I guess this happens to all of us. Feeling old. Or maybe we should call it experience.
At this point in my cycling career, some of my favorite memories in professional cycling are behind me. And although that sounds depressing, you know what I mean. It has been 8 years after all. Facebook keeps reminding me. Nothing can replace some of the moments that have impacted me. Especially those when I was so young and raw in the sport. I was like a sponge seeking to learn and absorb. Of course some of these moments I never want to experience again, but they are all a part of the framework of who you become.
One of my favorite things about women’s cycling is that I have been able to meet “my” people. Women who are like-minded, determined, crazy, and educated. I am so happy this sport found me. Every day when I pedal my bike, or go about daily life, I will remember moments I have shared with my teammates. I will think of a funny anecdote or the sting of humility and truth that only comes from someone who knows you.
When you are a professional cyclist, your team becomes your family. You travel together, eat together, sleep together, and go to your version of battle together. I started racing when I was 24 years old and I was very fortunate to immediately join a professional cycling team that happened to have all the best riders in the United States. This was an incredible platform for me to learn, develop, and grow with the occasional hazing and rookie rituals that accompany a “newbie”.
I am still riding strong these days, but in honor of my teammates that have since retired from the sport and have gone on to conquer even bigger and more inspirational things, I would like to share with you some of the nuggets of wisdom I have learned from the best.
I bring to you, the Ghosts of Teammates Past, Episode One (insert theme music here):
I have to start with Brooke because on my first professional team (Team TIBCO), which also happened to be my first 4 months of racing, Brooke was double National Champion, in the road race and the criterium. She was fast and she knew a lot about banana slugs. She got her PhD in them actually, but I will let her tell that story one day.
- Follow orders, but don’t attach food to your bike. In my first race with the team, Cascade Cycling Classic, Brooke put Clif Shot Bloks on my top tube of my bike. She told me that’s where you put them in case you couldn’t reach in your pocket. Then, in the race, she told me Olympic gold medalist, Kristin Armstrong really needed a blok and it was my job to fuel her. Note, Armstrong and I were not on the same team, and I only had read about her in fairy tales. I proceeded to pedal to the front of the race, where Armstrong was riding on the front, all day, and every day, as it was 2 weeks before the Olympics. I plucked the cube off my bike, which was getting gooey in the summer sun, and offered it to Kristin. I will never forget that look she gave me. Confusion. Disbelief. Incredulous. The team laughed. Don’t attach food to your bike, but always follow instructions.
- Pedal in training, save energy in races. In training, Brooke would always pedal her bike. Going down descents and any of those lag times. Thanks to her, the sound of a freewheel in training still drives me crazy. I just start muttering, PEDAL! She taught me to make each training session count. Yet in racing, Brooke would play a game to see how little she could pedal in order to save energy. I never learned this trick. I guess I don’t like saving energy.
- Work for your sprinter. I was struggling up the deciding climb in a race, and my job was to take care of Brooke. Job is relative as I am sure she didn’t need my assistance, but it was like the team was babysitting me and trying to give me a role so I would feel important. Or let’s be honest, stay out of their way. She reached onto my jersey and told me to tow her up the climb. She explained this was how you got your sprinter over the hill. It was hard. People laughed. She won that stage.
- Wear your helmet straight. I have yet to learn this.
If you know Lauren, you know her as “La Diabla”. Yes, she may not be the “sugar, spice, and everything nice” type, but what you see, you get even more. Back to my first year, Lauren and I were roommates at my first team camp. And here I thought I was a grownup, and I was back at camp. I was star struck and in awe of her. Lauren was one of the first USA racers to find success through the junior programs and into a full blown professional career. She is world renowned as one of the best leadouts and team leaders, USA National Criterium Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist. She is cold, clear, concise and intensely loyal. She was only a few years older than me, but she had poise, confidence, savviness, and that devilish tenacity on the bike. Yes, my crush on her still exists.
- Clean up after yourself. The first day of team camp, I left my bed unmade and a pair of “undergarments” on the floor. Lauren publicly chastised me on this behavior. By the end of camp, I had a nickname from her which will stay with me forever, and I will not share it here. I learned a valuable lesson that day. You are a professional and an adult (even though you are at camp), and can take care of yourself. Respect your team, do your job, stay orderly, and you will be successful. Or at least you can avoid having your underwear blowing in the wind like a flag at team camp. What happens at team camp…
- Mitigate the tan lines. Yes, we are on the bike all day, but do your best not to have tanlines. Are you dropped? Perfect time to roll those sleeves and shorts up, and pedal in with the groupetto. Know when you need to look professional and always wear sunscreen.
- Calculation is Queen B****. Never bring back a break before it is necessary. Calculate your time gaps, and slowly reel them in for the perfect moment to set your team up for a win. If you bring a break back too soon, you are guaranteed to be attacked. Why not be calculated, calm, and collected? In order to do this, we need the Queen B. To me, that will always be LT. (That is not coincidence her initials are a threshold acronym. She is painfully tough.) Don’t be impatient. Calculate.
