For the last 10 months, I have been racing professionally in CA, AZ, OK, CO, NE, KS, and AR. My TrailDonkey tells the story of long, dusty miles and many lessons learned. This is the first year I have raced full-time and it has been an enlightening experience. More than a tool for fitness, a bicycle is a teacher. The lessons are usually tough and sometimes take more than one confrontation with challenges. I entered the season wanting to dive deeper into the sport than ever. Over the season, I’ve grown as an athlete physically, mentally, and professionally. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned so far in 2023. I can’t wait to see what new lessons the next season will teach me.
Commit to the Unknown
I don’t know what you know about the unknown, but it’s terrifying. I was laid off at Pro’s Closet in October of last year. After the shock of the situation wore off, I was terrified. How was I going to make ends meet? What did I even want to do?
In past years, I have juggled a full racing calendar and full-time work. It’s certainly not impossible. Many athletes in different disciplines can pull it off. But the difference between the two worlds is incredible. I no longer had to cram in a ride and gym workout into my Tuesdays and Thursdays, eating dinner at 8:30 or 9. I could actually focus on the mobility exercises that I was previously deprioritizing. Recovery was no longer an additional task I had to cram into my day.
The unknown is a sea of anxiety. To counter this anxiety, I tried to plan as much as I could. From budgeting to travel itinerary, the more I could nail down, the more I could relax and focus on the task: building fitness and race IQ. At the end of January, I ran away from snowy Colorado to Northern California in search of warmer miles. I planned a complicated travel itinerary with early-season races, like the Grasshopper Adventure Series and Belgian Waffle Ride: Arizona. I even tried to plan out my daily riding from afar, scouring for beta on RidewithGPS. It was a monastic life singularly focused on riding unfamiliar roads.
I didn’t know what I was getting into heading into this season. I knew I had an opportunity that not many people get. The weight of that privilege sat heavy with me. The opportunity was finally here after all the money, time, and effort had gone into this sport. Committing to the unknown is sacrificing to the Gods of Stability. It’s about setting aside the comforts of consistency and learning to resonate with personal structure. I stayed dedicated and faithful to my training process, counting the days between races.
The unknown is unstable and unpredictable. During the season, there were moments when things got tight financially, requiring some faith that it would all work out. I had my car broken into while traveling through Oakland. The thieves made off with most of my clothing, my new laptop, and a few bins of various things. How do you even account for that? Thankfully, with the generosity of friends and family, I fully recovered. Only a few months into the unknown, I felt the weight of limited income and wondered if the season would work out.
Patience is King
If the bike is a teacher, patience is the lesson. Before picking up cycling, I never considered myself impatient. But cycling has taught me that there is always more room for patience. Even in the definition of patience, “to accept or tolerate…suffering” is a succinct definition of cycling. If the proverb ‘patience is a virtue’ is to be taken literally, the tumultuous unknowns of this year may have molded me into a veritable saint.
On a macro scale, I’ve been impatient with achieving success in this sport, whatever my current definition looks like. It’s likely because I feel the ticking biological clock. While bikes are a lifelong endeavor, there is a limited window for taking an honest stab at racing at an elite level. I’ve seen year-over-year growth in my technical and physical abilities. Ultimately, growing as an athlete will always come down to consistency. So many folks get into competitive cycling and end up burned out and jaded after just a few years. At first, fitness comes fast and easy, but it gets harder and harder to eke out the gains. All that to say, this has been a big year of patience with my growth. In a world of attention-demanding devices, it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of comparison and wonder if I’m doing enough. Accepting where I am and knowing I still have further to go. It’s an allegory for a long event, right?
During races, patience is king. It’s always been hard for me not to respond to every move that goes off the front of the pack. It’s a bad case of race FOMO. One of the joys of racing is figuring out the puzzle of racing dynamics. For most races, I will set up rules to help improve decision-making. Setting rational guardrails helps establish expectations and achieve consistent results. Sometimes, these guidelines indicated which wheel to watch and follow, while other times, it was simply a target power number to maintain. At Gravel Nationals, I had five jerseys I knew I wanted to look out for, and after I crashed, I had to throw that out the window.
