Some moments you just want to capture forever. Some moments you don’t want to dream about, you just want to believe them. This wasn’t just one moment, it was an accumulation of unique moments spread out over the 3 months that I was racing for Astana BePink across Europe. It was one of those beautiful times that you know you just have to grasp and inhale with such vigor that you soak in every detail voraciously in fear of forgetting or becoming complacent. And these moments were and are still mine. I look back on them a bit selfishly because as much as you want to share them, you own them. You acquired them. You bought them. You bartered for them. They are yours. In this case, they are mine, but I will finally try to share them. However, I fear it will never capture the meaning, the potency, or the emotion of this experience. I have been accused of being selfish, once or twice, and in this circumstance, I will take that allegation with pride and complete ownership.
Racing with Astana BePink (thanks to TWENTY16’s blessing) during the last portion of the season, was the best time of my cycling career. I do not say that lightly. It was not all pasta and red wine, neither was it all podiums, glory and aqua blue, although there were plenty of all those stated variables. We did travel with our own pasta, Parmesan, olive oil and espresso machine. Of course, we were Italian, and Kazakh and Russain, and… but that’s where it gets confusing. The style was impeccably loud and the expressions which were equally loud and enough to permeate thin hotel walls and any of our language barriers, albeit Italian, Russian, Belarussian, German, or English. It was hard work and a large cultural leap to race for an Italian managed Kazakhstan team. But it was the best decision I have ever made. The team was run “family” style and professionally under the direction of Walter Zini, his wife Sigrid and the rest of the “family”. Family can mean mafia, but we don’t say it that way. It was just a large extended family, and it was right where I needed to be. I was in the family. I will stay in the family, they are mine.
There were times you didn’t know when your next meal would be, and you would eat a sugar packet in the hotel lobby to avoid insanity and the low blood sugar grumpy rages. True story. And there were times that you didn’t know what race you were going to until you were expected to be in the van. Also a true story. I learned to always have a bag packed and ready, just in case. But there is no better way teach yourself adaptation, a new language, and the art of being “tranquila” than by full Italian team immersion. They taught me the meaning of professional, toughness, the refusal to complain, and the art of enjoying each moment and cappuccino. A biscuit is always included.
After a successful late season campaign that involved La Route de France (where Alena got 2nd overall), Ladies Tour of Holland (where I was on the podium), Chrono Champenois, and a training camp in Livigno, our team headed to the World Championships for the Team Time Trial. To this point, we hadn’t practiced TTT exclusively besides a session of team motorpacing on the auto strada (I do not recommend). Yet, perhaps we did learn some speed drills from the passing “camion” or trucks. I worried about the preparation, but I also had learned to adapt and to not complain.
The team was rather large, and many of the TTT riders would be racing at the different UCI races offered around Europe in the late summer. We reconvened together in Ponferrada for our last and final race together, the World Championships. I knew that this moment, and this team would never be the same again. This caused me to laugh a little louder, hug a little tighter, and take in as many mental, physical, and emotional stimuli as possible.
The team included:
We stayed in a chateau on the Camino de Santiago which was built in 950. We might not have had internet, but we had laughter, companionship, and a bar. What more can you ask for?
Although my Italian had improved immensely over the duration of the trip, I realized that under pressure when time trialing or because of the wind during the speed of the efforts, it was difficult to understand the language spoken into the radio. Our pre-ride of the course was slightly flawed due to a couple of our wrong turns, and I may have also missed the Italian cue that we were doing “full gas” efforts. The radio communication sounded like a foreign language, because well, it was, and we scattered across the road like mice scurrying for cover. What I thought meant turn left, meant sweep to the left to turn right. Of course. I could only chuckle at the raw beauty of such chaos, and also be thankful that no serious injuries occurred. I wondered if other teams were riding this fast, and did they got lost as well the day before the World Championships?
As the girls surged through the corners and up the hills, I found myself muttering under my breath, like I do in my local group ride when someone is riding uncomfortably fast, “What do you guys think this is, the World Championships!?”
Well, in this case, it was, and it is. Therefore I just have to suck it up, and feel the uncomfortable pressure on the pedals. I hate being half-wheeled but it turns out team time trialing is all half-wheel heaven. One person’s heaven is another person’s hell?
Before the World Championship Team Time Trial, I felt like such a tourist, and I loved every minute of it. There would be plenty of time for pressure later, but I was in the best place I have ever been. Taking a picture of this, of that, and just enjoying the experience, the music, and the scenery. That was my goal. Go to the World Championships, and enjoy it! I have spent far too much time during my career fearing results, judgment, and outcome. This was my selfish time to enjoy it for what it was, the World Championships. Here I was, at the pinnacle event for my sport, and I had the luxury to soak it in, inhale, and selfishly hold on to every moment like a sponge that will never be wrung out. I had made a conscious decision to evaporate all fear, and to simply just be. This was exactly what I wanted, and I was able to do just that.
Snap. Suddenly it hit me. Wait, there is Cancellera. Yes, I will always have a sweet spot for Spartacus. There is a big UCI banner and this is in fact, the World Championships. I questioned myself and current status. Should I feel nervous? I don’t. I am simply enjoying it too much. With so much life breathing in and out, there was no room for fear or anticipation.
This new feeling of freedom that I had developed caused me to slightly panic in the uncomfortable place I found myself.
