This August I competed in my first ever sanctioned road race. If any of you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know the scale of the unexpected identity crisis this set off for me. While I feel like I’ve largely chilled out about this, I’ve still got a lot of reservations about what this means about me as a cyclist and me as a person. The central cause of my months long personal identity drama is thus: what does it mean to compete in bike races as someone who doesn’t identify as an athlete?
Why “athlete” feels so problematic
I’ve always been overweight. I grew up in a small town in rural North Dakota (though I don’t know that even Fargo counts as urban). My parents were more focused on raising smart daughters who could get academic scholarships than athletes who would be starters on the basketball team. My parents were happy to support all of us when we did decide to play a team sport, but it was always understood that it would be secondary to doing well in school. While I certainly excelled in the classroom, landing a spot on the competitive math team and later getting into the highly selective science program at the summer North Dakota Governor’s School, gym class was always a weakness for me. 11 years of being picked last or next to last for every team, listening to gasps of awe as I managed to catch or kick the kickball, contributed to a very “screw you” attitude about “athletes”. I flirted with athletics in 7th-9th grade, playing on the volleyball team. I quit when my teammates started being mean to each other when we lost games. We lost a lot of them. My experience in North Dakota showed me athleticism as a way to Other. Athlete spaces were spaces where my fat, untrained body was a ready example of failure, of lazy unworthiness. I decided I didn’t need to submit myself to that treatment, a feat which I accomplished by removing myself from any situations where athletic competition occurred.
But aren’t you athletic?
I lead a lot of group rides, and one of the first comments I get is “Oh you must race.” Until very recently, this hasn’t been true, and it’s really important to me that I was a competent cyclist doing neat things non-competitively. Despite how welcoming Chicago’s women cycling scene is, I’ve always felt slightly out of place. While I may be an average sized human being, I’ve always felt like a fat cyclist, like people looked at me and immediately determined that I must not be that great at what I do. While this is almost certainly only in my head, it still felt very real and doing “training rides” or even coffee rides with ladies who race felt intimidating. If I felt this way as someone who has ridden a bike for more than 20 years, doing self-supported camping, completing centuries, then how must ladies who just started riding for the first time, or after a long hiatus feel? It was very important to me to be an example of a woman who wasn’t obviously an athlete who was still confident and doing cool things on a bicycle.
Why did you sign up to do this if it felt so upsetting?
I signed up for the Women’s Midwest Road Race Championship after months of peer pressure. I ultimately signed up not because I wanted to compete, but because as a women only race, this was important to my community. While I may not be a competitive cyclist, a number of my friends are and I had no valid reasons not to support them. It seemed really hypocritical to lobby for equal payouts and separated fields and then not show up at the race meant to prove if you build it, they will come. So despite my extreme conflict about doing anything as a competitive cyclist, I signed up for the WMRRC and began to train for it.
The more I prepared myself for the race, the more I felt like maybe I could do this. Like maybe I could be a competitive cyclist. Maybe no one else was thinking about where all the Dairy Queen I’ve been eating has been going. I was also still 100% sure I was going to somehow catastrophically fail during the race. Race day came. I did fine. Not as well as I wanted to, but fine. I signed up to race cyclocross this season. I’m building a race bike. I guess I’m a competitive cyclist now. But what does this mean for my desire to be a regular lady who just happens to be okay at riding a bicycle? This leads me to my current question:
How do we create an accessible space and push ourselves to develop?
Turns out the first step of this process was just showing up. The 60 some mile drive to Leland, IL for the race was filled with pauses in conversation for my car companions to all collectively groan together and talk about how likely it was that one of us was going to stress puke (no one did). We were all doing our first race, we were all very nervous. After we arrived, I walked around, talking to other ladies who I knew who had done this before. All of them told me to chill out. The most helpful of all was when the woman would would win the Cat 4 race told me to calm down and remember why I’m doing this. To remember that this is about having fun. That I should treat it like another group ride. She was right. I finally managed to feel like I probably wasn’t going to vomit. I lined up. I spoke to the other ladies who were out there for their first time. The race started and I was fine. I got dropped off the pack within the first 8 miles of the 33 mile course. I found other ladies to hang with. We picked up other women. We worked together. We supported each other. I finished the race and realized that no one was judging me. We were all out there to have a good time.
I had to actually do a bike race before I got over my defeatist attitude, but there has to be a better way to convey that these spaces are open and welcoming. I’m going to do what I can to be the most accessible and chill competitive cyclist possible. I’m going to try to bring as many new ladies in as possible. I’m going to be present to listen to everyone’s fears about what happens when you put yourself out there as an athlete. I hope you’ll all join me.