In moments of panic, patience is the difference between making mistakes and smooth execution. I have put myself in worse situations, trying to rush through a simple repair. Taking a quick breath before solving a problem can do wonders. I’ve had chains fall off and get wrapped in itself, a frustrating experience without patience. Take one breath; hell, take two.
Every Rose Has a Thorn
Looking back, this racing season was a whirlwind of challenges and victories. Among the moments that defined this journey, a few stand out vividly.
- Unbound XL Success: Securing second place at Unbound XL was undeniably a highlight. Crossing that finish line was an affirmation of the hard work and sacrifices that went into this sport.
- Discovering Strengths: Throughout the season, there were instances where my performance truly shone. Races like Mid South or Gravel Nationals revealed glimpses of promise and potential. But, the beauty of this discipline is 1 million variables.
- Learning from Challenges: I’m thankful this season provided plenty of opportunities for growth. I enjoy being challenged and seeing my weak spots. Refining my craft and building my tools makes each hurdle worthwhile. The Process is what makes athletic pursuits worthwhile–not just the achievements.
- Navigating Elite Competition: Racing alongside World Tour Pros and elite athletes was both exhilarating and daunting. While it showcased the intensity and standard of the field, it also unveiled the challenges of sustaining that level of performance event after event.
- Adjusting Expectations: There were races where my expectations clashed with the reality of the event. Sometimes, the pace was simply beyond what I could maintain, leading to adjustments mid-race. Learning to pivot and adapt became an essential skill.
- Balancing Priorities: Balancing the financial aspects and the demands of racing proved to be a significant challenge. Moments of uncertainty regarding finances or unexpected setbacks like the incident in Oakland were tests of resilience.
More is Better
The gravel scene over the last few years has gotten absolutely heated. On any major race’s starting line, you’ll find World Tour, World Cup, National Champs, and World Champs. With so much fresh firepower in the field, the start of a race can be a chaotic whirlwind that leads to a day filled with mind bending efforts. For the first few hours of Belgian Waffle Rides, Steamboat Gravel, and Big Sugar, I set personal bests to maintain contact with the front group. Continuous hard surges without sufficient space for refueling are absolutely exhausting. At some point during the madness, I will pull the ripcord to settle into my own pace. Usually, I end up in a group to work with, but effort matching can be so hit or miss. Surprisingly, Gravel Nationals felt like the most controlled first couple of hours out of all this year’s big races.
I’ve been digging my heels into the ground, trying to abstain from age-group racing. Saying that out loud is shamefully prideful but also a fib. At the end of Big Sugar, I couldn’t resist looking at the results and found myself 3rd in the Elite field for 35+ years old. Two ex-World Tour Pros were just a little ahead of my position, leaving me with some pride in my effort. However, creating an arbitrary podium doesn’t make a difference. The results said I came in 27th, in arguably one of the fastest, most technical races of the year, 17 minutes down from the winner. To be quite frank, that isn’t gonna put bread on the table. But, I think I’ve really found something with ultra distance racing.
So, What’s Next?
Next season, I will focus more on ultra events like Unbound XL. Ultras can be completed in one big push, unlike bikepacking, which has some sleep cycles. I like the logistical challenges of a self-supported race and thrive in longer and steadier efforts. There is something magical that happens around 24 hours of physical effort—emotionally, I feel bare. I have worked through 23 hours of questions and answers, and within that last hour, I usually become acutely aware of every little thing in my life that led to being on that road and in that moment. It can feel similar to the depths of wrestling with a psychedelic trip. The end is so cathartic and rewarding.
My sights are set on lowering the Oregon Outback FKT and making the top step of Unbound XL. Training for this will look like big miles. More extensive miles require more hours in the saddle, food, views, and podcasts & audiobooks. Please leave some suggestions in the comments and stay tuned for the second part of this post.