency to go into military mode and start barking out commands.
The one thing I kept telling everyone on that ride was that they just have to keep moving forward. I don’t care how slow you’re going – you just keep walking or you keep riding or whatever – you just keep moving, nobody stops because once you quit in your head it’s over – you’re done.
Really, as every year has shown, it just takes teamwork. You yell at each other like sisters and curse and have moments of joy but there’s no other race – even road races – that you do where you have to take 6 and finish with 6 and meld all those abilities together and try to gel it together into this unit. It’s trying – and I think that’s what the appeal is. It makes people work together.
Preparing for the 2011 Gentlemen’s Race
Our biggest challenge this year is trying to select six riders because we have a lot of talent on our team and knowing which six will be the most efficient together, who’s got the fitness and who’s got the ability to put in the training time. Not only that, but riding gravel for hours at a time takes a certain amount of finesse to not flat or flat minimally.
Right now everyone is training. A couple of our girls are going to race Cascade Classic Stage Race and I think that will be a checkmark in their training box. I think we’re also going to pick one or two girls that are new this year who haven’t done the race before and that’s going to present a whole other set of variables. At some point you don’t know how people are going to react in certain situations. It adds a new element of challenge and I think that’s what it’s all about.
I’m most focused right now on Super D’s and crits – and all kinds of other short, 45 minute races. I like to call it having a lot of critness, not fitness, and I have a lot of it right now. It can be hard to put in the long rides [in preparation for the Rapha event] when most of my events are just 45 minutes races but they’re big efforts – they’re all out. I know that the base fitness is there. I’ve got my favorite gravel climbs that I do here at home and I try to get one or two 5 hour rides per week when I can.
*2011 Franz Bakery Crit*
Lining up with Longo, living the dream
For me, racing is just about being the best me I can be and bettering myself. I try not to gauge myself against other people. I think the year that I got to line up with Jeannie Longo at the Mount Hood Cycling Classic was one of my proudest moments. She was my 30-second person in the TT and I think Kristen Armstrong was 30 seconds in front of me and I remember thinking, “I have arrived. I don’t have to do anything else on my bike ever again and it will be ok.”
I’ve done so much more with bikes than I could have ever remotely dreamed – traveling and touring all over Europe and New Zealand and even just touring up around the Mt Adams wilderness area. Every year it keeps evolving into something more than I could have thought. It is pretty amazing when you are actually living your dream – and I think that I am.
On women and racing
I’m glad we get to talk about this because this is one thing that’s really close to my heart. When I started and there weren’t very women around I would think, “Man, how can they not love this? It’s such an amazing thing, it gives you such independence, it’s such a feeling of accomplishment.”
I want to get more women into racing, so I always suggest to women to try it, to see if it works for them. You might not enjoy that nervous energy you get before a race, it might not work for you. But if you’re a little afraid, that’s good. You should be. You’re challenging yourself mentally and physically but – you know – isn’t that what life’s all about?
I still get nervous when I race on the track at Alpenrose – it’s scary to me. No brakes – women all around me that are twice my size trying to fight for a wheel… and it’s fast! So fast! I love the track, don’t get me wrong, because I love that nervous jittery feeling that I get with it because it doesn’t happen a ton for me anymore.
On building community
I want women to feel comfortable in this cycling community and I think Oregon has a fantastic group of women – we all want to help each other. It’s the same core group of women every Saturday lining up to race each other – you’d better like each other or be somewhat kind to each other. Not that I’m saying that when the start gun goes off we’re not all racing as aggressively as we can. We are.
I think fostering growth and helping new riders is what we’re obligated to do – and, yes, I say obligated because it’s the future of our sport. And look at what it’s become now -it’s so much more than it ever was and it’s exciting!
When I do clinics or when I’m teaching beginner road racing or cross clinics – the women come and they’re a little nervous. You want to share the enthusiasm with them and let them see what a wonderful opportunity it is not just to push yourself physically but to meet a whole other group of rad women that are like-minded and have the same passion. There is a bond there that grows. It’s a very difficult thing to put into words.
I think with road racing women might be fearful of pack etiquette or doing something wrong or not knowing what’s appropriate. There are so many fantastic women’s teams now, bike shops, clinics, coaching and things that are being offered that never used to be available – people just have to tap their toe in the water. I think it’s much more approachable than it used to be.
*2010 Cyclocross National Championships*
I’ve always loved it. It’s wholly different from mountain bike racing because it’s so interactive – you can see almost the whole loop, you can cheer for your friends. It’s also short – it’s not like you’re committed to an 8-hour day to go race your bike. It’s fun to rip around in the mud flying sideways on corners and screaming at your friends.
I love the ability to watch everybody suffering so deeply and the fact that we all know exactly how everybody is feeling because we’ve all either just done it or are about to do it. I used to bring girlfriends with me to cross races to watch and invariably they would leave saying, “I have to do this! This is so fun!” It’s such a contagious energy – you can’t help but get pumped when you’re there.
Let’s talk about nicknames
We don’t need to talk about nicknames… I think Man Breaker was a dirtier version of EarthQuaker. They’re all deviations of Brubaker, obviously – I always like to think that EarthQuaker came from my sprinting prowess. Rump Shaker was from either Carl (Decker, her boyfriend of a little over a year) or Quick Draw (Laura, a teammate). I don’t know what they say about me – that I have a really big ass?
Should men of the world be afraid?
I personally prefer Man Maker. Do not be afraid, men of the world. Do not be afraid. I have good references.
In the short term there’s the Rapha race and then immediately after that I will focus 100% on training for cyclocross – lots of crits and high-intensity races. After that…there’s so many facets of the bike that just get sweeter as the years go on. I never make a plan – I like to sit back and see what comes up each year.
It’s fun to be on a road team and see the girls coming up through the ranks getting faster and faster, watching this whole new evolution of women’s cycling – it’s incredibly motivating. Frankly it almost what keeps me in the sport longer and longer because it’s fun to go ride with those girls and try to keep up.
Years ago someone asked me if I was ever going to stop riding my bike and I remember saying, “I’m just going to race until I die!” I was completely joking, but it’s starting to look like that might actually happen. As long as I’m having fun I’m just going to keep doing it.