- Choose who you trust wisely. As we were both laying on our twin beds at team camp, I friend requested Lauren on Facebook. I heard the alert on her phone, and watched her swipe. She didn’t accept my request for 6 months. Talk about awkward. But once she chose me as a friend, I knew I was in for life. Trust is hard to earn, but it is worth it.
I first met Kat before I started racing, and placed this soccer super star turned professional cyclist high on a pedestal of female athlete fame. Kat and I soon became great friends, and it was with a huge amount of honor that I was able to be her teammate at one point.
- Dance on the bike like no one is watching. I have never seen anyone perfect the booty shake on the bike quite like Kat Carroll. At this point, I was so stiff and rigid on the bike because I wasn’t comfortable on it yet. She taught me to have fun and freely flow with your bike through bumps and debris. This was best exhibited by the “clap”. I hope she puts this talent on her resume.
- Practice the pop. When training with Kat, she would find rollers that resembled specific race finishes, and sprint over the top of them like she was going for gold. I normally don’t like to sprint because, well, it hurts. She taught me to practice the things in training that I hated in racing. Next thing you know, I was sprinting to victory. And it still hurt.
- No one is talking about you as much as you think. I was going through a personal nightmare in my life off the bike. It is a time that I like to call my darkest hour. I was ashamed and wanted to hide. Kat told me that she was my friend, she cared about me, and in so many words, get over myself. “No one is talking about you as much as you think” she said. Although this advice may not resonate with everyone, this is something that gave me confidence to be true to myself, hold my head high, and face each day with a strong step forward. You may only be as good as your last result, but you get to dictate if you let external motivators influence you.
- Full body cramp. It was my first NRC race, the Nature Valley Grand Prix. For those “newbies” now, this was my first Pro Road Tour, the North Star Grand Prix. After finishing in the top 10 in the time trial and only been riding a bike for 3 months, I started the road race the next day. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. I cramped. My entire body withered and writhed. I fell off my bike and the broom wagon told me to quit. Muscles I didn’t even know I had were cramping. Rigor mortis has set it. I finished DFL. I barely made time cut. Trying to explain this horrific experience to Kat with dehydrated crocodile tears, she just looked at me and nodded her understanding. “Yeah, full body cramp” she shrugged. “That happens. It’s normal. Good job Ali, see you tomorrow.” I thought, this is bike racing? You women are crazy. Turns out I am just one of many.
- Teammates now, friends always. I was nervous to sign a new contract because I had become so close to my teammates. We really do become a family, and I didn’t want to change teams and lose the comforts of the known. Kat taught me that I needed to do what was best for my business and for me. Friends are forever. Teams are just for a year or two.
I use to be envious of Meredith’s infectious laugh before the races as she would chat with the competitors. I use to wonder how she wasn’t nervous and tense and chewing her nails like me. Now, I laugh and smile and chat at the start line. Meredith Miller is an icon in women’s cycling to me and I learned so much from here as a teammate and friend.
- Good teammates are good cooks. Back to when we would stay at host housing, we would always cook together as a team. The team would assign cooking partners, and each pairing would cook one meal for the team throughout the week. This would be a way to share the load of cooking and cleaning, and also it was a lot of fun to taste different creations. I had never made homemade salad dressing before, and Meredith was first to teach me. Now, I know to grind that cracked pepper in the balsamic and oil mixture to act as an emulsifier as I add stone ground Dijon and a dose of honey. Shake it up, and voila. So many things you can do with this.
- Wine not. With so many people worried about diets and how to eat healthy, Meredith taught me that a glass of wine before a race was just fine. I still practice this lesson. Nightly. Everything in moderation, right? Including moderation.
- Teammates always win. No matter if you are the one that crosses the line first, or you are the domestique that slays yourself earlier in the stage, you, as a team, win. One of my most proud moments is when Mer won her National Championships. As a selfless domestique for many years, she made the break, and she made the most out of it. This might be one of the only times I had tears of joy for a win. I learned that every rider can have their day, and always work hard for the greater goal.
- Earn your keep. No one is going to do your work for you. Earn your way by working hard and respecting your teammates. One of the hardest days I had on the bike was in a breakaway at a local Northern California race where out of the 6 riders, 5 were my teammates. And here I thought I was special. As they shredded my legs and then out sprinted me at the end, I realized yes, these are my people. Respect all. Fear none. I am not special.
People come into our lives for a reason. Remember that others are watching you, your experiences, and how you go through life. If it wasn’t for the incredible teammates that I have had, I would be much less of an athlete and person than I am today. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were incredible mentors and friends. It wasn’t all fluff and rainbows. We worked hard for what we had and we pushed ourselves to our limits. We all become better through it. And also recognized there is a beautiful world outside of bike racing. That’s why we are where we are today.
This is only the beginning.
Stayed tuned for Episode Two of Ghosts of Teammates Past.