I asked Walter, “Wait, you never gave us a schedule for the race?? What are we supposed to do? Go fast? How fast? How long do I pull? What do I do? This is Worlds, I thought we were supposed to be ready for this!!? What do you want me to do!?”
Walter squeezed my shoulder, and with that unique charming smile and a hand motion that resembles Jay-Z dusting dirt of his shoulder, he said, “Alison, tranquila.”
I responded, “Right, so I just ride really fast, right?” To which he responded, “Ah, just do what you can. No problem.” He pinched my cheek, and handed me my bike.
That is it? Just do what I can? What if what I can do is not enough? What can I do? There were no more answers, no responses. And suddenly I felt it hit me like a wave of red wine, warm Italian sun, and that comfortable feeling of being well fed. I was so full of this feeling. Tranquila. This is what they are talking about. Chaos is in the background, and we are enjoying our last espresso and laughing at our mechanic using a sling shot to terrorize other teams. We took another picture. We hugged. We threw a peace sign to Walter. Then we raced. That was it.
Even though I was told Walter would speak some English into the radio. He didn’t. We just raced, and he only spoke in English twice during the duration of the race. After a big pull he said, “Aleeezon, make good job”, and then later I heard a shriek, “Aleeeezon, NO BRAKES!” And then it was over. We crossed the line with the fastest time. I wish I could remember more. I remember hurting. I remember not wanting to let my family down. And then the race was over.
We maintained the fastest time in the “hot seat”, and watched Liv-Giant finish, Boels, and then the unfortunate Rabo-Liv crash. We had just secured 3rd place. The little team that no one watched, no one expected anything from, just achieved a spot on the podium at the World Championships. We were the happiest bronze medal team you have ever seen. Tears of joy, surprise, and a mix of Italian, Swiss, Belarussian, and American emotion all melted into one big team hug. We jumped up and down. We danced. We kissed. We squeezed cheeks. We tried to fix our hair, and suddenly we were whisked onto the stage. I used to judge the use of skinsuits on the podium. Let me tell you, I take it all back. At the World Championships, they do not let you change. You go straight from the race to the waiting tent to the podium. No hats or glasses allowed, and you wear what you wore for the race. Now all that sweaty hair and skinsuits makes sense. I get it now. Good thing we looked good in our skinsuits. Standing up on the stage I have never been more proud of my little Italian team as the Italian flag was raised. Walter, as humble and gentle as ever, stood in the shadows behind us, but I could feel his pride beaming through our light blue, giggles, and sweat. Looking into the crowd of the press, I saw surprised faces. Most did not even know I was in Europe racing, and there I was, with my family and never feeling more at home than with my team of four nationalities and a bronze medal. It was all ours. I may have repeated a four letter word of surprise and elation, and the girls anxious to speak more English repeated after me. I had to tell them it was not appropriate for the press conference, but they couldn’t help themselves much to my chagrin. Lights, flowers, and a bronze medal. Nothing could take this away from us. And I still grasp onto that day so selfishly. But, I hope you now can share it with me.
Everyone on the team time trial team scattered to different teams with the usual unrest of women’s cycling. I knew that would happen. Perhaps that is why I clung to this time more than ever. I knew it could not be recreated. This little group may never race together again, and will race against each other in the future. But we still have this time and all these moments spent together. We are now family and no one can take that away. Alena will race for Velocio in 2015. Doris for Bigla. Simona for Ale-Cippolini. Zorzi for Lotto. Sylivia will focus on the track in preparation for the Olympics, and I will be racing for Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. Our team came together one summer through Walter’s direction and all the rest of the BePink family, and we didn’t necessarily train exclusively for the TTT, but we learned how to become a family, to trust each other, and to suffer with no expectations or ego. This was the ultimate recipe for a successful team. The little team that could.
My favorite quote from this day is from my teammate Simona, where she said, “una giornata in cui ho avuto la possibilita non solo di sognare ma piuttosto per una volta di credere”
Which translated into English means… A day when I had the chance not only to dream, but for once to believe.
And that is it. It was a moment to not only dream, but to believe. And I have selfishly held on to it all this time. I have waited to share this, because wherever I have been since then, I have been smiling and remembering the feelings and people. Selfishly. Grasping tightly. Maybe it isn’t so bad to be selfish with life sometimes. It makes you more present. Some of these memories you couldn’t squeeze out of me even if you tried. They are mine. But, I know you were with me along the way too, so therefore, they can be yours now too.
May we all hold on to those moments that are selfishly ours. All ours. May we quit dreaming, and start believing.
I could not have done this without: Team TWENTY16 Pro Cycling, Astana BePink, Mari Holden, Nicola Cranmer, Dean Golich of CTS, SRAM #bebold, Felt, Zipp, Quarq, Clif Bar, Catlike Helmets, Speedplay, Walter and Sigrid (may my home always be yours), Marino Master Chef, my team (Simona, Sylvia, Little Ksenya, Big Ksenya, Alena, Dalia, Doris, Anna, Michaela, and Ana), Giuseppe, Mauricio (Who WILL be the director), Crazy Sergio, Fizik, Oakley (especially Steve Blick), my parents, Craig Roemer, Sicileri, Alberto Celani, Road ID, Chocolate Milk, and all of you that have sent me prayers and well wishes. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart.