What it’s like to cycle with the pros

Imagine cycling with the world’s best, but having almost zero experience. Best Health Editor-in-Chief shares what the experience was like for her

What it's like to cycle with the pros

Source: Best Health Magazine, May 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve really challenged myself to do something outside of my comfort zone’something that is a bit scary, but rewarding once you’ve done it. Going to live in a different country is challenging, mentally. The first time I did this (to Hong Kong) was in 1991. Working through culture shock, making new friends, finding a job in my field and being very far from home for six years resulted in awesome benefits: a whole new world of travel around Southeast Asia, great career advancement opportunities and, the best reward, meeting my husband, Jules. The second move (to Bermuda) was in the fall of 2001. Conquering panic attacks that had begun to strike me periodically after 9/11, while at the same time getting over my fear of riding a motor scooter’my only mode of transport over our two years there’and actually having fun with it, was a great feeling. But that was 10 years ago. I was overdue to once again do something outside of my comfort zone.

Then came an invitation in December from Specialized, a U.S.-based bicycle brand (with Canadian headquarters in Montreal) to spend three days on the coast of southern California with an elite women’s road cycling team.

Specialized and Lululemon sponsor this team of 13 competitive cyclists from around the world so the women can get some valuable training time and compete as a team in various races internationally. (Whoever qualifies for the Olympics, though, cycles for her own country.) The women are from various nations, including Ina-Yoko Teutenberg from Germany, a celebrated world champion; and Emilia Fahlin, a reigning Swedish cycling champion. There were also three more Germans, two Aussies, a Dutch, a Brit and three Americans. But the big draw for me? Clara Hughes, one of Canada’s hopes for an Olympic medal this summer and a past winner of cycling and speed-skating medals.

Accepting the invitation would mean I’d get access over three days to Clara, both for one-on-one interview time (see my Q & A with her) and the chance to hang out with her and the rest of the team. Here was my opportunity to speak with one of Canada’s most inspiring women, someone ‘I admire and who is adored across the country. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Not only would I get to meet Clara, I’d also have a chance to try road cycling. My negative inner voice said, ‘The last time you got on a bike was more than 10 years ago, and the bike was a three-speed, not a serious road bike with super-skinny tires.’ Whatever; I’m fitter nowadays, I told myself, and when it comes to bikes, you just get back on, right?

I knew it’d be physically tough, but I was not sure to what degree. How hilly would it be? How far would I be going? I had no idea; all I knew was that the trip was 10 days away and I had to get my legs in better shape. So I fit in visits to the gym after work to ride the stationary bike: Not only would that work my quadriceps, but I figured I’d become accustomed to the seat and the riding position.

Once at the hotel in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, the Specialized pro fit me with a very nice light bicycle’meant for elite cyclists’that I’d get to use while on the trip. It was so light, I could lift it with one finger, unlike the clunkers I’d had in the past. (When he mentioned that this particular model retails for thousands of dollars, I told him, ‘Wow, I’m really not worthy!’)

The first day our road trip was rained out, so the pro team and we media types went to a spinning class (another first for me). Among the 10 or so media there were just two other Canadians. One was Kevin Mackinnon, the Hamilton, Ont.-based editor of Triathlon magazine, who was himself a professional triathlete for nine years. The other was Sandra Walter, a B.C. gal writing for Pedal magazine, who is among the top mountain bikers in Canada. It was dawning on me that not only was everyone here way, way, way more experienced than I am, I was pretty sure I was the second oldest. Yikes.

I survived the spinning class and by Day 2, the weather had cleared enough for us to hit the road. There I was, in the hotel parking lot just five minutes before taking off, being shown by the pro where the brake levers were, how to switch gears and even where I should place my hands while riding (there are three options; who knew?). I declined to ‘clip in’ (wear special shoes to attach my feet to the pedals); I had enough to contend with! Then I took one slightly wobbly practice spin in the hotel parking lot’and, just like that, we were off down the busy roadway, soon cutting off onto a paved bike path through a pretty valley.

And what do you know? I ended up biking 40K in two hours. 40K! Mind you, it took until about kilometre 15 before I actually dared switch a gear; I had worried that if I didn’t keep my hands gripped in place, I’d wobble. The path was fairly flat, for sure, but tough going as I tried to avoid wiping out on the wet bike path (and my tires seemed impossibly thin), yet trying not to get too far behind the pack. I did manage to keep the others in sight, and luckily had the company of one of the Specialized crew, Carmella Petitt, who stuck with me, just in case. She and I turned back when the route hit a highway, letting the others go for an extra 5K. I figured, quit while I’m ahead (i.e., still in one piece). My bum was very sore indeed, despite the padded bicycle pants I was supplied with, and my legs were burning. But I was elated to have gone 40K. It was fun!

On the third and final day, some of the pro team members had already been out for a couple of hours when the ‘short-ride’ bunch, which included most media members, gathered outside with our bikes. This one would be easy after yesterday, I figured: only 26K. And it was nice and sunny, with dry roads.

It started out great’apart, of course, from the fact my bum was hurting even more than yesterday. We were on the coast highway heading south on the designated bike path, whipping past nice beaches and surfers rolling in with the Pacific waves. Then I spotted the first big hill. Are we really going up that? Yup. I wanted to get my speed up for it, but there was a pack of the pro team members ahead of me, and I was too chicken to pass them. They didn’t need momentum; to these athletes, this was a walk in the park.

I paid for my poor head start: About two thirds of the way up, I began losing steam and had to gear down really low. I was contemplating the embarrassment of walking the bike up, when I felt a hand on my lower back. It was the pro team manager, Kristy Scrymgeour, an Aussie. I said to her, ‘Thanks, but I want to try to do it myself.’ She said, ‘No worries. This is what we cyclists do for each other. Lots of girls have done it for me; what goes around comes around.’ In this way, I made it up that hill.

There was another big hill that just about did me in, so it was a major relief to hit the 13K point, which was like a mirage in the desert: a coffee shop and bakery. I had zero guilt ordering a latte and a pain au chocolat (both American sized). ‘Yup, we cyclists say we’re on the ‘I Deserve It Diet,”’ one of the girls told me. It was a nice reward, but while I munched I was kind of dreading the return trip’it was the same way we had come.

Pedalling back, though, I noticed that the northbound side of the highway had a gentler grade’the hills were still big (for me) but they were longer, more gradual. And this time, I had the guts to pass a crowd of pros’who were chatting away happily together’so I could get some momentum. I felt somewhat foolish zipping past them like I was on the Tour de France, and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg jokingly shouted after me, in her German accent, ‘Hey, we’re having trouble keeping up with you!’ I burst out laughing, thinking, here’s a story to tell back home: Guess what one of the toughest, winningest female cyclists in history said to me?

My lungs were burning, and so were my legs, but a huge smile stayed on my face all the way to the home stretch of the 26K ride. I was feeling absolutely elated. I caught up to Kristy and she generously said, ‘You’re a natural.’ Wow, I thought; I think I kicked some butt here’my own.

This challenge turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’m still on a high from it, weeks and weeks later. And I can’t wait to get another chance to push my limits’this time, sooner rather than later.

This article was originally titled "Back in the Saddle" in the May 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!